A Dialogue With Chinese Artist Xu Bing

Taken from The Cornell Daily Sun
20 October, 2014
Danni Shen, Sun Contributor

During his most recent visit to Cornell University — on personal invitation from Prof. Tim Murray, comparative literature, who has worked extensively with the artist — contemporary artist Xu Bing gave a presentation on his most recent projects. Apart from dedicating his time to leading the forefront of art education in China, Xu Bing has worked as extensively abroad as domestically when it comes to his own practice, which engages education through creation. One of the artist’s recent works is Phoenix (feng huang):Two colossal structures constructed entirely out demolition debris and fragments from the daily lives of migrant laborers, gathered from construction sites in Beijing. At 12 tons, the male feng measures 90 feet long, while the female huang extends 100 feet in length, and both are internally illuminated with LED lights. First displayed at the Beijing Today Art Museum, then the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013, the two phoenixes are now suspended inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City through the end of the year.

Other works include Background Story, which now exists in nine editions, for which the artist and his team arranged natural materials behind a backlit screen, creating the frontal impression of traditional Chinese painting. In Missing Utopian Village, or Traveling to Wonderland (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) viewers are caught between two dimensions and three dimensions, at what Xu Bing calls the “two and a half dimension, where people want to get in, but cannot.” The stunning waterside installation is inspired by the ancient story of taohua yuan, in English: the Peach Blossom Spring, where residents live within a non-hierarchal village in the Han Dynasty lifestyle. The miniature utopia is created from rocks and bonsai from different areas in China, which correspond to different styles of Chinese landscape painting. Inside of the landscape there are also 200 crafted ceramic figurines. The Forest Project, a long ongoing development, is a self-sustaining system where the artwork created by students from primary schools around the world, in Sao Paolo, Kenya, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Shenzhen, are auctioned to fund the local planting of trees. Students engage in creating their own visual interpretations of trees using forms of writing from a variety of cultures and historical periods, from ancient Chinese pictographs, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Cuneiform script, Arabic, to English, et cetera. Lastly in mention, the artist’s Book from the Ground, 2003 and ongoing, is a pictogram-only narrative, told through icons, emojis and logos collected from all over the world. Like many of Xu Bing’s other works, it is a brilliant, thought-provoking transformation of language as imagery, imagery as language.

Before his talk at the Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium earlier this month, the Sun sat down with Xu Bing to discuss his thoughts on contemporary art.

Translated from dialogue in Chinese.

The Sun: Some say in the next century, the world will see a kind of Asian supremacy. I disagree in that first, Asia is 48 countries and that it seems the trajectory of Chinese history and its growth socio-economically, geo-politically has largely been in reaction or resistance to an ever-dominant Western cultural imperialism and global hegemony. You once wrote, “Our understanding of the value of our own culture has become deeper and more objective. The more we understand the West, the more we cherish our own culture. Our traditional culture, socialist culture and even Cultural Revolution and Maoism are valuable. Only if we are able to combine these traditions with the Western culture, can we create art of the future.” What exactly did you mean by this?

Xu Bing: The first part is correct, but I don’t agree with this last part about contemporary art [perhaps a translation error?]. Many people are saying that the next century is “Asia’s Century,” but I don’t think it should be said this way. The value of Asian traditional cultures and philosophies, in the past two hundred years, had no chance of receiving sufficient consideration… In the past one, two hundred years, civilization was developing industrially and technologically. In order to transform the world, natural energy and resources have been obtained to serve the survival of humankind right? Thus the cultural centers at that time were in Western Europe, in the United Kingdom; industrial civilization entered the information age, and then the commercial era in the United States. There are always stages in human development. One, two hundred years ago, human beings had to eat to survive and solve problems. Additionally, Asian culture is based on the traditional concept of tian ren he yi or unity, harmony of human society and the natural universe and respect for nature — culture in accordance with nature. So this type of thinking not only had no prominence within the morale of the past two hundred year development of advanced culture, but also existed as a kind of counter-culture. At that stage of civilization development, addressing human life, economic and wealth issues was the most critical. So at the time, to always say tian ren he yi — preserve nature — became reactionary. However, human civilization’s relationship with nature has become very tense in an urgency that has never been seen before. People are beginning to realize this is a problem and that people need to solve this problem. Then, this previously reactionary thinking just mentioned, this complacent kind of thinking today, has become avant-garde, or the most contemporary kind of thinking.

For example, when it comes to socialism and the Cultural Revolution, when it comes to reform and the opening up of China, within all of these lies enormous power. However, this power has been used towards very terrible things, such as the Cultural Revolution. Nonetheless, this has become a part of culture and constitutes a part of our traditional morphology. Culture, socialist ideology, the Cultural Revolution, reform and opening up, Western influence … this all our tradition. The critical question then becomes how you can utilize this tradition while seeing the internal flaws, as well as the experiences and lessons learned from the existence of its power.

On the idea of “contemporary;” this so-called “contemporary art” is a framework of Western-construct. There’s a tendency toward Western-worship in China, and Chinese people want to become a part of that framework, but we’ve never had the history, or experience to do this. So in this way, the development of “Chinese contemporary art” is very complex, more complex than in the West, but has a lot of possibility in that expansion. In China, contemporary artists have been looking into tradition in order to generate ideas, i.e. tian ren he yi. There is no opposition between the contemporary and the traditional. In their relationship, there is a transformation between the two, in that they flow into one another organically. The two merge into one; you are within me, I am within you.

This interview and Xu Bing’s visit was made possible by the generosity of Tim Murray, Director of the Society for the Humanities, Professor of Comparative Literature and English, and Curator of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Studies, and Renate Ferro, Professor of Digital Media and Theory.