“The Art of Xu Bing,” The Seminar: A Conversation With Robert E. Harrist, Jr.

Robert E. Harrist Jr. is the Jane and Leopold Swergold Professor of Chinese Art History and Chairman of Chinese Art at Columbia University in New York City.  He is the author of The Embodied Image: Chinese Calligraphy from the John B. Elliot Collection (Art Museum at Princeton University 1999), Painting and Private Life in Eleventh-Century China: Mountain Villa by Li Gonglin (Princeton University Press 1998), and Power and Virtue: The Horse in Chinese Art (China Institute in America 1997).  Harrist received his Ph.D. in Chinese art and archaeology from Princeton University.  His research interests include Chinese painting, calligraphy, and gardens.  His most recent lectures and publications deal with the phenomenon of copies and replicas in Chinese art.  His most recent book, The Landscape of Words, studies the role of language in shaping perceptions of nature.  During 2006-2007 he was the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge University. 


In spring 2008, Harrist is teaching a new seminar titled: The Art of Xu Bing.  Faithful to its name, this course will explore the career and works of one artist, Xu Bing.  What follows is my conversation with Harrist on his ideas behind the course, Xu Bing’s work, and its power to make viewers reconsider the nature of art itself. 


LX:  A course entirely on Xu Bing!  Have you taught this kind of course before?

RH:  No, I have not.  In fact, this kind of course is rare in academe—that is, teaching a graduate seminar for M.A. and Ph.D. students on a living artist.

LX:  What is the structure of the course?

RH:  We meet once a week.  For the first few weeks, I have invited critics and leading scholars on Xu Bing to speak, including Britta Erickson, Jonathan Goodman, France Pepper, Melissa Chiu (Director of Asia Society Museum), Rosalind Krauss, University Professor at Columbia, whose recent interest in Xu Bing interrogates the concept of “medium” in his work, and professor Lydia Liu (刘禾), a cultural critic and also a member of the Columbia faculty. 

LX:  With which image did you begin the course?

RH:  I began with one of the panels from “Background Story” (“背后的故事”) in Berlin.  I wanted the students to describe what they saw.  Articulating the visual features in a work of art is the first step in any analysis, and you cannot analyze what you cannot describe.  The act of describing the work is, in a way, the act of learning to see: the act of finding verbal parallels for visual experience is a way of giving structure to that experience.  It is surprisingly difficult to provide a clear, simple account of an image such as one of the “Background Story” (“背后的故事”) panels.  Try it and you’ll see what I mean. 

LX:  This seminar has brought together students from such diverse academic backgrounds, from Chinese Art to Contemporary African Art, Modern Art, and Chinese Literature.  Why do you think students, especially students from such different disciplines, are drawn to Xu Bing’s work?

RH:  Again and again, there is something in Xu Bing’s art that leads you into deep contemplation of the nature of art itself, the nature of language, and how the mind works. 

LX:  Can you talk a little more about this?

RH:  Take “Background Story,” (“背后的故事”)  for example.  Here you have the replicated paintings lost in WWII (第二次世界大战 ) (the image) made by placing behind a pane of frosted glass an assortment of material that you might call “junk” –twigs, crumpled paper, pieces of plastic, string, tape and so on.  This strange medium, which Xu Bing seems to have invented, creates the illusion of another medium—ink landscape painting—and all this is simultaneously bound up in the perception of this work.  But Xu Bing is like a magician who creates an illusion and then shows you how the trick is done: he sets up the installation of the “Background Story” (“背后的故事”)   so that the viewer goes behind the pane of glass t see the “junk” that is the actual source of the ethereal landscapes.  Even after the nature of the trick is revealed, however, the viewer’s response to the work remains suspended in the weird space between perception and knowledge.  The sense of ambiguity and of perceiving several thins at once are qualities that the “Background Story” (“背后的故事”)  makes you think about, and when you do, you realize these are essential qualities of all works of art.

LX:  You say that the “junk” is transformed into a medium that creates the illusion of another medium—ink painting.  And you understand this when you look behind the glass, as Xu Bing intends.  But why does this discovery not put a stop to ambiguity in the work, do you think? 

RH:  Well, these transformations are never complete because you, as the viewer, are constantly confronting multiple signals that the works send out.  Take “Book from the Sky” (“天书”) for example.  At first glance, the characters look like Chinese, but we then discover they are nonsense.  But for anyone literate in Chinese, this discovery doesn’t make the invented characters stop looking familiar.  This is in part because Xu Bin followed the rules of orthography, placing the radicals in the right places, and this lures the mind to the brink of deciphering the characters and then shuts it all down.  Xu Bing realized, I think, that once a person is literate, it’s impossible to turn off this ability—we just keep trying to find meaning in anything that looks like writing.  In “Square Word Calligraphy” (“英文方块字”) it’s the other way around: even after you realize the strokes form English letters and words, they continue to look like Chinese.  There is a transformation—of signs that seem to belong to one writing system into signs of another system—but our perception of them keeps flipping back and forth.

LX:  From your syllabus I see that you’re planning a studio visit.  The students will likely have all sorts of questions for Xu Bing.  Are there questions you’d like to ask Xu Bing also? 

RH:  Yes.  First of all, Xu Bing is probably the most interviewed person in the world, but the patience he maintains with students astounds me.  My own question will be about pedagogy, since Xu Bing is how helping set the course of the most important art school in China: what does a young kid in China today need t learn to be an artist?  What is the curriculum in the Central Academy today? 

LX:  In this light do you plan to, in this course, situate Xu Bing in the context of the contemporary art world, in turn, the world of contemporary Chinese Art?

RH:  There is a huge discourse surrounding the inflated art market, the hype of Chinese Art related to China’s growing political power . . . frankly, I’m not very interested in this.  Xu Bing’s art brings you back to fundamental issues: how the mind engages an image, how an image relates to the medium from which it is created, how language works, and so on.  But Xu Bing’s work is not a dry intellectual experience, it is also the sheer beauty of the work that is thrilling. 

LX:  Yes.  For me there is a universality and openness about Xu Bing’s work that I respond to.

RH:  I think Xu Bing’s art is Olympian, classical, and the work remains detached, in a way, he doesn’t try to portray or impose his own experiences onto the viewer.  There is something very cool and serene in the work.  But perhaps the less an artist says of himself the more he ultimately reveals of his mind.  What we really see is Xu Bing’s mind at work, and that’s among the most exciting spectacles in the world of contemporary art. 


                                                               Lynn Xu, Feb 2008



Lynn Xu (徐载宇) is a poet and editor of Canarium Books.  She also works as an archivist at Xu Bing Studio.  Her poems have appeared in 6x6, Eoagh, War & Peace and are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2008.