Into the Dark Sings the Nightingale: The Work of Xu Bing

Laurel Reuter 

Xu Bing Series Exhibition 1. Exhibition brochure (Grand Forks: North Dakota Museum of Art)


I heard a nightingale calling across the hills of the Buddhist caves in the countryside outside Beijing. It was a bird, certainly, but unlike any I had heard before. Clear, musical, isolated among all others, it lodged in my memory. My Chinese companion noted that the nightingale is recognized for the varied, melodious singing of the male, especially at night. Years later I came upon the work of Xu Bing, also of Beijing, and found it singularly haunting in that remembered way.

Born in 1954, Xu Bing was destined to become an educated man. That education lies at the core of his life for his is an erudite art steeped in learning and awash with history.

His mother was a secretary and his father the head of the department of history at Beijing University — one of china’s most prestigious liberal arts institutions. His parents sent him to the campus school. Fortunate child. His teachers were the finest — college professors with unacceptable political beliefs demoted to teaching youngsters. When the Cultural Revolution came, Xu Bing’s family suffered as all educated families suffered. He, a teenager, was sent to the country to work among the peasants. Here he discovered his resilience, a quality that would carry him through other times of ridicule and isolation. He found he like rural life. In the evenings he began to sketch the people and the landscape around him.

Years later, when politics dictated another historical turn, Xu Bing became a student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts — China’s most prestigious art school. For his master’s thesis he created Five Series of Repetitions in which he explored both the process of wood block printing and his experience of the landscape during his enforced stay in the countryside. The natural order of the fields and the tadpoles in their ponds assumes a quiet, formal importance through the old and simple art of wood block printing. Xu Bing the scholar carefully documents his steps, printing each stage with lush black ink as he cuts away the wood block, which he then mounts beside the earlier repetition on a continuous scroll of rice paper. The work is both formal and beautiful, far more poised than that of the usual art school student. Xu Bing graduated in 1987, already deep into the work that was to push him into the international spotlight. Five Series of Repetitions harbors the promise of what ws to come.

Exposed to the ideas of contemporary western art but rigorously trained in the history and practice of traditional Chinese art, Xu Bing deliberately set out to mesh the two in his next work, A Book from the Sky. This time his isolation was self-imposed. For three years he worked away at creating a new Chinese written language — at least, it was to appear to be a Chinese language. In everyday communication a person uses approximately 4,000 Chinese characters. Xu Bing decided to invent a meaningless language composed of 4,000 characters. Chinese children study the art of calligraphy the way western children study the piano. So with the rudimentary knowledge of calligraphy possessed by an education child, but the sure hand of an artist, he began to create his characters. By combining actual components of characters, or radicals, with other actual radicals, Xu Bing systemically rearranged the Chinese language into an indecipherable mass of non-referential characters. Then again savoring his solitude, he spent the next year carving his new characters into wood blocks.

As the culture of the North American Indian has traditionally been handed down through the oral tradition, the Chinese culture is completely intertwined with written language. So Xu Bing decided to solidify his non-referential language in the three most important written forms of Chines: the book the religious scroll, and the wall-mounted newspaper.

Working with master craftsmen, he made 400 books, traditionally formatted at 18 x 12 inches, four volumes to a set. He printed them with dense black ink on rice paper in the usual size of important works of classical literature. Then he bound them with the indigo covers and string bindings of ancient China. Finally, he returned to the Hebei village, the area of his sojourn during the Cultural Revolution, and commissioned a master craftsman to build 100 classic wood storage boxes, again following the time-honored custom for storing consequential sets of books. Next he printed sutras on 70-foot scrolls and 10-foot long, wall-mounted hangings that suggest the traditional newspapers of China, which are posted daily on urban walls to be read by those who live in the neighborhood.

Xu Bing is a master at museum installation. He installs A Book from the Sky to encompass the viewer. He came to North Dakota two months before the exhibition was to open and spent hours studying the space. He then asked that the light into the gallery be blocked and the 18-foot walls painted black to create a darkened womb-like space. He lined the walls with the newspaper hangings. Xu Bing opened the books to flow like waves across the floor with the sutras swooping gracefully overhead.

