Conceptual Calligrapher [Xu Bing interview]

Xu Bing in his Brooklyn Studio, Sept. 21, 2017 -- Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2018
Xu Bing in his Brooklyn Studio, Sept. 21, 2017 -- Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman © 2018
Luxury Magazine, Winter 2017, pp. 6, 222-235.

Note: The following interview was conducted by Jason Edward Kaufman at Xu Bing’s studio in Brooklyn, NY, over several sessions in September and October 2017.

Conceptual Calligrapher

Chinese artist Xu Bing makes beautiful ink paintings and cerebral multi-media installations that pay homage to China’s cultural heritage and explore the boundaries of language, art, and technology.

By Jason Edward Kaufman

As China has risen on the world stage, so have Chinese contemporary artists. Ai Weiwei is renowned for his political opposition, Cai Quo-Qiang for his pyrotechnics, and Xu Bing – among the most revered of China’s first generation of conceptual artists — has a philosophical approach. Over the past three decades he has resisted the temptations of the market and produced innovative and ambitious series of works that both celebrate and overturn China’s traditions of painting, calligraphy and printing. His best known works investigate language and writing, but his polymath interests encompass history, cultural theory, sociology, and technology. A master of ancient and contemporary forms of expression, from brush and ink to mixed media and digital technology, his visually exquisite art is broadly accessible, bridging the cultures of China and the West at precisely the moment when that dialogue has become increasingly urgent.

Born in 1955 in Chongqing, then part of the Southwestern province of Sichuan, Xu Bing was the third of five children. He grew up on the campus of Peking University in Beijing where his father managed the history department and his mother worked in library sciences. During the Cultural Revolution, he witnessed the persecution of his father by the Red Guard, the Maoist bands enlisted to reform bourgeois reactionaries. Xu Bing was not politically engaged, but to survive he used his talent for drawing to make propaganda posters. After graduating high school he was exiled to a poor mountain village near Beijing, as part of a massive “reeducation” program that sought to integrate privileged youth with the working class. He enjoyed the rustic life, farming during the day and in the evening sketching landscapes and portraits of the peasants. After three years he returned to Beijing and enrolled in the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the nation’s preeminent art school, where he received an MFA in printmaking in 1987 and went on to teach.

Seeking an alternative to socialist realism, Xu Bing created his first major piece of contemporary art, an installation titled Book from the Sky (1987-91) for which he made antique-style books and scrolls block-printed from 4,000 Chinese-style nonsense characters in moveable type that he carved by hand. The ambitious work was initially well received, but after the government’s lethal suppression of the 1989 student uprising at Tiananmen Square, and the ensuing crackdown on dissent, Xu Bing drew criticism in official publications, reflecting the Communist regime’s suspicion of contemporary artists.

He moved to the United States in 1990, following a friend to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he had a fellowship and mounted his first major one-man exhibition outside China. In 1993 he relocated to New York’s Lower East Side where he shared a studio with fellow expatriate artist Ai Weiwei. Sales of portions of Book from the Sky enabled him in 1998 to buy a building in Brooklyn where he continues to maintain a studio and home.

As his career blossomed, Xu Bing’s exploration of writing systems continued with Square Word Calligraphy (1996-ongoing), an alphabet of Chinese-style characters that represent English letters. He introduced his invention in “Classroom Calligraphy” installations, where museum visitors tried their hand at what appeared to be Chinese calligraphy and soon discovered they were transcribing English texts in Xu Bing’s hybrid script. He used his new system to transcribe speeches of Chairman Mao, poems by Walt Whitman, and other historic texts, graphically mingling Chinese and Western cultures.

He further melded art and language in brush and ink drawings titled Landscripts (1994-ongoing) that portray landscape scenes composed of Chinese characters. For example, characters for stone, grass, trees, water, or air are repeated in clusters to represent, respectively, mountains, meadows, forests, rivers, and sky, thereby returning to the calligraphic characters to their pictographic origins. Xu Bing devised another new way to render traditional Chinese landscapes in a series of light-box pieces he calls Background Story (2004-ongoing). Using an antique painting as a model, he attaches plants, scraps of paper, and other objects to the back of the box’s frosted glass, such that their shadows, when seen from the front, look exactly like the original landscape painting.

His interest in language delved into digital technology with Book from the Ground (2003-ongoing), a pictographic novel written entirely with graphic icons that he had collected from signage, manuals, airplane safety cards, and other sources. In addition to the book, he created a computer program that enables users to type English sentences and have them translated into the universal pictographic language. He describes the project as “the expression of my quest for the ideal of a single script” and a response to “the continued standardization of transnational products and consumer lifestyles.” Whereas the nonsense texts in Book from the Sky expressed apprehension about language that no one can read, Book from the Ground conveys hope for a language that everyone can read.

A residency at Duke University led to the Tobacco Project (2000-2009), various sculptures and documents related to the history of the tobacco industry in North Carolina, Shanghai, and Virginia and its introduction to China. Commissioned to create a work for the lobby of a new commercial building in Beijing, Xu Bing produced the Phoenix Project (2007-2010), a massive sculpture of two phoenix birds made from construction site debris and suspended from the ceiling as if in mid-flight. The spectacular work was rejected by the developer, but found another buyer and has since been exhibited widely. His most significant public commissions are in the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC, and in the American Embassy in Beijing (both 2008) at the behest of those building’s architect I.M. Pei.

Xu Bing returned to China in 2007 to become Vice Director of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. His selection was symbolic of the Ministry of Education’s desire to internationalize the school and integrate native artists with global culture. He left after six years, frustrated with the bureaucracy and the government’s ongoing distrust of avant-garde art.

Xu Bing has participated in more than 200 exhibitions in China, the US, Japan, Australia and across Europe. He has been the subject of retrospectives at the New Museum in New York, the ICA London, the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery in Washington DC, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona. In addition to shows in most of the world’s major museums — The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, The British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, among others – he has represented China in the biennials of Venice, Sydney, Johannesburg, and Taipei.

