Grieving Mr. Pei — As they leave us one by one, what to do with this chaotic world?
Mr. Pei’s home. Photograph by Patty Tang when Xu Bing visited them in October 2018.
A friend’s text message struck me at midnight, “We were just talking about Mr. I. M. Pei yesterday. And this morning the news said that Mr. Pei has passed away at age 102. How sad… [sob][sob]” There seems to be some sort of extrasensory perception — as we thought of him, he left us. Derrida, Eco, Okwui, Verda, and now Mr. Pei… It came to me that the best people of the generation who powered through the last century and entered the new century are leaving us one after another… how shall we deal with this chaotic world that they left behind?
Mr. Pei in front of Xu Bing’s Background Story 3, 2006, at the inaugural exhibition of Suzhou Museum. Inspired by Gong Xian’s Shan Shui Tu, the installation “recreates” this classical painting with dried plants, threads, paper, and various debris.
Mr. Pei and I are “friends despite difference in age” as the Chinese saying goes. “We met too late,” he once told me. He said so because we met as I was involved in his Suzhou Museum project and the new Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. project, two of Mr. Pei’s last works.
Maybe it was because I did a fair job for Suzhou Museum’s art initiative; after the inaugural exhibition there, Mr. Pei invited me to his studio in New York. He introduced to me the work-in-progress project of the new Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. This time, he was not only considering the architecture itself but also the cultural taste of the building once it’s used. He was concerned that the new building might be filled with stereotypical Chinese objects like crafts carved with dragons and traditional colorful lanterns, so he wanted to choose an international Chinese contemporary artist to participate in the artistic aspect. He said, “[The design for] the space of the building is almost done, but it feels too ‘hard’ to me. Can you make something to balance the space?” Maybe he had seen some of my installations that harmonize with the air. He went on while drawing with a pen: “For example, the space above the rotary stairs and the top sky window.” This building integrates the upward-lifting square sky window (or “sky chimney” — there seems to be no existing term to describe his invention) that he liked to use in his late works. After he concisely explained his intention, Mr. Pei said, “OK, I shall not speak too much. The rest is up to your brain, your work.” Just as he has been known for, he was skilled at communication, energizing people around him. You feel that you are an integral part of the project; you are important.
After discussing work we started to chat about other things. In fact, while I was involved in Mr. Pei’s Chinese Embassy project, I was also installing an artwork for the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing (the artwork Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is still on view at the visa section of the U.S. Embassy today). I joked with Mr. Pei that Chinese people gave such a nice, flat and vast land in Beijing to the U.S. Embassy but American people gave us an awkward hill for the Chinese Embassy. Mr. Pei smiled with crescent eyes, as if he was giving away a secret: “Don’t worry, my architecture has adjusted the feng shui of the land.” Just like that, he always surprised you with colorful thoughts and pearls of wisdom.
Xu Bing, Purple Breeze Comes From the East, 2008. Created for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. upon Mr. Pei’s invitation.
For this space, I eventually created a “breeze” made of ancient pictographic characters about weather. The “breeze” appears like it’s about to fly out of the “sky chimney,” or fly in from outer space. It is titled Purple Breeze Comes From the East — what a good omen. Yet, for some unexplained reasons, this art piece almost couldn’t appear there. For this end, Mr. Pei wrote a letter to the then Premier Wen and the art piece was able to stay. It can be seen how Mr. Pei throws in all he can to accomplish a project at its full.
I started to have more contact with Mr. Pei after he closed his architecture studio. One reason is that I was involved in trying to organize a major retrospective solo show at his 100th birthday (unlike other international starchitects today, Mr. Pei has never had a full-scale retrospective.) Unfortunately, this wish has not yet to be fulfilled. It is due to my limited capabilities and the complexity of this type of retrospective exhibition. And of course, another major difficulty is that his past architectural models have rarely survived, as if for his entire life all he cared about was working passionately, pursuing the essence of architectural studies, and overcoming conventions and prejudice.
October 2018, Xu Bing visited Mr. Pei in his New York home
The second reason is that I once asked Ms. Patty Tang, Mr. Pei’s family, about his health condition and Ms. Tang replied, “His mind is not as clear as it used to be. I hope you can visit him more often because whenever he sees someone he likes, his mind and mental state get much better.” Ever since then, whenever I came to New York, I tried to spend some time visiting him.
At first, he was always sitting in the living room welcoming us in a clean, well-ironed white shirt. Later, the guests would arrive first and his caregiver would take him out in a wheelchair, still in a clean white shirt. Every time we met, the first scene would be him raising one finger and calling my name in a Suzhou accent. At that moment, he was like a kid who answered a question correctly, innocent and cute. We were both happy.
Mr. Pei and Xu Bing
The first time I visited him in his home, he said something casually but I could never forget. Untill this day, I still think about it constantly. He said, “I’m too lazy to use my brain now.” Such a master of architecture, spending almost a century studying, thinking, and creating. With his intelligent mind, he has essentially integrated and presented new architectural concepts and different cultures, promoting human civilization. Even when he was over 100 years old, he still went to the office on time and never stopped thinking and working. I can feel the deep meaning behind what he said in his later years. As he once revealed in an interview when he was 92:
“I chose a path as such and enjoyed it. I like to learn about a new place and study histories from different places. I learned to appreciate different cultures, traditions and histories of different places. For me, this is architectural studies. I don’t have much expectation for the future for obvious reasons — don’t forget that I’m already 92. I should not feel sad about anything because I cannot do any more better. People have to know what to do at what time, and what to let go at what time. And I start to feel that I shouldn’t continue doing it and this is what’s sad about it. However, the good thing is that I think I’ve done my best, I’ve done a lot. That’s enough. I’m satisfied.”
Mr. Pei, now you can truly relax your brain and rest in peace. But with the legacy you left us, our later generation will never stop thinking and creating in your honor.
May 19th, 2019