Exterior Form – Interior Substance: A Conversation with Xu Bing

A B C …, 1991. Ceramic blocks, 8 x 8 x 24 cm. Photo: Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

In his native China, Xu Bing began his career with innovations in printmaking and with some of the first Chinese installation art, including what is perhaps his best-known work, Book from the Sky. He had been sent to the countryside by the Chinese government for re-education in 1974, and his experiences in a farming community are among the threads brought together in his subsequent work. Other important concerns in his work include the relation of language to experience and the nature of writing. His installations have been exhibited widely in China and the West, including Finland, Australia, and the United States, and he was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution (reviewed in the November 2002 issue of Sculpture). Xu now divides his time between China and New York.

 Net and Leash, 1998. Steel, wire, wood, and sheep. Leashes and cage formed of words, installation view.

Glenn Harper: Your sculpture or installation work seems to grow out of your sense of process in drawing and printmaking: printing a calligraphic text by carving a printing block, then presenting the printing block as sculpture. (The original root of the word “sculpture” in European languages is “carving.”) You also present the tools of the calligrapher along with the scroll in Book from the Sky. Is this a conscious growth from two-dimensional media to three-dimensional media?

Xu Bing: My formal training as an artist was in printmaking, this is why so many of my works are related to printing. In fact, the printing process is the exact opposite of the sculpting process. Printmaking is about taking a material with elevations and recesses and printing from it so that a three-dimensional form is transposed into a two-dimensional form. It is true that the process by which an artist prepares/carves the material to be transformed into a print contains elements of sculpture; but in printmaking this constitutes the mid-point rather than the end-point. Still, your observation is interesting—that this preparatory stage of print-block carving could be seen as related to early sculptural art.

In my exhibition at the Sackler Gallery, the implements and materials involved in the production process were exhibited with the artworks. But this set-up had nothing to do with considerations of two-dimensionality versus three-dimensionality or anything like that; it had to do with the overall concept of the show. The Sackler is famous for showing traditional Asian art and has a specific kind of audience. Museum officials and the curator chose me to be the first contemporary Chinese artist to have a large-scale solo exhibition there in part because they wanted an exhibition that would act as a kind of bridge between traditional and contemporary art, that would show connections between them and also create an opening for greater focus on contemporary Asian art in general. In the planning and design stages, I thought a lot about how to take advantage of the particular [physical and cultural] qualities of the museum, so that the concept would include not only the installations themselves, but also the entire staging of this kind of art in this kind of museum. This is reflective of my work as a whole, because in my pieces traditional crafts, techniques, and materials co-exist with contemporary conceptualism. You could say that the traditional exterior is a kind of costume, as in the written characters I invented whose exterior form and interior substance are completely different.

The implements and materials I used to create my works look like traditional cultural objects, and they were, in fact, exhibited alongside genuine cultural artifacts from the Sackler’s collection. This enhanced their falseness and gave rise to questions such as “What is the true value of these objects?” and “What makes something modern?” Within these false objects, tradition and modernity are mixed together. That’s why viewing these works from a simplistic dialectical perspective—that non-traditional equals modern is to misapprehend them—because the point is that the traditional
and the modern/contemporary exist within a state of constant and mutual transformation—you are within me, I am within you.

Reading Landscape: After Yuan Jian, 2001. Wood, PVC, acrylic paint, and Chinese landscape painting, installation view. Photo: Courtesy Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

GH: Chinese viewers experience Book from the Sky differently from non-Chinese viewers (seen as text, but then apprehended as illegible), and the reverse is true of Square Word Calligraphy (apprehended as illegible, then becoming legible for English speakers). Does this shift reflect a change in your thinking?

XB: Book from the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy have different effects on people from different cultures, but the entry point is essentially the same. In both, the invented characters have a sort of equalizing effect: they are playing a joke on everybody, but at the same time they do not condescend to anybody. For example, there is no one on earth who can read and comprehend the characters in Book from the Sky, myself included.

Square Word Calligraphy, on the other hand, exists on the borderline between two completely different cultures. To viewers from these two cultures, the characters present equal points of familiarity and of strangeness. A Chinese person recognizes the characters as familiar faces but can’t figure out exactly who they are. To a Westerner, they first appear as mysterious glyphs from Asian culture, yet ultimately they can be read and understood. When I’ve lectured on my work people have asked, “Do Chinese people find it offensive that you’ve restructured Chinese into English?” And I’ve answered, “To the contrary, Chinese people should praise me for having restructured English into Chinese.” The absurdity of Square Word Calligraphy is that it takes two different words from two completely unrelated language systems and fuses them together into one entity. If you use existing concepts of Chinese or English to try and read or interpret these characters, you won’t succeed. This total disconnection between outer appearance and inner substance places people in a kind of shifting cultural position, an uncertain transitional state.

