Evolving Meanings in Xu Bing's Art: A Case Study of Transference

Britta Erickson

"Chinese Type" Contemporary Art Online Magazine, vol. 1, issue 4 

May 1998

In the past several years, Xu Bing has achieved recognition for his contributions to the international avant-garde. Seven years ago, I wrote the catalog for his first solo exhibition outside East Asia, held at the Elvehjem Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin. At that time I noted Xu's preoccupation with exploring the limits of print making, and with incorporating the process of making prints as a subject in his works. Since then, the process of creation has become a dominant subject of his work, and his interest in process has expanded beyond the work of art per se, to the process of interpretation that follows the work's exhibition. Xu now exhibits in both East Asia and the West, and his works' interpretive developments vary widely between the two hemispheres. At times he deliberately provokes disparate readings of his art, by combining powerful cultural icons with emotionally laden issues, and then fueling the process of interpretation that follows the creation of each piece. Two works exemplify this: first, an installation entitled A Book From the Sky (Tian shu), and second, a performance piece, A Case Study of Transference (Chinese title: Wenhua dongwu [Animals of culture]).

Xu Bing began his best known work, A Book From the Sky, after graduating from the Central Academy of Arts in Beijing. It is this piece that made it obvious to him that art can evoke dissimilar responses if it addresses pregnant issues. The sensitive themes confronted here are the value of traditional culture in a modern society, the reliability of knowledge, and the futility of existence. A Book from the Sky is an installation consisting of an arrangement of books, scrolls, and large printed sheets of paper typeset from thousands of small wooden blocks, into each of which Xu had carved an imaginary Chinese character. In all, Xu carved between three and four thousand invented characters, to approximate the number of Chinese characters in frequent use. He then had these new characters typeset and printed, and the printed pages bound or mounted into books, scrolls and large sheets. With A Book from the Sky, Xu had deconstructed the written word, negating the basis of Chinese culture while simultaneously constructing a solemn, dignified world where the familiar is invalidated. The pessimism expressed in A Book from the Sky exceeds even the denial of Chinese culture, propounding the futility of all human endeavor as represented by Xu's expenditure of three years of laborious effort to create a superficially meaningless series of books, scrolls, and posters.

Until its exhibition, Xu Bing can have had no idea quite how passionate the reactions to A Book from the Sky would be, or how widely varying. When it was first shown publicly, in Xu Bing's solo exhibition at the China Art Gallery, Beijing in 1988, it drew immediate attention. Beijing artistic circles lauded it as a major work of the New Wave art movement, deserving recognition for its quality of workmanship, the dedication involved in its creation and, most of all, for the serious concepts it embodied. As one reviewer said, "The October 1988 Exhibition of Prints by Xu Bing [in which A Book from the Sky was exhibited] shook artistic circles . . . . You could say the Exhibition of Prints by Xu Bing is the outward sign of the real emergence of Chinese modernism . . . . It . . . is the turning point of New Wave art" (Chen Weihe, "Lun Xu Bing ji qi 'Tian shu'" [Discussing Xu Bing and his Book from the Sky], Intellectuals, no. 1, 1990, p. 81). According to another, "Xu Bing's new work, [A Book from the Sky], should be seen as one of the most important modern works of art of the 'New Wave of Fine Arts' since 1985" (Yin Ji'nan, "Xu Bing banhua zhan" [Xu Bing prints exhibition] [Taipei: Lung Men Art Gallery, 1990], p. 7). When a group of New Wave theorists organized the Contemporary Chinese Art Exhibition at the China Art Gallery in February 1989, they took A Book from the Sky for a centerpiece.

A little more than a year later, Wenyi bao published an article criticizing A Book from the Sky as the embodiment of all the bourgeois liberal tendencies of the New Wave movement (Yang Chengyin, "'Xinchao' meishu lungang" [An appraisal of the "New Wave" art movement's principles], Wenyi bao, June 2, p. 5). It further stated that A Book from the Sky represents the "phenomenon of 'ghosts pounding the wall (gui da qiang)' in human thinking, activity, and artistic creativity." The phrase, "ghosts pounding the wall," referred to a story about a traveler walking in the dark, thinking he was covering a great distance but actually walking in circles, as if enclosed within a ghostly circular wall. This reading of A Book from the Sky was the polar opposite of the artistic community's reading. The extreme disparity possible between different interpretations of a single work of art was thus made exceedingly clear to Xu Bing: it is around this time that Xu first saw the potential for extracting multiple readings from his works. Xu's move to the United States provided a change of venue and a markedly different audience. This situation almost inevitably produced a new set of interpretations, which the artist encouraged.

Transferring the debate concerning Xu Bing's works to the West has altered the works' meanings in ways he could not have predicted. With A Book from the Sky, the Western audience did not expect to be able to read the invented characters, and therefore missed the central experience of the Chinese audience, the frustrated impulse to read. For Western viewers, the installation's austere beauty and the amount of painstaking labor it involved assumed primacy. A Book from the Sky achieved added significance in the West as the embodiment of the immigration of some of China's most creative young people to the West.

It is impossible to pinpoint the place and moment at which new interpretations for a work of art are derived. Xu Bing himself is never certain what his works' ultimate meanings will be, and he seems to accept that defining meaning can be the prerogative of both artist and audience. Furthermore, meaning is not inherent in the work of art: it is transformed as the work travels through time and space; and the more open the work of art is, the more the reactive imprint of the artist or audience dominates its meaning.