In 1999 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” prize, whose jury cited “his originality, creativity, self-direction, and capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy.” Other honors include the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize (2003), the Artes Mundi Prize (2004), the US Department of State’s Medal of Arts (2015), and an honorary doctorate from Columbia University (2010).

Soft-spoken, with round glasses and wispy black hair, Xu Bing has the air of a professor. He spends most of his time in Beijing, but maintains his studio in New York, and manages a team of around a dozen assistants. He frequently travels the world to lecture and exhibit his works, some of which sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars and have become staples of textbooks on contemporary art. His most recent project, Dragonfly Eyes, is a feature-length narrative film composed entirely of found surveillance footage with subtitles that has been screened in the Lincoln Center Film Festival in New York and at other venues.

We spoke with Xu Bing in his Brooklyn studio about growing up in Mao’s China, his fascination with language and calligraphy, his boundary-breaking art installations, and his place in the Chinese contemporary art world.

You make calligraphy, landscape drawings and paintings, wood-block prints, sculptures, mixed media installations, digital projects, and even films. What unites these different creations?

Maybe one of the things shared by all these works is that they don’t stay within any medium. They don’t become defined by the idea of painting or mixed media or film. I’m interested in things that are beyond existing knowledge or categories, something nobody else has done before. I also want to do something that is meaningful for human beings, that has some value and benefits for society. I like to do something not easily categorized and give it to journalists, critics, curators, theorists and philosophers. They can analyze the works and maybe come up with new concepts that will add to current knowledge. The development of human civilization is usually driven by education, science, and logic, but these areas are not all there is. There must be something missing, and there has to be a small group of people – artists — who are trying to complete this system.

Have you always thought of yourself as an artist? Did you ever imagine that you would have a different career?

When I was a kid, I always dreamed of being an artist. But whether or not you are an artist is fate. I think it’s destiny. When I was young I was not good at many things except drawing and making art. I drew very slowly, slower than any classmates. The teacher would say, “When you finish drawing let me take a look, then fold the paper into an airplane and you can go play.” But I never finished drawing. There weren’t any traditional Chinese art classes in school, except calligraphy. What they taught was mostly Western art, like watercolor or sketching. People looked up to Western culture a little at that time.

Can you talk about your parents, their education and professions?
My father aspired to be an artist. He was originally from Sichuan province, but went to Shanghai Art University, but because of the student movement he quit school. He was really involved in the student revolutionary movement and met my mother in Shanghai through the underground. The nationalist party, the Kuomintang, was always trying to catch the communist revolutionaries, so he could not stay in Shanghai and he moved to Chongqing. That is where I was born. He decided to study international affairs and moved us to Beijing where he went to China Foreign Affairs University. He wanted to be a diplomat, but China remained isolated and that didn’t happen, so he took an administrative position at Peking University in the history department. Both of my parents were employed by Peking University. My mom was a secretary to the librarian studies department. We lived in a two-family house on campus in an area for professors and their families.

What did you do for fun, other than drawing?

A hobby of mine was to go into the street and watch craftsmen at work. There were general repairmen, woodworkers, handymen who fixed bicycles, knife sharpeners. I really liked watching them work. I could spend hours. I also liked to go to shops that sold abandoned material like scrap paper and small blocks of wood. When factories made paper or lumber they would trim the edges and shops would sell those remnants. I loved going to those shops. I loved the materiality of those things.

The Cultural Revolution

In 1966, when you were 11 years old, the Cultural Revolution began. Mao’s plan was to erase the past and lay the ground for communism. The Red Guard began to attack people in positions of power. How did the Cultural Revolution impact your family and you?

It had a really significant impact. The Cultural Revolution started from Peking University, and my father, who oversaw the history department, was categorized a “gangster” and placed on a list of undesirables with capitalist leanings. He was one of the earliest “gangsters” in China. My father was shamed and criticized in public and sent to a jail on campus that they called the cowshed. More than once he was forced to appear in public wearing a sign around his neck labeling him a gangster, and forced to read a confession of his capitalist behavior. One time I went to a small town near Beijing with my friends. We heard some marching far away and went to see what was happening and found my father was the first one in line. He was wearing the sign and his hands were tied, being shamed as a capitalist. You could run into marches like that on the street. Another time I came to a forest near our home and saw my father in a forced-labor gang.

But children often have revolutionary ideas. Did you feel part of the Cultural Revolution, even if you saw the Red Guard attacking your father?

There was a theory back then about blood relationships: if your dad is a good person the son is, too, and if the dad is bad so is the son. I had the feeling that I didn’t have good blood and needed to be fixed and reeducated. I wanted to participate in the revolution, so I worked really hard to use my drawing and artmaking skills and painted lots of slogans and propaganda posters. In elementary school I formed a little group with my friends. As young people it was very exciting to participate in the Revolution. Then in middle school I was commissioned by the school to do some propaganda posters. My first print was a portrait of Mao. I was doing these things to prove that I was useful. It also provided me with an opportunity to practice my calligraphy and train my sensitivity to fonts, composition, and aesthetics.

Were you and other members of your family persecuted, or only your father?

In 1974, after I graduated from high school, our family was sent to the countryside for “reeducation.” I was sent with some classmates to a poor village deep in the mountains at the border of Beijing and Hebei. I lived with other friends sent there from Beijing, but the room was so cold in the winter we couldn’t stay there. I found some single men in the village and lived with those farmers in winter. It was actually not bad because I like nature, and being in the mountains made me closer to nature. The farmers did not have strong political ideas, and if you worked hard they respected and liked you. I did every kind of farm work. We learned everything from turning the soil with a plow pulled by a cow to planting and harvesting. I worked really hard, so they liked me a lot. I could read newspapers for them and teach them to read. Also, I am the middle child in my family, with an older brother, an older sister, a younger brother, and a younger sister, and in the countryside this type of middle child was considered lucky. Being surrounded by siblings suggested that you would bring lots of children. So I was asked to make decorations for weddings to bring fertility and luck to young couples. I learned a lot about folk culture.

Did you make art during that time?