Xu Bing’s installation of A Book from the Sky is always perfectly aligned, formally ordered. All is black and white and utterly serene. The only contrast in color comes from the indigo covers of a few closed books and the natural finish of their corresponding boxes neatly arranged in a section of their own. As in the earlier Five Series of Repetitions, there is no central focus. The eye travels incessantly over thousands and thousands of dark, elegant characters meticulously printed on white rice paper. However, for those who read the Chinese language the experience is far different.

A Book from the Sky seduces the Chinese viewer, like all viewers, into the heart of the work. Only when surrounded by Xu Bing's exquisitely crafted, elegantly composed creation does the viewer make the unsettling discovery that not a character, a word, or an idea make lexical sense — but one. Xu Bing wanted the volumes and pages to have perceivable order and so he enlisted the numbers one through ten that are used to vote in local Chinese elections. He altered them slightly in keeping with the work as a whole but left them recognizable to the Chinese. This aspect of the work might lead one to speculate that an underlying theme of the work is that all of the sometimes venerated and ancient Chinese culture based upon written language is meaningless if one cannot vote.

A Book from the Sky opened at the China Art Gallery in Beijing in October 1988. It was Xu Bing's first solo exhibition in China's most influential center for the exhibition of contemporary art. Critics and audience alike hailed it as the most significant work to come out of China's New Wave movement that had sprung up in 1985. Here was a work both local and universal that brilliantly bridged historical Chinese art and the contemporary art world. Here was masterful printmaking on a grand scale. Here was political work of the most ambiguous yet suggestive kind. Xu Bing was an artist of the first order.

Xu Bing originally entitled A Book from the Sky, The Mirror of the World-An Analyzed Reflection of the End of This Century (Xi shi jian — shiji mo zhuan) or, literally, An Analyzed Reflection of the World — The Final Volume of the Century. An alternative translation would be An Analyzed Warning to the World."

Although times were seemingly good in his country, Xu Bing felt deep pessimism about the state of the world as it entered the final decade of the twentieth century, especially in China. In the end he chose the least revealing title for the work leaving interpretation not in the title but within the work itself.

Xu Bing again installed A Book from the Sky at the same gallery in February 1989 as part of the long planned privately-organized avant-garde Contemporary Chinese Art Exhibition. Again the critics applauded the artist's achievement. It seemed that a new day had dawned for Chinese artists. They could make serious art, significant within an international context, and they could show it in their own country. They could question political life. They could take personal positions and make personal art. What heady days those were. Yet almost immediately authorities closed the show in response to a gun fired as part of a performance piece. The exhibition was allowed to open several days later but then permanently closed shortly after, most likely at the orders of the Ministry of Culture. China had reverted to its old ways.

Two days before the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the journalist Yang Chengy vilified A Book from the Sky in the Wenyi newspaper, an arm of the Ministry of Culture.

. . . I always have felt that when people do something, they cannot follow their subjective desires alone without taking objective laws into consideration. I always have felt that when people do something they must have a clear goal for themselves, for others, for the people, for all mankind — to have no purpose at all is absurd and dissolute. If I am asked to reviewuate A Book from the Sky, I can only say that it gathers the formalistic, abstract, subjective, irrational, anti-art, anti-traditional . . . qualities of the New Wave of Fine Arts, and pushes the Chinese New Wave towards a ridiculous impasse. I am reminded of a Chinese idiom, 'ghosts pounding the wall.' In the past a traveler was walking in the midst of a dark night. When he lost his sense of direction and lost all reference points upon which he could rely to judge where he was he spent the rest of the night walking in circles in the same spot. It was as if a ghost had built an invisible wall, making it impossible for the traveler to leave its confines. Can't we say that [The Book from the Sky] as well as the above-mentioned 'non-expressive art' is the phenomenon of 'ghosts pounding the wall' in human thinking, activity, and artistic creativity.

Even though the above introduction to the creative production of the Chinese New Wave of Fine Arts is certainly far from comprehensive, still, this sketchy description brings to me a deep understanding that the essence of the Chinese New Wave of Fine Arts is to oppose the laws of art and to oppose society.

