Installation view of “It Begins With Metamorphosis: Xu Bing” at Asia Society Hong Kong, 2014. Courtesy Asia Society Hong Kong. 

XU BING, Silkworm Book, 2014, silkworms, silk and book, dimensions variable. Photo by Sylvia Tsai for ArtAsiaPacific.

It Begins with Metamorphosis

Xu Bing

Asia Society Hong Kong
Hong Kong China

With a career of more than 40 years in the making, there’s hardly anything new to be said about Xu Bing’s work that hasn’t previously been mentioned; and yet experiencing firsthand its depth and range of leaves one with an enriched appreciation of the artist’s oeuvre. Just within the past year, Xu has been the subject of various exhibitions around the world, ranging from single-work installations to full retrospectives, at institutions such as MASS MoCA, Massachusetts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Most recently, the artist made his solo debut in Hong Kong with “It Begins With Metamorphosis” at Asia Society—an appropriate venue given the modifications its complex has undergone, previously being a military compound with some buildings dating back to the mid-1800s.

Familiar works from Xu’s repertoire were yoked together under the theme of transformation, further broken down into several subcategories. Traces of history marked the progression of change in each of his displayed works, whether through their physical materiality or content. The first section, entitled “Evolutionary Lives,” opened the exhibition with an arrangement of mulberry leaves placed inside a ceramic vase. At the start of the exhibition period in early May, this pedestal-placed piece, entitled The Opening (1998), was full of fresh leaves. Over the course of the show’s three-month-long duration, the leaves were slowly eaten by silkworms, leaving—at the end—bare branches dotted with white cocoons that the insects had spun. Each phase of change, undergone by both the mulberry branches and silkworms, offered different interpretations of this host/parasite relationship, alluding to the way that meaning and perceptions shift with time.

Xu first began working with silkworms in 1994 for his ongoing “Silkworm” series, whose conceptual exploration of history and cultural evolution has manifested into various forms. Displayed along the side-corridor of Asia Society’s main exhibition space was Silkworm Book (2014), which shows similar physical transformations as The Opening. The installation comprises a vitrine that encloses an opened copy of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), onto which silkworms have woven threads of silk that encase the book with a sheer, luminous layer. Here, the use of Kafka’s book may seem too literal a connection to the exhibition title; nevertheless, the delicate silk fibers overlaying the novel create a beguiling juxtaposition between natural and cultural production—depicting the enduring qualities of each resultant object—while also showing a conflation of Asian and Western traditions.

(Top) XU BINGMustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll, 2010, woodblock print, ink on paper, 48.3 x 546.2 cm; (Bottom) Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manuals, three sets of printed books dating from the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) to the present, ink on paper, dimensions variable. Courtesy Asia Society Hong Kong. 

Xu BingBackground Story, 2014, natural debris, glass panel and lightbox, 395 × 150 × 60 cm. Photo by Sylvia Tsai for ArtAsiaPacific

Xu BingBackground Story, 2014, natural debris, glass panel and lightbox, 395 × 150 × 60 cm. Photo by Sylvia Tsai for ArtAsiaPacific

Much in the way that he used silkworms to signify the notion of history, specifically of ancient China, Xu continued to appropriate tradition in the section “Back to Beginnings.” On view was Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll (2010), a five-meter-long work on paper that pieces together a Chinese landscape using traditional motifs—such as clouds, mountains, oxen and patties—extracted from a painting manual first published during the Qing dynasty (1644­–1912). Visitors were able to view Xu’s landscape alongside the original set of manuals, which were opened to pages showing selected imagery that corresponded to the artist’s work. Though visually recalling traditional Chinese painting, Xu’s horizontal scroll exemplifies a compelling play between history and modernity. Conventionally, the manual was used for instructions on ink painting, but in the Xu’s case, he used ink to create an original landscape via woodblock printing. Furthermore, Xu adapted the work’s format for the present-day audience, beginning its visual narrative from left to right instead of the traditional right to left.

A contemporary twist to traditional Chinese painting was also discerned in the section “Lives and Afterlives.” What appeared to be an illuminated vertical landscape painting lured one to the back of the exhibition space. On closer observation of the nearly four-meter-tall Background Story (2014), it is revealed that, in fact, the work is not a painting at all. The work itself is a light box, which on its front surface assumes the aesthetics of a traditional Chinese landscape, but upon walking around to its reverse side, viewers are exposed to garbage, leaves, branches and other debris that are taped onto the glass panel backing. Lit by fluorescent tubes installed on the perimeter of the box, the shadows cast by the backside scraps form a mountainous scene on the front surface. The surprise of seeing such mundane objects achieve the ink-gradations, wash effects and painterly strokes of Chinese painting brought on the most unexpected delight. Background Story was also the only work in the show that gave a nod to Hong Kong. The collection of debris was sourced locally and configured to replicate Wang Jian’s Landscape in the Style of Xu Daoning (1672) from the Hong Kong Museum of Art collection. Xu has made several versions of this work, starting from 2004. Each version creates an illusion, but also carries a torch for history, through the reproduction of a traditional Chinese painting, showing the inextricable link between the past and present.

Perhaps what Xu is best known for is his exploration of language, interweaving the written words of both Chinese and English to create a hybrid form. In Book From the Ground (2003– ), Xu moves away from traditional script and turns to language that is representative of the digital age, such as emoticons and other communicative symbols. By researching online, as well as newspapers, magazines and social media, Xu collected familiar pictographs—the smiley face, the “ok” symbol and the Google navigation arrow, for example—which he used to write, or rather “compose,” Book From the Ground: From Point to Point (2014). This book tells the story of a day in the life of Mr. Black, the protagonist, with each chapter narrating an hour of that day. Under the assumption that these pictorial symbols have become so commonplace that they can be recognized as written language, Xu’s novel functions as an object meant to transcend communication barriers—a book anyone in world can read—and acts as a reflection of where globalization has led society today.

XU BINGBook From the Ground: From Point to Point, 2014, hardcover book, 128 pages. Photo by Sylvia Tsai for ArtAsiaPacific

Book From the Ground also comprises an interactive component, which, at the exhibition, was featured in the “Social Lives” section. Visitors could chat to one another through two computers—one could input either an English word or Chinese character in one machine, which would then produce a visual icon representing that word on the other person’s screen. Here, again, social engagement and life experience—instead of language or education—is used as a gauge for understanding. While this work supports Xu’s philosophy of creating “art for the people,” what happens for those who do not have access to certain technologies? Their engagement to this “universal” language would be lost.

Other works that were on display at Asia Society Hong Kong continued to exemplify Xu’s wide-ranging practice—from an animation film to printed texts on tobacco leaves. Those familiar with Xu’s practice may have been disappointed by the lack of new works, as all that were on display had been presented before in some earlier version. Despite this, “It Begins With Metamorphosis” opened Xu Bing to a new group of audiences in Hong Kong. Ultimately, this selection of works built upon the notion of transformation and highlighted the important role that history plays on the present, where looking back can become a way of moving forward.

It Begins With Metamorphosis” was on view at Asia Society Hong Kong from May 8 to August 31, 2014.


Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.