Whenever I had a chance. During the workday I would choose a location I wanted to draw, and after work, if I had time, I would go sketch. In the evenings I went to different houses to do portraits of the farmers’ families. I had a camera – everyone interested in art would get a camera – and I would take photographs of my portraits, and when I went back to Beijing once or twice a year I would develop the film and then give a photo to the farmers. After I had made portraits of almost everyone in the 39 families in the village, one time I returned to the village from Beijing and the farmers told me there would be no more portraits. It turned out I had done a portrait of someone and the person died while I was away. After that, the farmers did not allow me to do portraits anymore.

You stayed for three years, even after the Cultural Revolution ended, and when you returned to Beijing in 1977 you enrolled at the Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA). Why do you think they admitted you?

I had been a good worker in the countryside and my drawing was really good. My art was down to earth and if you are good at drawing and the subject of your work is farmers or the people, you were desirable. They really liked my work. I was in the printmaking department, but almost everyone at CAFA needed to spend a lot of time pencil sketching in the Western style, like 19th-century European artists. You would go to factories, the countryside, the forest, or the seaside to live and work with the masses, drawing from life. Then you came back to school and did your art.

Was this training to equip you to make socialist realist propaganda for the Communist government?

Your drawings had to be realistic and represent the life of the people and how they contribute to the socialist construction of society. They wanted to train students to be someone who could show the building of society through art. Art for the people! We were ignorant at the time, but there is also something good about it. The key is how to balance the good and bad.

There was no such thing as contemporary art in China, yet you became an artist whose work relates to ideas current in the international art world. How did that happen?
After the Cultural Revolution, China was undergoing a modernization period and people were trying to learn from the Western countries. But the change for me wasn’t really inspired by Western art. It came in 1984 when I saw an exhibition from North Korea in the National Museum of Fine Arts. They showed a lot of propaganda paintings with farmers and workers and the leaders. North Korean socialist realist works are even more ignorant and naïve than the Chinese, and allowed me to see the ignorant part of Chinese art. I knew that I must do a new kind of contemporary art. I wanted to make a new art, but I didn’t know what new art was? We did not have much information about contemporary art. That is when I made Book from the Sky [1987]. It was not socialist realism, but neither was it like Western art.

Book from the Sky

That is one of your most famous and beautiful works. You hand carved thousands of Chinese-style nonsense characters and used them to print old-fashioned Chinese books that you stacked on the floor, and to print scrolls of unreadable text that you draped from the ceiling, as if descending from the sky or heaven. How did you make such an extraordinary work?

I invented 4,000 individual characters and carved each block and arranged them to make pages. I changed the characters around and repeated the printing to create four volumes, and each page is different. There are 120 copies of each book. I made it entirely myself. The technique I used is deeply rooted in traditional printmaking, from carving the blocks to repeating the printing. The power comes from the repetition. The characters are fake, but you make many copies and they gain power.

What do you believe is its significance within your oeuvre?

There are many layers of significance and values to this work, but if I have to specify something in terms of art it would be that someone was finally using Chinese tradition — Chinese art, technique and wisdom — to deal with problems today and create contemporary art. In a philosophical context this work is about the relationship between language characters and human civilization.

What led you to focus on language as a theme in so much of your work?

There are many reasons. For one thing, my generation lacked proper cultural education, yet, the environment in which I grew up on campus was a very cultural one, so my relationship to culture is very unusual among my generation. If you want to discuss Chinese culture, working with characters is a good entry point because the written character is the most basic element of culture and Chinese characters are very special and unique. During those Cultural Revolution years, they wanted to disrupt or discontinue traditional culture and destroy the past. But it is impossible, because the way that culture is passed on is not through textbooks, but through other channels, like the way you talk. Dealing with language was a way of reconnecting with culture, to learn and enter the culture.

Language enables us to understand one another, to learn about the past, and to collaborate on work and ideas. Yet, in Book from the Sky your invented characters form nonsense words that confound communication. The texts look readable, but they are not. They are like the shell of language.
You are right that Book from the Sky is like “the shell of language.” I am interested in the shell because I think that language, in terms of understanding each other, is just a tool. There is nothing innate in the characters, but the “shell” of the characters contains a lot of cultural references and meanings. For example, the fonts and style of Chinese calligraphy convey the person’s cultural level, their educational background and sophistication, and the level of quality of the person. I chose an official historic font of calligraphy because it doesn’t have any personal style. It was developed by woodblock carvers mostly for printing government documents and records.

Some people might interpret your making nonsense words in an official font as expressing skepticism, not only about language, but about the official use of language. That is especially relevant during the time of Mao, the Little Red Book, and the propagandistic use of language by the People’s Republic of China. Did you intend that interpretation?

It is not a direct intention, but the reason I chose that form for Book from the Sky must have something to do with that. It was an expression of my doubts regarding written languages. In elementary school I learned basic Chinese script, then had to switch to the simplified script that Mao introduced to promote literacy, then the country eventually reverted. When I think back now on the ocean of characters during the Cultural Revolution, with posters and propaganda everywhere, the visual impact must have had something to do with the form of Book from the Sky. All the posters and slogans, and newspapers — those characters were nonsense. They didn’t really have a meaning.

Square Word Calligraphy

Another language-based project is Square Word Calligraphy. It is one of your greatest inventions and signature achievements — a Chinese way of writing English that you have used to record various historic texts and poems. It makes Chinese and English seem related, rather than alien from each other. What did you have in mind with that project?

It had to do with my living in New York and negotiating life between two cultures. It was difficult dealing with the foreign language. I was an adult and an artist, but my ability to communicate was that of a child. I thought about making a project to learn about English, and I began with the alphabet because in China the characters tell a lot about culture. That led to my idea of melding the English and Chinese scripts.

In Chinese tradition, it is said that calligraphy and images both come from the brush. You have made drawings of landscapes that are made not of lines and washes of ink, but of calligraphic characters that represent features of the landscape scene, such as mountain, leaves, boat, door, and so on. These Landscripts play on the traditional notion of writing and painting being related. Can you talk about the ideas that led to their invention?

