XU BING at his main studio in Beijing, China. 

Xu Bing

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

It’s graduation season and spirits are high on the campus of Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). It is during this time in June that Xu Bing, the institution’s former vice president and current head of its academic committee, meets with me at the CAFA museum café. There, academy staff and students waltz in and out, all of them stopping to greet Xu, a revered artist, beloved teacher and one of CAFA’s most renowned alumni. One such encounter happens to be a cheerful male colleague dropping off a gift basket of zongzi (sticky rice dumplings), to be eaten on the occasion of the upcoming Dragon Boat Festival. The bespectacled artist is pleasantly surprised, thanks the man and asks how he is doing, as he does with everyone else he meets.

Lying on the studio floor are piles of tobacco leaves, material for the artist’s ongoing Tobacco Project, first initiated at Duke University in the United States in 2000. 

Now 61 years old, Xu has shed the art administrator position that he had held at CAFA from 2008 to 2014, leaving behind overwhelming responsibilities that had somewhat distracted him from his art-making. Xu has since fully resumed his artistic practice, which has long been widely recognized for its sculptural objects and installations that attempt to destabilize one’s understanding of languages, as well as exalt the element of labor within the creative process. Increasingly, Xu has been making a point of integrating an educational dimension into his exhibitions, often allocating an entire room for viewers, including children, to interact with his ideas through software programs or to reenact his artistic methods on a smaller scale. He believes in art education, after all, and continues mentoring pupils in an academic environment. “I work with graduate students now, in fine art and in art history,” he tells me, before guiding me to his main studio, located less than ten minutes by car from the CAFA campus. (His other smaller and older space in the Jiuchang arts enclave, also in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, now serves more as storage; the artist also maintains an active studio in Brooklyn, New York.)

Xu and I wend our way into a side corridor on the ground floor of a three-story complex populated primarily with residential units and a few retail shops. We come across two doors, one opening outward and the other inward. A casual sign taped to a glass wall adjacent to the doors reads “Xu Bing Studio.” Upon entering, like the beginning of a film-noir detective tale, I catch a whiff of tobacco, as if a signal to start my sleuthing quest to find clues and ingredients that would reveal the inner workings of the artist’s many celebrated projects.

I stand staring at the high-ceilinged, 350-square-meter space, where a mezzanine level covers about half the area. On the left are work stations with desks of varying sizes and heights, covered with rolls of paper, cartons of materials, random tools and stationery. At the largest table is a young assistant hard at work. Xu approaches her and listens patiently as she enumerates some problems that have arisen. “I’m trying to make a three-dimensional version of Book from the Ground,” Xu explains, referring to his ongoing project that centers on a novel whose story is told entirely through pictograms. Book from the Ground, which began in 2003 and was inspired by the simplicity of the graphics and illustrations depicted in the safety instruction pamphlets distributed on airline flights, is Xu’s tribute to a system unencumbered by linguistic barriers or cultural differences. While Xu’s earlier (and somewhat antithetical) work Book from the Sky (1987)—a four-volume, 604-page tome of nonsensical characters—is a book that “nobody can understand,” Book from the Ground is, theoretically, one that everybody can read. Back at the studio, the soft-spoken artist continues to observe his assistant, who meticulously pastes pictogram cutouts onto blank pages of a hardcover book. A muffled conversation ensues between them as I make my way to the source of the tobacco scent.

Parts for the installation Living Word (2001/2011), a colorful cascade of hanging pieces that show the character niao, meaning “bird,” morphing into a pictogram of the actual creature in flight. 

Xu is currently experimenting with a three-dimensional prototype of Book from the Ground (2003– ), a “novel” written in a universal language of icons and symbols. 