Cultural Animal, 1994. Mannequin and pig printed with false English and Chinese scripts, detail of installation.

GH: Are the characters in Book from the Sky derived from traditional calligraphy?

XB: On the surface, the false characters in Book from the Sky look very similar to traditional Chinese logographs. I chose to pattern them after the classic Song-style characters traditionally used in printing. This style of character was created and refined over a period of several centuries by traditional craftsmen, and it came to be adopted as the standard script for book printing because it is easy to carve and extremely legible. Consequently, it also came to be viewed as the most representative style of Han script.

Once words are printed, they immediately gain recognition and legitimacy. These characters are devoid of any kind of personality and thus have no concrete implication or emotional significance. In Book from the Sky I wanted to create a huge, empty space free of meaning and content, without giving people any hint of specificity.

Tools used for Book from the Sky.

GH: When you began Book from the Sky, did you have Western ideas about language in mind? (The work seems to Western eyes to reflect notions of language from Nietzsche to Derrida.)

XB: Quite a few interpretations of Book from the Sky have made comparisons with contemporary Western philosophers, particularly Foucault and Derrida. In 2000, the Albany Public Library organized an exhibition called “Book-Ends: Imag’in’ing the Book—The Work of Xu Bing” and arranged for Derrida and I to lecture together, an event that attracted quite a large audience. People said that they found it interesting to have Xu Bing and Derrida “installed” in the same space. I remember saying to Derrida: “Although so many people have used your theories to interpret Book from the Sky, I had never read any of your books at the time I was working on it. If I had read them, maybe I wouldn’t have bothered to continue. It would have been clear that there was no point in making anything ever again.”

Book from the Sky was created in China in the mid-1980s, when information about modern Western thought was still very fragmented. The trendier academics would mention names such as Nietzsche in their lectures, but what they had to say was usually pretty vague. The primary materials that influenced my thinking were works of traditional Chinese philosophy and studies in the cognitive sciences. Another factor was my own understanding of culture and my reaction against the “cultural fever” that was sweeping over China at the time. This was the post-Cultural Revolution period, and a long-denied yearning for knowledge had become an intense thirst for information. [Trans. note: The period was marked by a surge of interest on the part of Chinese intellectuals in traditional Chinese art and philosophy as well as in modern Western culture, as contact with both had been highly circumscribed or forbidden during the Cultural Revolution.] My feelings also had a lot to do with a strong identification with the Zen teaching that “words are unreliable.” Actually, the ideas of Western contemporary philosophers such as Derrida have surprising areas of similarity with Zen philosophy.

Square Word Calligraphy classroom installation.

GH: You often refer, in your texts and interviews, to Zen or Chan Buddhism, especially in terms of its goal of upsetting habits of thinking. Is that sort of “defamiliarization” (to use a term from Western philosophy of language) your goal in your own works?

XB: That’s correct. No matter what outer form my works take, they are all linked by a common thread, which is to construct some kind of obstacle to people’s habitual ways of thinking—what I call the “cognitive structures” of the mind. These obstacles derive from intentionally mixing up different received concepts to create a sense of estrangement and unfamiliarity. People construct concepts based on their familiarity with particular phenomena: thus concepts are really just the product of cognitive habits. It’s convenient to use fixed symbols to communicate and to act according to certain concepts. You could say that so-called intellectuals are just composites of a multitude of symbols and concepts. It is just those people with the strongest cultural concepts who have been most discomfited by my work, and as a result the most affected by it. This discomfiture and inability to grasp the situation force you to reorganize and readjust your preconceived notions. Habitual ways of thinking are disrupted in the process of seeking a new basis for interpretation and understanding. The laziness of habitual thinking is challenged, and the result is the opening up of a wider, untapped cognitive space in which to rediscover long-forgotten, primary sources of cognition and understanding.

This approach is related to a kind of Zen training of the mind to receive enlightenment. The Zen term for it is koan [in Chinese gong’an, meditation theme], a dialogue in which an answer is given that defies logic. One famous koan has the student asking, “What is Buddha?” The Zen master replies, “Three bushels of hemp.” In pondering how the Buddha can possibly be “three bushels of hemp,” the student’s thought processes fall into a great empty space, without any kind of support or foundation. Then one day he breaks through to enlightenment with the realization that the essence of Buddha exists in every moment and every aspect of life. The Zen approach to enlightenment forces you to open up your mind in the midst of something that completely goes against logic and common sense—in this way one achieves wisdom.

Book from the Sky, 1987–91. Hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls, and false character blocks, installation view. Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

GH: The process of making Book from the Sky seems repetitive in a way that suggests a meditative or Buddhist approach. Is that accurate in regard to your experience of making the work?