I first started doing this on a trip to Nepal in 1999 where I made landscape sketches using Chinese characters. I was thinking about the roots of Chinese calligraphy, art, and culture and it seemed to me that everything is tied to these characters that were created to represent the phenomena of the world. Most people understand the relationship between writing and painting as having to do with brushworks styles. I thought of it more in terms of symbolism. The characters began as pictographs and I drew them in bunches that create a kind of textual picture, a representation of the place, so the levels of symbolism are compounded in a way that reflects how Chinese culture itself has been transmitted over time.

In a more recent project, Book from the Ground, you collected thousands of visual symbols – the signs for restrooms, elevators, showers, smiley faces, and so on – and created a dictionary of icons that you used to tell a story. What led you to explore graphic symbols that are neither Chinese nor ancient, but very much of today?

I spend a lot of time in airports where I see many “readable pictures” that convey things with clarity and concision. It occurred to me that these symbolic images were humanity’s first common language. I thought about using them to tell a more complex story. I began to collect pictograms and organized them according to meaning, and eventually arranged them into the novel. It’s my dream of a universal script. With all the icons proliferating in the online world, I sense that such a dream may one day became a reality, that traditional languages will merge into one, most likely a visual one.

Tiananmen Square

A turning point in Chinese contemporary history was the government’s lethal suppression of the popular revolution at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Were you involved in the movement and a supporter of the call for change?

Yes, of course. All the citizens at that time were very supportive of the students, so the government sensed crisis in their rule. CAFA was the closest university to Tiananmen Square, and people from CAFA were deeply involved in the movement, including almost all the professors and students. CAFA students made the Goddess of Democracy statue that was an icon of Tiananmen Square. My students were in Tiananmen Square all night. My father was sick at that time, so I had to go to Tiananmen one night, and the next to the hospital to stay with my father. Shortly before he passed away, the hospital was filled with students who were injured at Tiananmen Square. I was in Yunnan at that time judging a printmaking competition, but immediately after the competition ended I returned to Beijing and went to Tiananmen Square. Then I went back to school and made a poster that was pasted at every corner of Tiananmen Square, even on the monuments. The title was “Be with People” and the idea was to support the students. Many professors and students made such posters. We made a collection of them and later lent them to publications reporting about the incident. I gave these materials to an art editor who was a very respected intellectual, and he was fired and condemned for writing an article about CAFA’s involvement in the protest.

How did Tiananmen Square impact the Chinese art world?

The impact was huge. Before June 4 was the most open period in China. That is why works such as Book from the Sky could emerge. After Tiananmen Square the control of ideology became tighter and tighter. The intellectuals were suppressed and didn’t dare to express their opinions because they saw that their voices had no effect. People who participated in June 4 were put in jail, and people were reporting one other, saying, “He participated” and “She participated.”

The Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei has been highly critical of the Chinese government and its restrictions of human rights. Have you ever had your work censored, or felt that your expression had to be modified to avoid persecution?
That happened during the early period, especially when I created Book from the Sky. When it first came out it was criticized by some major publications in China that belonged to the government, newspapers such as People’s Daily and Guangming Daily. They claimed that the work represented the “false” tendency of new contemporary art. They summarized ten negative tendencies of contemporary art, and they believed Book from the Sky exemplified all ten! They believed the work demanded criticism because it was such a serious work. They thought if he put so much work into it he must have serious negative intentions. The negative tendency doesn’t have to be against the government, but against the culture. Chinese culture is like an ocean of characters and language, and since the Cultural Revolution Chinese politics is very sensitive to language-based art. Book from the Sky gives a feeling of traditional Chinese art, so it makes the work look even more political.
Besides criticism from the government I also received criticism from the new wave of contemporary artists. They were relatively radical and believed contemporary Chinese art should be more reactionary, more radical. Book from the Sky is so finely and delicately made and has such a strong relationship to traditional Chinese culture that these artists felt it was not radical enough.

Moving to America

The crackdown must have made it uncomfortable for contemporary artists. Is that why you left the country in 1990?

It was part of the reason. After Tiananmen Square, the government banned public exhibition of mixed-media installations, and you could not write about them in newspapers. I couldn’t publish things I wanted to publish or make lectures I wanted to make. I did not feel very comfortable as a contemporary Chinese artist. But I did not leave China because my work was criticized. We had gotten used to that sort of restrictive environment and thought we could bear anything. I was more attracted to the idea of learning about what is happening in the contemporary art world abroad. My major purpose was to learn about contemporary art. That’s why I went abroad.

Why did you immigrate to the United States and not Europe or elsewhere? And how did you wind up at University of Wisconsin-Madison?

I wasn’t sure, but I had a gut feeling that the United States was a more interesting place to go. A Chinese girl that I knew in Beijing was a PhD student in Madison and she really wanted me to go to America. We weren’t clearly in a relationship, but we were pretty close and I went to be with her. I had an honorary fellowship, not a paid teaching position, and demonstrated calligraphy and water-based ink painting for the art students. Tandem Press, a printmaking studio in Madison, invited me as artist in residence. I wasn’t clearly leaving China permanently, but I packed everything I could and took everything important with me. It wasn’t so difficult to leave my family because, as I mentioned, during the Cultural Revolution we were separated and living in different regions. And my father had died. He didn’t want us to leave the country so before he died we really couldn’t.

Then you moved to New York City and lived in the East Village where you shared a space with Ai Weiwei. How did you spend your time in the city and what were your impressions?

I had visited the city right after I got to Wisconsin, but decided not to stay because I felt what a struggle it was for Chinese artists in New York. I finished my fellowship and had a solo show in Madison, spent some time in South Dakota, then moved to New York in 1993. The basement apartment with Ai Weiwei was in the center of the East Village, the birthplace of punk culture. He was planning to move back to Beijing, so I took over his lease. It was an area where you could see real hipsters and punk. Later I found out that my neighbors and people I ran into at the diner were important cultural figures like Allen Ginsberg and Quentin Crisp. At midnight Ai Weiwei would say, “How about hanging out?” which meant, “Let’s see what’s happening on the streets.” We spent a lot of time at the homeless shelter next door. He drew me a map with labels like “Gay Bar,” a cartoon of noodles and chopsticks, and “St. Mark’s Bookshop, art books are good.”