With the performance piece, A Case Study of Transference, Xu Bing deliberately combined powerful cultural icons with emotionally laden issues, and left the interpretation open. The cultural icons-books, and the printed word itself-already are bound up in layers of meaning, and the emotional issues-the relationship between humankind and nature, and sex-are ones to which people react differently. A Case Study of Transference illustrates with clarity how, after assembling a group of pregnant symbols (here, nature, culture, and sex), Xu Bing allows them to interact without over-orchestration, and encourages and accepts the interpretations subsequently accumulating around the work. For this piece (originally presented at the Han Mo Arts Center, Beijing; January 22, 1994), Xu selected a male and female pig, and printed the boar with nonsensical strings of letters from the Roman alphabet, the sow with the illegible characters he had created for A Book from the Sky. He then placed the pigs in an enclosure strewn with books in different languages, with the intention that they should mate. A video of the event, also entitled A Case Study of Transference, documents the process leading up to the performance, including the surprising difficulty of obtaining two pigs who would be likely to mate, and the work involved in printing on pigs. (A Case Study of Transference, New York, July 1994. Video: Ma Yingli and Ai Weiwei; translation: Kris Torgeson.) In addition, the video records the event itself and concurrent and subsequent reactions and comments.

Performance art can be unpredictable but with pigs as performers, chance played a major role in the event. With A Case Study of Transference, Xu Bing demonstrated his willingness to take advantage of unforeseen developments. While Xu hoped that A Case Study of Transference would engender such interpretations as "nature is a greater force than culture/culture is irrelevant to nature" (if the pigs mated without regard to the books underfoot or the printing on their backs), he realized that the pigs might not cooperate. In fact, the pigs did their part with aplomb, but unforeseen reactions of the crowd viewing the event provided unexpected additional interpretations that Xu Bing finds particularly interesting. The audience was nervous and embarrassed to be witnessing two animals mating, suggesting the distance culture has placed between humankind and nature. According to Xu Bing, A Case Study of Transference made people contemplate what it means to be human: after all, "people and pigs are completely the same, except culture has changed people" (October 1994 conversation with Xu Bing). Xu's interest in the piece now has largely been redirected towards questions of what it is to be human.

Ironically, when Xu Bing chose the title, A Case Study of Transference, for that performance, he had in mind transference between cultures and had no notion of the psychoanalytic aspect of the word, transference. The title became particularly appropriate when the audience of A Case Study of Transference transferred its feelings concerning sex and a desire for privacy onto the pigs, the ubiquitous emotional reaction becoming part of the performance. Only after accepting this mass transference as part of the performance did Xu shift his attention to reading A Case Study of Transference in terms of how culture has altered humankind.

Following the performance, Xu Bing directed the "spin" of subsequent interpretations through his selection of comments and quotations to be printed in large subtitles on the video. Two subtitles encourage considering the performance in terms of the interaction between Chinese and Western culture, a point of view that Xu intended from the work's conception, and that still seems relevant to him. Early in the video, Xu Bing notes that the pigs are a new breed resulting from crossing the American York with the Chinese Changbai pig, so that the video audience will contemplate successful meetings of East and West (of which Xu Bing's art is a prime example). Later in the video, a Chinese person notices the eagerness of the sow, who was printed with characters resembling Chinese, to "perform" and jokingly remarks "Hey! I understand this work. It's saying that Asian art still has some stamina left." With the inclusion of this quotation in the video, Xu Bing suggested the cultural domination of China by the West. Also supporting the idea of the West's cultural hegemony are an early title that was later rejected, Adultery or Rape?, and the choice of the boar as the bearer of the nonsensical "English."

While change of venue added new interpretations to A Book from the Sky, it limited the interpretative possibilities for A Case Study of Transference. I had written an article concerning this piece for the University of Chicago journal, Public Culture, but it was canceled while in the production stages because I included the quotation, "Hey! I understand this work. It's saying that Asian art still has some stamina left." Following lengthy debate, the editorial board finally decided that they could not publish comments suggesting the weakness of Chinese culture, even though those comments were made in jest by a Chinese person, and had been specifically selected by the Chinese artist to constitute part of the work of art. Xu Bing wished to provoke discussion of a very real issue, the concern of people in China, as well as in other parts of Asia, that their modern culture has been dominated by Western culture, at the least being reactive to it. The Public Culture editors no doubt feared that publishing such a statement could be taken as endorsing the position that Asian art's stamina is doubtful. Ironically, by censoring the issue, they denied the culture they sought to protect an opportunity for strengthening debate.

Perhaps disingenuously, Xu Bing says at the end of the video of A Case Study of Transference that his original intention had been to free the pigs, but he found that the "pigs already bore the markings of mankind" even before he printed on them, and therefore had to remain in captivity. Xu Bing's statements regarding his plans for his works of art should not necessarily be taken at face value, but should instead be taken as part of his contribution to the work's interpretation. He toys with his works' meanings before, during, and after their creation, allowing their interpretive slants to evolve continually. The evolving meanings of Xu Bing's works are part of their fascination, both for him and for his audience. As members of Xu Bing's audience, we can enjoy contributing to the elaboration of his works' meanings, knowing that it is part of a process almost required by his works.