Xu Bing: Where There Is Life, There Is Inspiration for Art


Xu Bing is regarded as one of the "four King Kongs" of contemporary Chinese art, for his ability to bridge cultural differences with his prize-winning works. Zhu Linyong reports.

With his long hair, black-rimmed glasses and big, bright eyes, artist Xu Bing looks like an aged Harry Potter.

"People always say so. Now, I am kind of buying into it," the artist says with a smile.

The 55-year-old's artistic magic has helped bridge cultures and change the way we look at cultural differences.

In 1999, Xu was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, in recognition of his "capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy".

Xu won the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2003; the first Wales International Visual Art Prize, Artes Mundi, in 2004; and the Southern Graphics Council of the United States awarded Xu its lifetime achievement award saying his "use of text, language and books has impacted the dialogue of the print and art worlds in significant ways".

People often ask Xu where he gets the ingenious ideas for his critically acclaimed art.

"My answer is: Good art usually begins with the artist's own life. Where there is life, there is inspiration for art," Xu explains in his spacious Beijing studio.

"Think outside the box. Do not dwell upon questions such as materials, genres, schools, or styles starting from the reality that you genuinely feel and are moved by, you will find infinite potential for artistic creation."

Currently serving as vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), the country's top institution for art education, Xu says he hopes to exert an influence on China's contemporary art which "has unlimited possibilities in the coming decade".

One of his latest efforts is a grand exhibition showcasing some 1,000 sketches by generations of teachers and students from the 50-year-old academy.

"With this exhibition, we try to instill into the minds of our students a key idea, that basic training classes such as sketching are extremely important for a career as a professional artist," Xu said at a recent opening ceremony for the exhibition at CAFA Art Museum, which runs through March 2.

"Seemingly simple and boring, sketch drawing not only lays a solid technical foundation for an art major's career but also for tempering their character, and turning them into sharp-eyed artists who work with meticulousness and precision."

This describes Xu perfectly.

"I often wish that I did not have to eat or sleep so that I could have enough time and energy to create my art and to perfect my skills," Xu says.

Before putting his hands on materials and tools, Xu usually does a lot of reading, researching, thinking and tons of draft-drawing for a new art project.

"The strength of a piece of art mainly comes from its depth," Xu explains, adding great artists should come up with new ways of thinking to contribute to society.

As a result, some of his works took years to complete, such as an early piece, Book from the Sky, and his latest Forest Project, while others run for years without an end, such as Book from the Earth.

Xu often finds great joy in the time-consuming and meticulous process of artistic creation.

In 1987, Xu, then an instructor at CAFA, retreated to his studio and spent a year and a half making woodblock prints with his unique pseudo-Chinese characters.

His first major conceptual work, Book from the Sky, deals with language and texts, instruments of both truth and delusion.

It contains swooping sutras, or historical banners, slung across the gallery ceiling, walls tacked full of contemporary Chinese newspaper-like texts, and a floor full of traditional, exquisitely hand-bound Chinese books.

They are printed with over 4,000 precisely hand carved Chinese characters that Xu made up himself.

Viewers first delighted in his craftsmanship, but then slowly realized the carefully wrought characters were meaningless.

The gigantic, hand-printed, multi-part work is considered by critics to be a complex meditation on written language, textual information and printed media.

And the landmark work instantly put Xu at the forefront of the avant-garde, New Wave artists of the 1980s, when it was shown at the National Fine Art Museum in Beijing in 1988.

Ever since, playing with language, words and characters, has become a pivotal part of Xu's artistic career although the purposes of his works vary from time to time.

Xu's first encounter with the beauty of characters, particularly Han Chinese characters, was as a child when he saw books and catalogs in the library of Peking University, in Beijing, where his mother worked as a clerk.

In 1962, Xu enrolled in the primary school attached to Peking University where the courses he scored highest in were fine arts, Chinese calligraphy and physics.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Xu and his classmates were dismissed and so he taught himself ink painting, calligraphy, seal-cutting, wood-carving and paper cutting. He even organized an art research group called Red Locomotive Brigade and studied how to write political slogans with ink brushes.

In 1974, Xu Bing went to Shoulianggou village, in Beijing's Yanqing county, far from the city center, to be educated by farmers.

In his spare time, Xu continued to practice calligraphy and made numerous sketches of villagers and mountain landscapes.

"I believe my obsession with words and characters was destined. I can not escape from the in-born mission of producing such art," Xu says.

In 2007, Xu started another adventure with language and communication, an interactive show of his Book from the Earth art project, which is characterized by a system of public signs and logos.

"Book from the Sky is impossible for anyone, including me, to read, while Book from the Earth is accessible to anyone, even if he or she is illiterate," says Xu, who one critic called "an artist who attempts to construct a new Tower of Babel".

"What I am trying to do is awaken people's inert thinking and open before them new perspectives of looking at different cultures," Xu says.

"It is like what the ancient Zen masters did: Throwing their disciples some meaningless questions, just to guide them on the road to self-enlightenment."
Square Word Calligraphy is a new kind of writing, almost a code, designed by Xu.

At first glance, it appears to be Chinese characters, but in fact it is a new way of rendering English.

Chinese viewers expect to be able to read it but cannot. Western viewers, however, are surprised to find they can read it. Delight erupts when meaning is unexpectedly revealed.

The idea of inventing this new type of writing came to Xu when he observed the attitude of awe and respect with which non-Asians regarded Chinese calligraphy.

Intrigued, he sought to create a work that would demystify calligraphy, and reward the Westerner's engagement, thus bridging the gap between two totally different language systems.

In Square Word Calligraphy, Xu designed a system whereby English words are written in the format of a square, so as to resemble Chinese characters.

He compiled and published two books, An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy and Square Word Calligraphy Red Line Tracing Book, to teach his new form of writing.

"My Square Word Calligraphy is popular among both Westerners and overseas Chinese. Many overseas Chinese used it on signs for their restaurants and shops," Xu says.

The artist admits his works "are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture and wisdom" although he is also well versed in Western art.

Art critic and magazine editor, Wang Nanming, from Shanghai, says Xu's works with Chinese motifs merely pander to Western markets.

Xu responds there will be critics whatever you do, but his principal focus is his audience.

As part of Square Word Calligraphy he came up with the slogan: "Art for the People."

He calls it his motto.
"It always reminds me to stay away from the mainstream of contemporary art which has been relegated to a small group of people," Xu says.

"What I am doing is increasingly non-standard contemporary art. My art is increasingly involved with society and can be appreciated by the wider population. And I mean to contribute to social advances as an artist."

For example, in his latest Forest Project, Xu wants to establish a sustainable flow of funding to help rebuild forests around Mount Kenya - a UNESCO world heritage site - through the online auction and sale of artworks created by students from the region.

The project, started years ago, is still ongoing and in December, Xu started a Chinese version of the project, in Shenzhen, which benefits the Keshiketeng Banner forests of Inner Mongolia.

"I often think about the role of artists and the relation between art and society," Xu says.

"Why do people love art? Why do they collect my work? I don't think it is because of the materials employed, which are usually cheap, or my craftsmanship, which is no better than that of my contemporaries, but because of my ideas and my novel approaches to the divide between different cultures."