In 1999 you were awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant of $390,000 with no restrictions. How did the grant impact your career?
When I got the phone call that I won the award I was installing a piece in PS1 in New York. A member of the staff handed me a Post-It note that said I had a phone call with “good news.” I thought it had to do with finding a vase that we needed for the installation, but later I got a call from the MacArthur Foundation chairperson who said she needed about ten minutes to talk with me. I said, “I’m sorry, I am so busy today and my show is opening tomorrow. Maybe when I am back home in the evening.” When she called back she wanted to let me know how serious the award is, and how much the grant is. She asked if I was willing to accept the prize and asked me to keep it secret for the moment. I wasn’t too excited. I hung up the phone and went back to my life, because I didn’t know how important the prize was at that time and didn’t have much sense about money. Then I called my mom in Beijing and told her I had won a “genius” prize, and she didn’t have a sense of the money either. I told her the award was actually for her, for giving birth to this genius!

Silkworms and other Creatures

You have done a number of projects involving living animals. When you were living in the US, beginning in 1994 you created works with silkworms. You allowed them to mummify objects. What led you to undertake that project?

There was a time when I felt I was running out of creative power, and I felt the same about the contemporary art world. So I looked for aid from animals like pigs, silkworms, and sheep. I felt that my knowledge of the art world was very limited, and that to be a good artist you had to be really smart. I thought my ideas were a little naïve at that time, but some artists had great ideas. For example, I saw a machine in the New Museum in New York that digested food and produced excrement. [Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca (2000)]. I liked that machine. He was really talking about deeper questions about what we are. Usually I feel contemporary art pieces are boring, and not worth the energy spent to finish them. But sometimes I saw a piece like that and I felt, “Okay, I need more energy, more power.” The whole contemporary art world needs energy, and I thought maybe we can borrow energy from animals, so I started working with animals.
The Silkworm Series was always about process and change. I first showed them at MassART in Boston where I let them cover objects all related to reading – a newspaper, book, laptop computer. I liked that at the opening of the show you could read the material, but during the show, as the silkworms covered the objects, you lost the language.

Another animal piece was A Case Study of Transference (1993-1994). You printed Chinese and English nonsense language on a male and female pig and let them copulate in a pen strewn with books. Did you know that you would be exhibiting pigs having sex?

I wanted to make a space and let the people watch the animals’ natural life, and think about how it relates to human beings themselves. When people see this natural performance, the audience is not really comfortable. Why are they not comfortable? Because it is natural. I am interested in that. The whole piece questioned our relationship with civilization and the cultural. There are lots of things we have to rethink.

The Chinese and English languages seemed to represent the two civilizations. Why did you put English on the boar and Chinese on the sow?
People thought it meant that Western culture is dominant, but that was not what I was talking about. After the initial show in Beijing many venues wanted to do it in Germany and the United States, but they would not allow live animals in their spaces, so I made a video. In the video version I put the fake Chinese on the boar, and the English on the sow because I don’t want people to focus on the question of dominance.

What books were on the ground?

They were books that Peking University library no longer needed. They stored them in an underground bunker that Mao had made when he was worried about America or the Soviets attacking Beijing. I was able to buy a truckload because my mother was working for the library. Later I discovered that some were really valuable. One that looked like an antique volume contained text about the Revolution, with articles about Lenin and a critique of Confucius. Mao had vision problems when he was getting old, so they made a weekly list of contemporary reading material and gave it to his secretary who had books made in the ancient style. They printed about 100 copies of each and gave them to Cho En Lai and others.

The video of that piece was supposed to be in the Guggenheim Museum’s recent survey of Chinese contemporary art in New York, but they capitulated to animal rights groups and removed the work, along with two others involving animals.

Actually the animal rights people wrote a public letter asking that the other two works be removed, not my piece. But the Guggenheim decided to take mine down as well. In my statement in response I say that an ancient Chinese idea is that every life is equal. Tigers eat meat and sheep eat grass. Should the tiger be criticized because he kills other animals? Science experiments have discovered that plants have a spirit, too, and communicate with other plants around them. Should we rank animals and plants? In any case, I didn’t use any drugs to force the pigs to do anything, and the paint didn’t hurt them. I treated them very well, otherwise they couldn’t mate. They were really enjoying themselves. It’s just that human beings are too worried.

The Tobacco Project

You also created a large body of work related to tobacco – the plant, the industry, and its consumption. What motivated you to take on that theme? I know that your father died from smoking.

I was invited by Duke University to do a public artwork on campus, and went there to do a lecture and see some sites. As soon as I arrived in Durham I could smell tobacco in the air. A friend of mine getting her PhD there told me there are two cities, Durham and Raleigh, and two main industries, tobacco and the university — and the two don’t really like each other. Duke has a strong medical school, but the big money comes from tobacco. The relationship of the medical culture with tobacco struck me as really interesting, and I thought I would probably want to do a project related to tobacco.
I like visiting any factory because the machines are so smart, and when I visited the tobacco factory it was amazing, turning out cigarettes incredibly fast and with such fine materials. It gave me lots of ideas. I thought of making a project limited to tobacco materials. Then I started doing research in the university library with the help of Phillip Tinari, who was an undergrad at Duke – and later became a well known curator of Chinese contemporary art — and we found so much interesting material about tobacco.

Were you looking for connections with China?

I did find links of the Duke family with China. The Duke family invented the first cigarette machine. Before then it was all done by hand. About a hundred years ago they sent their machine to China. Mr. Duke was really excited about the potential and supposedly scanned a globe to determine where the largest population concentration was. When he realized there were more than one billion people in China, he said, “That’s where we should go to sell tobacco. If a billion people smoke one cigarette a week, they would require a huge supply.” So he sent his young staff there, and if they spoke Chinese he gave them double salary. They bought land and taught the Chinese to grow tobacco and founded a factory. We studied the entire history. Before then, Chinese people had smoked pipes, but advertising propaganda said the cigarette was more pure and better for your health. And it was trendy and represented a new lifestyle. Our research gave me lots of ideas. It was like opening a Pandora’s box and led to many tobacco-related projects.

