Installation view of Xu Bing’s Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990–91) in “Xu Bing: A Retrospective” at Tapei Fine Arts Museum, 2014. All photos by Katherine Tong for ArtAsiaPacific.

Xu Bing: A Retrospective

Tapei Fine Arts Museum
China Taiwan

The works of renowned Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing are included in major exhibitions and collections across the world, but for his first large-scale retrospective the artist returns to Asia. “Xu Bing: A Retrospective,” currently on view at Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) spans the artist’s 40-year career and includes 22 works and projects, ranging from woodblock prints, installation and animation to interactive “classrooms” and carpets. In the exhibition text, Xu notes that his artistic trajectory has had “something to do with destiny,” and the selection of projects at TFAM demonstrates this attitude of trusting fate and travelling along a predestined path.

Upon entering TFAM, hanging scrolls descend into the lobby. Ghosts Pounding the Wall (1990–91) features rubbings taken from sections of the Great Wall of China. Documenting this mighty architecture on paper scrolls, including all of its weather marks, reveals its history. In the center of the floor, a stone sits upon a stack of rubbings, and both balance atop a large pile of soil, recalling a specific verse of a Tang dynasty poem that says,“Behind one general’s success, there are numerous bones left decaying.”  Perhaps with this inference, viewers are reminded of Xu’s early days as an impoverished artist, a testament to his dedication and endurance throughout his four-decade-long practice.

Installation view of Book from the Sky (1987–91) in “Xu Bing: A Retrospective” at Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2014.

In the first room of the exhibition are Xu’s early drawings and prints. Hung along a wall is a series of monotone woodblock prints of joyful laborers. These rarely exhibited articles are propaganda images Xu created for the Communist Party in the later years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). First printed and distributed in a magazine and distributed among farmers, the meticulous nature and level of skill demonstrated in the prints and drawings belie the fact that Xu was in fact self-taught.

Xu’s most impressive work, Book from the Sky (1987–91), resulted from the artist’s self–imposed exile in New York. Four thousand Chinese characters bear the structure of the true ones yet contain no meaning. The version on display was printed on an old printing press in Beijing. Some of the characters are displayed along three long scrolls that hang along the length of the room, while others lie on the floor in the pages of butterfly bindings. Originally titled An Analyzed Reflection of the World: the Final Volume of the Century, the work reflects the Buddhist dictum of a Three Generation Life or the Christian Book of Revelation. That Xu himself does not understand a single word contained in this vast volume reveals that, like most of us, he cannot foretell the future.

XU BINGWhere Does the Dust Itself Collect?, 2004, dust, dimensions variable. Photo by Katherine Tong. Courtesy Tapei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei.

Another work that demonstrates Xu’s spiritual influence is Where Does the Dust Itself Collect? (2004), in which the artist used dust collected from the 9/11 attacks in New York and used it to write a Buddhist quote on the floor. “As there is nothing from the first / Where does the dust itself collect?” conveys a belief in emptiness and quiet to help deal with grief. Indeed, the atmosphere of this room has a certain calmness—no wind, no sound, and almost no form or color, surrounding faint, untouchable dust letters. 

Xu’s artistic career focuses on the transformative power of materials, which he uses to create dynamic projects that are deeply rooted in his Chinese origin. While contemporary Chinese art often focuses on economic and material prosperity, Xu espouses instead a number of Confucian and Buddhist teachings. As such a prolific artist, it is surprising that his first retrospective should come so late—and, with the closing of this TFAM exhibition comes Xu’s first solo show in Hong Kong, at Asia Society—but seeing so many seminal pieces together provides a strong indication that his artworks are most powerful in unison.  

Xu Bing: A Retrospective was on view at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum January 25–April 20, 2014. His solo exhibition It Begins with Metamorphosis: Xu Bing is on view at Asia Society Hong Kong through August 31, 2014.

Katherine Tong is a writer and researcher at ArtAsiaPacific.