XB: Creating Book from the Sky was a process of great seriousness and commitment. This attitude was necessary to the work, and it was also necessary to me psychologically. From the beginning, I was very clear about the importance of being completely serious, because when you take a pretense to the extreme, earnestly behaving as though it were real, then true absurdity emerges and the power of the art is enhanced. Simply speaking, Book from the Sky is a joke, a humorous gesture. But the idea of a person putting four years of intensive effort into constructing and completing a joke—this act in itself constitutes the substance of the piece. Here you have years of toil and the most intensive attention to detail going into the creation of “something that says nothing.” So this work is also a contradiction: in deconstructing and satirizing culture, it also positions culture as something to be taken very seriously.

My personal need to create the work was also related to a particular cultural condition and moment, prompted in the first place by my reaction against the post-Cultural Revolution “cultural fever” that I spoke of earlier. I participated very actively in this trend: I was reading a lot and constantly engaged in discussions, but somehow I was falling too deeply into it, getting lost in it. I was increasingly put off and disappointed by the game of books and culture, like a hungry man who had eaten too much too fast and was starting to feel sick. It was as though I was stuck in some kind of video game loop, just going around in circles without achieving anything. My mind was confused, and I felt like I had lost something. I thought, “I need to make my own book to express my feelings toward books. I need to stop this endless game and do a concrete piece of work. I need to return to a calm, undistracted state of mind.” And every day when I worked on those “meaningless” characters, it was like having a dialogue with nature. There was no intrusion of knowledge or of argument. My thinking in turn became clean and clear. This was not about creating a piece of art, but about entering the realm of meditation.

Original carved printing plate from Book from the Sky.

GH: How did your experience in a traditional Chinese art school (focused on established models, drawing, and printmaking) lead you to works that focus on three-dimensional forms and ideas of language?

XB: You’re the first Westerner who has asked me this question, although in China people have often asked me about this. That’s because in Chinese art circles people know I have a very good foundation and understanding of traditional art and methodologies. My early works were very much built on that foundation, so when I began to incorporate more modern ideas and approaches, many people expressed regret because they felt I was taking a wrong direction. But for me that kind of change is natural. From 1984 to ’87 the intellectual climate in China was extremely active and vital, yet in those years I didn’t do any significant piece of work, because nothing I did felt right. Reading books and thinking about issues is one thing, but trying to make art is a different story. To me, creating art is the expression of one’s sensitivity toward the state of society and culture, which leads to a redefinition or re-creation of the existing methodologies. When society changes, thinking changes, and, naturally, art changes as well. One doesn’t have to think about issues of modernity or whatever. Traditional Chinese painting theory expresses the idea that “the style of the ink-and-brush should change with the times.”

As a result of my study of printmaking, I became fascinated with the concept of repetition. This was the subject of my master’s thesis [at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing], and I also did a series of works based on the concept of repetition, which became the precursor to Book from the Sky. In fact, the visual impact of Book from the Sky is very much related to the repetitive quality of the printing process. Another major factor that influenced the change in my artistic direction in the mid-1980s was an exhibition of North Korean painting shown in Beijing. Most of the works were in the style of Socialist Realism, all bright flowers and smiling faces looking up at the Great Leader. Those works were like a mirror clearly reflecting what our own artistic environment in China had become. It was an opportunity to experience the realization that this art was a lot less intelligent than the eyes that were looking at it. I knew that I had to walk away from that kind of art and do something new, my own kind of art. But what shape this new art might take I didn’t know. In China at that time there were no clear signs for someone who wanted to do contemporary art. Thinking about it now, I feel that the state I experienced of having left one place but not yet knowing the next destination was actually a pretty good situation to be in. That unclear, uncertain terrain has become a space where my art can grow and develop.

Carved cherry blocks racked for printing.

GH: Book from the Sky gave at least some viewers the impression that it was political commentary. Does this political interpretation distort your original intention, and has your own idea of the work evolved in relation to its reception by the public and by official institutions in China?

XB: Since the first exhibition of Book from the Sky [in Beijing] in 1988 there have been a number of interpretations, and they tend to vary according to the times. Before the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, most readings of the work were positive: the general thinking was that the appearance of Book from the Sky was a sign that Chinese artists were finally beginning to produce modern art that would allow for a dialogue with the West. But after Tiananmen, the work became the focus of criticism. It was denounced as being “the prime example of the 10 wrong tendencies in new art.”

When Book from the Sky was first shown in the West [in 1991] most interpretations were also from a political standpoint, but later there was more focus on social, cultural, linguistic, and philosophical implications. As an artist, I don’t usually think about political factors when I create a work; I am focused on more concrete issues—the methodology I plan to use, what techniques will work best. But at the same time I believe that since Chinese society is such a politically charged environment, and since I grew up in that environment, it is unavoidable that political elements will emerge in my work.

Translated from Xu Bing’s original text by Valerie. C. Doran.

Glenn Harper is the editor of Sculpture.