You made sculptures out of tobacco, smoking pipes, and cigarettes, including a carpet of cigarettes arranged so the white paper and orange filters look like a tiger skin. You had 40-foot-long cigarettes made and placed it on a reproduction of a famous Chinese painting and let it burn across the landscape. You printed sayings of Chairman Mao on cigarettes, made works based on vintage advertisements and tobacco packing materials, and created a book from tobacco leaves printed with a 17th-century treatise on Virginia. With what we know about smoking, these works are rather menacing. And there was a personal dimension for you because your father had died from smoking.

It made me remember my father. He was really a longtime smoker. I went back to his hospital in China and found his medical treatment record, and included it in the show. The exhibition traveled to cities related to tobacco culture – Shanghai in 2004 and Richmond in 2009 — and I would make a new piece relating to local tobacco history and materials.

Background Story

Another of your signature bodies of work is called Background Story. Each one is a light box that shows a Chinese landscape painting, often from the collection of the museum where you are exhibiting. When visitors walk behind the light box they see that the image is actually the shadow of all sorts of scrap materials taped to the glass. What led you to make such a thing in the first place? Was it just a trick like a shadow-puppet show?

I never think first about the art form, but about an idea. The idea for Background Story was born in Berlin, and it arose because of a story. I had a scholar residency at the American Academy in Berlin and they gave me a one-man show at the Museum of East Asian Art in the Dahlem district. I wanted to do a retrospective, but also to make a new piece, and I knew it should be related to Berlin’s history, the Second World War, and the museum’s history. I talked with the director and he told me that in the Second World War they lost 90 percent of their collections, most of them taken by the Soviet army. And the pieces had and even longer history about how they came to the museum in the first place. A few days later I went to Spain for a project in Valencia. I was transferring in the airport and saw a ticket office with a wall of milky glass, and behind the glass they had a plant. It was beautiful, and it reminded me so much of Chinese landscape paintings. At that moment I remembered the missing ancient Chinese pieces in the Dahlem, and thought that if I can copy a missing painting in this way it would be very interesting. I went back and tried to recreate several Chinese and Japanese missing paintings using this technique. The museum showed its ancient pieces in long cases against the wall, so I replaced the glass with milky glass and worked in the hallway behind. I still remember how exciting it was first testing ways to represent the landscape.

Did you project the image of the landscapes on the glass to use as a guide?

I just used charcoal to make the outline. I taped all kinds of things to the glass – cotton, cardboard, newspaper, branches of pine trees, anything. I had one assistant, and we would go back and forth to the front to see what had to be changed to produce the image. We finished all three pieces in maybe a week or ten days. Those early works were not so delicately controlled, but gave the general feeling of the pictures. Now, after 10 or 15 years of practice, we developed technical expertise and the more recent ones are very accurate.

You always let visitors walk around back to see how the image is conjured from scrap materials and light.

That’s really important. Art pieces have lots of background stories and it was a great art form to show the missing pieces. The objects we remember were once here, but now they are far away in Saint Petersburg. The Background Story versions did not show the real landscape, the physical painting on silk or rice paper, but the spirit or shadow of the piece. The ghost is still in the space made by the shadow of light.

Are any of them permanent, or are they all dismantled after the exhibition?

A permanent one is in the official guest restaurant in the Forbidden City. Important people visiting China must visit the Parliament House in the Forbidden City, and always have a meal inside. President Obama, Hillary Clinton – all important people dine there. Inside the Forbidden City are monumental imposing buildings and imposing art pieces, but the director of the complex wants people to relax when they get to the restaurant. Hanging ancient objects would still feel heavy, so I gave them the idea that they should use a contemporary method of presenting ancient culture. We chose to make a Background Story based on a bird and flower landscape by the Yuan painter Zhao Mengfu. The guests look at the work and think, “Oh, another beautiful ancient piece,” but the director can say, “You can look at the back,” and when they see the technique they are excited and have a conversation. It’s really friendly.

You’ve invented a new way of presenting a Chinese landscape painting using very low-tech means. What do you think of modern technology and its potential for art?

I tried a new media piece a long time ago. For my project Book from the Ground I developed software to translate words to icons. I showed it at MoMA in New York and people liked it, but I knew it had problems. People had to take the subway to MoMA to play the game. They could do it online with people in Beijing or Johannesburg because technology is really spreading everywhere. They don’t need a museum, a center. So I am always rethinking the relationship of technology to art. My idea is that today’s “technology art” shows off technology, but not the art. People are interested in the technology itself, because technology is so powerful. Art compared to technology looks like nothing. If you are interested in making art with technology, your art must be stronger than the technology. Your art has to be at least 1 percent stronger because even if your technology is stronger 51 percent to 49 percent, your art will quickly become obsolete. A new technology will come months later and your art will be old. In my new film Dragonfly Eyes, which is made entirely from found surveillance footage, the concept is stronger than the technology itself. I don’t pay so much attention to the technology itself, but how technology is changing life.

How does this relate to Background Story?
Why can we continue to do these projects after ten years? Because we found a new technology to present the image. We invented a new painting without actual physical paint and canvas. There’s not a real painting there, but you have the image of the painting. We invented the light painting because we need to see how light painting is different from physical painting. Because the light is richer than any painting. They have lots of space. A very strong form of expression. It’s a new technology to present the image.

You often make use of found materials. Is that a deliberate strategy?

I like to do things that give me a limitation and a challenge. If my idea is to make a sculpture of a phoenix, or to make a movie, I don’t know how to do it. But if I give myself a limitation — like, only use surveillance footage and don’t shoot any new images — that really inspires me to create because there is a challenge. And I like using materials of no value, routine garbage that anybody can relate to. If you change how those materials are used they can really touch people’s patterns of thought. So I like using that kind of thing.