Next to the large table, bushels of tobacco leaves lie on the floor, some in plastic bags and others in cardboard boxes. A product of an artist residency at Duke University, North Carolina, “Tobacco Project” was first initiated in 2000 and was Xu’s meditation on the university founders’ family history as scions of a tobacco empire. The project is ongoing and additional installments have since been shown in various exhibitions in China and abroad. “I think about the significance of tobacco to the particular country or venue of the exhibition and make works specific to their historical contexts,” he explains. Filling these shows are sculptural objects made of cigarettes or tobacco leaves, which ruminate on the respective materials’ existence as globally traded commodities, as well as the highly fraudulent marketing and packaging practices of the tobacco industry. Pointing to the bushels in his studio, Xu adds, “This is my back-up stash. Sometimes I need to ‘top up’ [existing] installations or restore problematic parts with more of these leaves.”

The studio’s mezzanine level is filled with tools, materials as well as lockers and drawers for storage. 

A spread of books, including Xu Bing’s monographs, publications authored by the artist and exhibition catalogues of his past shows, covers a table by the entrance. 

Moving away from the large table, Xu heads toward a cluster of computers to attend to some administrative work. Behind where he had been standing is a group of drawings pinned to a wooden board. Inching closer, I recognize them to be diagram sketches for Xu’s monumental installation Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990–91), a 32-by-15-meter work on paper featuring an ink rubbing of a section from the Great Wall of China. It is both an homage to Xu’s formal training in printmaking and a commentary on human labor—it took the artist and his crew 24 days to record the partial surface of an architectural feat that required centuries of labor by millions of people. Following the completion of the rubbing stage, the work demanded an additional six months to arrange and prepare for its 1991 debut at the Elvehjem Museum of Art (now the Chazen Museum  of Art) in Wisconsin. I ask Xu why the installation’s old sketches are up on the wall, to which he replies, “There’s a section of the rubbing that we never assembled [for display]—about 13-by-17 meters in size. We’re trying to put that together now. However, it’s been a while since we last worked on these rubbings, so it’s quite difficult.”

Xu, now stationed behind a white pedestal on which sit a laptop and a projector, invites me to a nearby sitting area, where sofas and a coffee table are neatly arranged. Hiding behind a wall that partitions this sitting area is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with catalogs, dictionaries and art magazines that date back to the 1980s. I opt to sit down next to the artist on a curious chair, which looks to be a bricolage of dilapidated junkyard parts. As if teaching in class, he begins to pull up files on the computer to show on the projector screen. “The Venice [Biennale] people did an amazing job with the photographs,” Xu says in delight, as stunning shots of his gargantuan Phoenix 2015 (2015) from this year’s festival flicker on the wall. Designated to a dock located in the Arsenale, the work is suspended above water between two boathouses. Xu’s eyes are fixed on the projection, as images of  the installation, taken from all angles and at different times  of day, come into view. “I think  it’s the largest work ever shown  at the Biennale,” he comments.  More than 30 meters in length, it is an assemblage of detritus collected from various Chinese construction sites. Xu’s sculptural rendition of  the mythical creature brings together incongruous notions of the rejected and the auspicious, the tattered and the majestic. “The best time to see the phoenix is when it’s dark, but the venue closes at 6 p.m. every day, so no one gets to see this,” he laments, as a nighttime image of the installation appears on-screen. Dots of illumination tracing the bird’s silhouette are faintly reflected on the water below, creating an otherworldly vision.

The slideshow continues as Xu answers my questions about the images on the screen. Finally,  I ask about the chair I’m sitting on, and he chuckles. “The people who helped build my phoenixes made chairs out of the extra material. But they kept giving the chairs away! I finally had to intervene and ask to keep the last six,” Xu recounts gleefully. “They’re solid chairs! They even rotate,” he adds. I twirl around in the chair and take one last glance about the sprawling studio, trying to catch the tidbits of past and future projects that lie hidden beneath stacks of books, inside a drawer or scribbled on a whiteboard. My eyes land on two painstakingly rendered maquettes of earlier Phoenix renditions, displayed on white plinths and encased in transparent acrylic boxes, and I wonder when and where the beast may spread its wings again.

Diagrams and documentary photographs of Xu’s monumental installation Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990–91), an ink rubbing of a section of the Great Wall of China on paper. 

A rotating chair made of materials leftover from past renditions of the artist’s Phoenix projects.