Xu Bing responded taking the title for his next work from that official. He decided that he would create the largest, most meaningless work of art he could envision about what he considered the most meaningless venture ever embarked upon by the human race. He would make a rubbing of the Great Wall of China and he would title it Ghosts Pounding the Wall.

He had been thinking about it for a long time, had even made a small rubbing at the Great Wall in 1986. At the time he was a student thwarted by a student's work; in 1990 he was teaching printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and felt ready to embark upon this gigantic work. He assembled a team of seven art students and eight peasants, and from May 18 until June 10,1990, he and his crew worked from dawn to dusk, rubbing the wall in three foot-square sections. Using bamboo scaffolding, forty-five feet in the air, the workers carefully numbered, according to Xu Bing's diagram, each of the 1,300 sheets it eventually took to complete the rubbing. Xu Bing had to be able to reassemble them in proper order when he came to the mounting stage.

Shortly after the disaster erupted in Tiananmen Square and as the political situation became tense for China's vanguard artists, the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin invited Xu Bing to serve as an honorary fellow. Xu Bing came to America on a five-year student visa. At Wisconsin Xu Bing found support to finish Ghosts Pounding the Wall. The director of the Elvehjem Museum of Art invited him to exhibit and found funds for him to mount the gigantic work. The museum rented an empty warehouse, and for four months, once again from early morning until into the night, Xu Bing embarked upon the ancient and traditional process of mounting Chinese works on paper. Using hand-made wheat paste, he carefully adhered the thin rice paper rubbings to stronger paper scrolls that ranged from 45 to 100 feet long. He carefully placed each delicate, and sometimes torn, rubbing according to his plan devised at the Wall. Repairs to the fragile rice paper, ripped in the process of rubbing crudely made bricks, had to be made as Xu Bing went along. There was no room for error in placement if the finished work was to correspond with an actual section of the Great Wall.

Finally Ghosts Pounding the Wall was ready for installation. Again, Xu Bing controlled every controllable aspect at both the museums where the work has been seen: the Elvehjem Museum of Art (December 1991 through mid-January 1992) and at the North Dakota Museum of Art in the summer of 1992. The sheer scale of this work is overwhelming. The sides of the walls extend 40 feet upwards on both the left and the right (or as high as the museum walls allow). The walkway, over a hundred feet long, comes flowing down the center from the ceiling to the floor, its steps finally subsumed by a mound of black soil. Atop the mound is a rock anchoring folded sheets of rubbings to suggest the Chinese burial mound and prayers scribbled on bits of paper and left under sacred rocks for the gods. The Great Wall of China is finally consumed by death, represented by the burial mound. Most of all, however, the viewer is awe-struck by the idea of walking into a space surrounded by a life-size rubbing of the Great Wall of China.

Xu Bing's work succeeds on many levels. It pushes the genteel art of printmaking to a scale that is hitherto unknown in both the western and the eastern world. Has any artist anywhere created installation works this complicated on this grand scale through the printmaking process? Likewise, the tradition of rubbing demands that the object being rubbed be worthy. Most often it is of precious materials, or at least fine stone, and always it has been executed with great craftsmanship. If not, the object is unworthy of the considerable skill that the eastern culture demands of a rubbing. Here Xu Bing had peasants and untrained students rubbing a rough, brick wall. Instead of being small and precious, the wall was a gigantic folly, long ago fallen into ruins. The basest of human instincts, to protect one's civilization by walling out the rest of the world, led to this unbelievable expenditure of human life — remarkable in modern times as the only human creation visible from the moon.

Xu Bing maintains that his art is equally meaningless. Again I remember the nightingale calling across the hills of the Buddhist caves in the countryside outside Beijing. I wonder, does that solitary nightingale sing a song without meaning? The listening human assigns no content to that wondrous sound, recognizing that the nightingale sings because it must — for his is a mating song, a song of survival. Xu Bing counters his own despair with, "Work alone may be what makes human existence worthwhile, what civilizes. When I am working I am happy; when I have finished the work, I am not."

There is also much to be said for the accumulation of labor, the repetition of simple acts, over and over, for years even, that give both an authority and a reservoir of meaning to Xu Bing's art that would be difficult to achieve with the quick execution usual to western artists. (pp. 1-3)