The Phoenix Project

You mention The Phoenix Project (2008). That sculpture is a pair of gigantic phoenix birds – both around 100 feet long — composed of construction debris and suspended from the ceiling, as if in flight. It was supposed to be for the lobby of the World Financial Center, a new office building in Beijing. How did that project come about?

They approached me through an art agency as commissioner. Usually when someone asks me to do public art I decline, because it is too difficult. I don’t want to make a big object to occupy public space and force people to encounter it. I was reluctant, but they offered to give scholarships to my students at CAFA. I had just returned to CAFA about two weeks before, and I thought this may be a good way to show that I have the power to provide support. (In the end, they did not give any money to CAFA.) So I said that I could go take a look, and if I get an inspiration I will do it. I don’t agree unless I already have an idea. If I agree and then have no inspiration it would make me nervous because there is no guarantee that next week you will have inspiration. So I went there, and the construction site really shocked me. The workers’ quarters were really rough and they were using such low techniques to make a building that is so modern and rich. You get a special sensation from the scene. It was like being near a big animal like a horse. The temperature and texture of the body and their movement and energy are really strong. I thought that if I do a project it would be really interesting to use the construction site materials. The clean and shiny building, with gold and silver and glass everywhere, would make a good setting for the rough artwork. It would call attention to the labor involved, and how capitalism takes the value from the workers. It was a Marxist idea.
I worried that the owners would not like it, but at first they did like it. It was before the Olympics when the economy was booming and the developers were really excited and very open to including art. We had hired a team of fabricators to make the Phoenixes, but when the Olympics approached the government halted construction and truck traffic for three months to make the city appear clean and neat. The developers lost money and then the world financial crash caused more difficulties. They lost their open-mindedness and humor about art. They said the piece looks “unfinished,” like only a structure, and maybe we need to cover it with glass or something shiny. I thought that was impossible.

Was it completed when the owners rejected it?

Not totally completed, but well underway. Then Barry Lam, the chairman of Quanta Computer, who makes laptop components for Apple in Taiwan, decided to buy the Phoenix. He knew about it because his girlfriend was the head of the art agency that commissioned it. We showed it in Beijing and at the Shanghai World Expo, then at MASSMoCA in Massachusetts and in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. Then we had the fabricator make another pair of phoenixes and showed them at the Venice Biennale. There are two pairs. One is in storage in New York, and the other on display in Vorwerksallee in northern Germany.

They are enormous and weigh many tons. Would you ever work on that scale again?

Maybe, but the crating, shipping, and storage make it so difficult. And no one wants to collect works of that size. Many venues have asked to show the piece, but have been unable to realize the projects because it is so expensive.

Dragonfly Eyes

Another work that uses found materials is your new film Dragonfly Eyes, a narrative about a girl moving to Beijing composed entirely from found surveillance footage. Is it a comment on the surveillance state – Big Brother Watching?

It can be considered a political statement, but different from the old ideas about surveillance cameras. Most people still have the Cold War concept of control. Americans especially think of Chinese in that way. But surveillance now belongs to regular people, not only the government. People really like using surveillance technique for their own purposes. They use the surveillance camera as a tool to help with their lives. They want to see who comes into their store or restaurant, or how the babysitter acts when they are out. It’s not a passive thing. They make surveillance actively to showcase themselves through a livestream, like self-surveillance. They are making more relationships and in touch with the whole world. It started a few years ago. So I say this is the post-surveillance period. My movie is more aiming to change people’s fixed idea about the surveillance camera. It’s not just Big Brother is watching you, but it’s a tool you can use yourself.

Do you personally have any use for surveillance?

For studio security, yes, but we did not use that footage for our film because the camera position was set by myself, and that was against the rules of the production. This film is really hard to categorize. When we apply to film festivals we have to place the film in a category – documentary, fiction, sci fi, experimental. Dragonfly Eyes is everything, but none of these categories defines it. We have to name the cast and cameraman, but we have no such positions in this film. All these categories and criteria from the film festivals came into being before the current age of surveillance. Maybe my film can inspire or give filmmakers, festivals or audiences a new idea about film. Maybe other people won’t do the same thing I do, but maybe I can give them some inspiration to stimulate new ideas and new concepts of film.

Public Commissions, Exhibitions, and the Art Market

You have completed commissions for the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, a related work for the United States Embassy in Beijing, and another piece for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC. Can you discuss these works and the role they play in your career?

At the Sackler, I did a site-specific piece as part of my one-man show. It is a column of monkey-shaped characters linked together and hanging from the ceiling in a stairwell. It refers to the legend “The Monkeys Grasp the Moon.” Attracted to the reflection of the moon in water, they form a chain to reach it, but when the last monkey touches the image it disintegrates. After the show the Soong Mei-ling family, the family of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, gave money to the Smithsonian to donate the piece to commemorate the 60-year anniversary of Madame Soong’s speech to Congress.
The embassy pieces were because of the architect I.M. Pei. I know him very well and often visit him in New York. He wanted me to work with him on his last two projects. It was a little too late to collaborate with each other, but for the Chinese Embassy in Washington he said, “The building is too hard and austere. Can you do something soft to change the space?” His designs often include a skylit chimney-like form, and in that space I designed a cloud made of letters. All the letters are pictographs related to the sky – rain, sun, air, water. At the same time, the American Embassy in Beijing asked me to do something. The curator liked the monkey piece in the Sackler, and we had two versions, so we lent one to the embassy for 15 years.

You have exhibited in galleries, but do not have a gallery representative. Can you talk about your relationship to the market?

I am not good in terms of the art market. My projects are not easy to sell. They are too big and even museums have difficulty collecting them. I don’t really have the patience to make something repetitive and easy to sell, like calligraphies and landscape drawings. It’s not really my interest. I am interested in doing big shows and making new projects to push my art further.

If you don’t have a gallery, how do you sell your work?

