Xu Bing: Rewriting Culture

Alice Yang

Why Asia? Contemporary Asian and Asian American Artists (New York: New York University Press)


In the continual trauma that is "modernity," the question that returns to haunt the Chinese intellectual is that of the continuity and (re) production if Chinese Culture…How is culture-in ruins-to be passed on, by whom, and with what means.

The twentieth century has been a period of turbulent, cataclysmic change in China. The effort to transform the country from a crippled empire into a modern nation has involved painful and often disruptive political and social adjustments. In their wake, Chinese culture has been left, to adopt the words of the critic Rey Chow, " in ruins." This is a culture whose consciousness has been besieged on many fronts. Although a source of pride, it has also been deemed inadequate to the demands of a modern society, opened to dispute and censure by every-fluctuating political agendas, as well as profoundly challenged by the dominance of the West.

The work of Xu Bing may be understood against this backdrop. Born in China in 1955 and a U.S. resident since 1990, Xu Bing has, for much of his career, addressed the tangled legacy of his cultural heritage. His work takes as its central organizing principle the structures of verbal language, beginning with that of the Chinese language. While doing so, however, Xu Bing has consistently subverted and undermined their communicative function. Xu Bing's is an art that simultaneously morns and embraces the loss of meaning and the instabilities if knowledge. In this way, he returns again and again to the tops of a culture in the brink between ruin and regeneration.

The seeds for these concerns first appeared in "A book from the sky" a monumental installation, which Xu Bing initially produced in Beijing in 1998 and for which he became recognized as leading member of avant-grade in China. An all-enveloping textual environment, "A Book from the Sky" is composed of massive sheets of Chinese characters, some left loose and some bound into books, which are suspended form the ceiling, pasted on the wall, and laid on the floor. Everything about "A book from the Sky" has the look of authenticity. Form its arrangement of headings and marginalia on the page to its string bindings and indigo covers, the work mimics in every detail the characteristics of traditional Chinese printing and book -making. While donning such a guise, however, "A book form the sky " is supremely inauthentic. Its characters are purely of the artist's invention and utterly without meaning. What is most unsetting perhaps is the way in which Xu Bing's characters approximate the real thing , for the artist has composed them from the variant parts that make up Chinese characters. In fact, Xu Bing's lexicon is derived from and authoritative Chinese dictionary, but subjected to a radically deconstructive bricolage . When it was initially shown in China, "A book from the sky" became the focus of instant acclaim and notoriety among artists and critics, provoking volumes of intense criticism. Some found the work a devastation critique of Chinese culture, a condemnation of its inutility and meaninglessness. Others viewed the work s a tribute to Chinese culture, a testament to the beauty and balance of its aesthetic structures as well as distillation of the tenets of Chan Buddhism founded on metaphysics of silence and paradox. The variety of opinions and the fervor of the discussions that greeted Xu Bing's work reflected the complex cultural conditions which gave rise to this ambitious project. In the eighties, with the demise of the Cultural Revolution and the onset of reform, China had entered into a new phase of critical introspection. The political policies of past years were opened to criticism, and the value of Marcist ideology itself reassessed. Chinese intellectuals feverishly argued over the solution to their country's problems, which were attributed not only to the disastrous effects of the Cultural Revolution but also to China's tardy or insufficient modernization. These discussions spread across different sectors, including artistic ones as well. Thus it was asked: What of the Chinese tradition should be discarded, utilized or reformed? What of the West should be adopted?

Regarded as an exemplary work of the period , Xu Bing 's " A book from the sky " became a focal point for all the debates that revolved around the possible avenues of national and cultural reconstruction, but what the works does, in its highly ambivalent way, is to highlight such struggles and still refuse the possibility of any simple closure. While it speaks in a national syntax, it disarticulates such syntax and renders it completely garbled. While it constructs a symbolic national text, it evacuates all meaning from such a crisis, which might be afforded by simple allegiance to culture and tradition. In "A book from the sky" , Language -a symbolic system fundamental to the integrity and perpetuation of a national culture -is endlessly reproduced but vitiated of andy functional value and thus made curiously unproductive.

With his latest work entitled Tsan Series, which was first shown in Boston in fall of 1995, Xu Bing returns to similar concerns with the aid of some rather unusual artistic means-silkworms, or in Chinese "Tsan" as invoked in the title of the piece. The Tsan Series is divided into two parts. In the first , Xu Bing attaches silk moths to various papers and books bound in Western and Chinese styles. Organized into neat rows, the moths lay tiny eggs which compose the dot-like matrix of a "text" across the page. During the first month or so of the work's exhibition , the eggs hatch and baby silkworms emerge, thus constituting an ever-evolving type. For the second part of the "Tsan Series, Xu Bing attaches silkworms as they reach maturity for spinning silk to an assortment of objects , including a newspaper, a book on natural science, and a computer, among other things. Settled into their new habitat, the silkworms begin to spin their silk, enshrouding the objects in a gossamer web. Presented in vitrines like carefully controlled science experiments, "Tsan Series" are per formative installation that evolves through time.

If "A Book from the Sky" highlights the fate of a moribund culture, then "Tsan Series" explores the possibilities of its re-propagation by presenting the inorganic. Natural reproduction and cultural production are here layered on top of one another so that they become structurally one. As Xu Bing explains, he was attracted to the way that silkworms work. Slowly weaving back and forth in graceful, undulating movements, the silkworms spit out and endless thread of silk until they exhaust themselves. As silkworms have long been harnessed for the creation of a human material culture, cultivated for over four millennia, the endless webs of silk spun in the "Tsan Series " become and embodiment of the persistence of culture itself .

As mush as the "Tsan Series " is about procreativity, however, so is to haunted by discontinuity. As the eggs hatch and the larvae roam across the page , text is simultaneously composed and decomposed. They leave a trace, but a trace that continually erases itself. The inevitable natural cycle from life to death is in full evidence in the "Tsan Series", where cocoons are littered about like death shrouds. Like Xu Bing's " A book from the Sky" His "Tsan Series" is a meditation on culture and knowledge, emphasizing here not so much the loss of meaning but the precariousness of its making. The threads of silk in the "Tsan Series" thus become a poignant metaphor for the fragile fabric from which a culture is woven, the spinning of silk an allegory for the tenuous process of its production and reproduction.

For all of its skepticism about the efficacy and endurance of culture, Xu Bing's work is in the end striking in its stubborn dedication. Each of his projects has required Herculean effort on the part of the artist. "A Book from the Sky" , for example, was the result of an intensive three-year period of labor, during which Xu Bing hand -carved the individual printing blocks for four thousand characters. The "Tsan Series" in an equally taxing way, necessitated the breeding of five thousand silkworms for months in the artist's studio. Both of these projects are a testimony to the artist's tenacity, which offers a counterpoint to the work's seeming pessimism. Thus Xu Bing asks us : Can a culture rewrite itself through its own erasure? Can it reconstruct itself through its own unraveling? (pp. 24-29)