Some collectors contact the studio and I can sell to them directly. Lots of people want to collect my work, but don’t know how to get it. Maybe they would rather go through a dealer. Sometimes a gallery will bring a piece to an art fair, but they do not come directly from me. Museums also are interested. Whenever I have a show they ask for a piece, and sometimes I donate to them, as well. But I am not really close with the museums and the gallery system. They don’t really understand my work and I feel they don’t really like it because my way of doing art does not fit easily into the system. I am not with a gallery and my work is not really commercial. But scholars, theorists and art historians like my work, and there are others working with cultural history, philosophy and sociology that also really like my work.

Return to China

When you returned to China in 2008 to become Vice Director of CAFA, what challenges did you face and what did you achieve?

I went to CAFA to push art education in China a big step forward toward international contemporary art. What I achieved was due partly to my hard work, and also to the symbolism of my appointment. I was a representative of international Chinese contemporary artists. So, when I returned more students did mixed media works instead of traditional media. Before then teachers from the different schools were not so encouraging for students to work in mixed media. After I returned the teachers thought with Xu Bing at CAFA they should not prevent students from doing that. A few years after I returned, the graduate exhibition was very different from before. The way of working changed, their thinking process was more active. There is an important link to me for that. I was in charge of exhibitions and catalogues and did a series of shows they were a platform for young artists and quite influential.

Why did you step down in 2014? Did they want you to leave?

The reason I left was more about the title of contemporary artist. I felt the government really didn’t like contemporary art. They wanted me back because it symbolized their openness, but they really weren’t comfortable with it. Also, the ministerial responsibilities were a big waste of time. The Ministry of Education has many different departments and they always bother the school, with one department saying you must do this, and another saying you must do this. The energy goes into working for them, not for the students, not focusing on education. Complying with demands of the government was a waste of time and life.

A lot of Chinese contemporary art shown in the West is critical of China – the government, repression of human rights, corruption. Ai Weiwei is a prime example. Do you share that sense of criticality?

The Chinese government has made a lot of mistakes that annoy people, and Americans like to see Chinese people critical of the government. But that is only part of the story. China has been developing so quickly over the past decades, faster than any region in the world. There must be something right about what the Chinese government has been doing. Besides the critique of the Chinese government that artists make in their work, there must be some pieces that discuss what the government did right in the past three decades. But the American public and Western culture don’t really like that approach.

You celebrate Chinese history and civilization and embrace elements of the classical art tradition – calligraphy, ink painting, landscapes. Do you think of yourself as a Chinese export or ambassador to the contemporary art world?

The Chinese government has people they think of as cultural exports, but not official ambassadors. I focused on the historical aspects of ancient culture 30 years ago when I did Book from the Sky. But, because the government has labeled me a contemporary artist they still don’t really trust me. They think I am the same as Ai Weiwei. They don’t like contemporary art and the label makes them nervous, even though they don’t know what contemporary art is. So, even if I find a new way to use Chinese traditional culture in a contemporary art context, they will feel there is some problem. As a contemporary artist, they don’t care what you do. You could be a problem.

But they invite you to make work for the Forbidden City, to be Vice Director at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and to complete a commission for the embassy in Washington, DC. These are prestigious appointments. They must like you.

The Forbidden City belongs to the government, but the head of the place is more open-minded. When CAFA made me vice director they were more open, too. They wanted Chinese art education to be on a more international level and they thought I could bring this about. But they could not let someone known as a contemporary artist be the director. Deputy director is okay, but if the director were a contemporary artist it would mean the main thrust of the curriculum should be heading in that direction. Most of the students and the whole art world think Xu Bing should be director! But they don’t want a contemporary artist as director because they don’t trust you and they believe you represent a direction in art that they don’t want.

Today you live mainly in Beijing. How is life there different from in the 1980s and 1990s?

It is totally different, like a new country. They are wealthier, more Western, more like America, but the cultural and intellectual level is even more complicated and richer than in America. The country is more experimental than anywhere, and there is also the great cultural tradition of China mixed with socialism and capitalism. America is only capitalism and democracy. China has democracy, capitalism, socialism, ancient culture – they have everything. Every day they are changing fast. To take one example, they have the Yellow Bicycle public shared bike system, and apps that let you find the nearest bicycle wherever someone leaves it. You scan a code and use it. It’s really convenient. The bicycle belongs to everyone to share, like socialism or an early stage of community. That kind of thing can happen only in China.

Will you return to New York?

I don’t know, but now I feel I get more inspiration in Beijing. Living there gives you lots of energy and stimulation. In New York there is lots of art and culture of high quality, but you only can get energy and inspiration secondhand. In China you can get inspiration firsthand. It’s very organic. When I first returned to China it felt like when I moved here. It was a new country with a new way of working.

What are you looking forward to personally? What kind of hope do you have?

I hope I can create more artworks that point out more valuable things for human creativity. Like Dragonfly Eyes. That kind of movie is really worth doing because we made something from nothing. The world had never before had that kind of movie, but because of our work a film like that exists. Like Book from the Ground. I invented the first book with icon language to tell a story. That’s the kind of thing I like to do, to keep creative power. But as people get old they lose creative energy. It happens to everybody!

When you started a life of making art, could you ever have imagined your enormous success?

I wanted to have that kind of reputation, of course, but I never imagined I could really achieve it. When you are farming in the countryside, it is impossible to think of such a big thing. I know that for now the focus of Western people on me is mainly about the cultural background that I represent as an artist from China. People are thinking Western culture is dominant, but they see that Western disadvantages are becoming more evident. Western culture is great, but it has problems. After the Cold War people thought that the whole world would be democratic and things will be great in the future. After 1989 the whole world was happy that socialism and the Soviet Union crashed. But after 25 years the world has not changed for the good. It’s even worse, with refugees, war and fighting. What is causing all this? We must say that capitalism has a problem. There is something they did wrong. The Western contemporary art background is capitalism, and maybe my experience has some things that can be brought into this contemporary art arena. Maybe bringing in something new will make it more healthy. That is something I can do, offer something different, good or bad.

Jason Edward Kaufman//

A version of this interview appeared in Luxury Magazine, Winter 2017, pp. 6, 222-235.


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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