Contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing is taking Austin by Storm
NATHALIE SCHERER Xu Bing is one of the first contemporary Chinese artists to gain popularity across the globe. His work, Book from the Sky, is now on view as a special exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art until January 2017. If you haven’t had a chance to go see it, this is an absolute must. In addition to being a visually striking and thought-provoking work, it is also one of the Blanton’s first special exhibits focusing on a contemporary Chinese artist.
Walking in, you can see the exhibit hall is painted a deep, rich blue, invoking the sky. The soft but strong light emphasizes the whiteness of the scrolls, which are hanging serenely throughout the entire room. Entering the exhibit is an immersive experience, and the three dimensional nature of its setup envelops you; scrolls are billowing from the ceiling, laid on the floor, and covering the walls from floor to ceiling. The scrolls are not blank, but are covered in Chinese characters printed on by a typecast. The kicker is that every single one of the 4,0000 characters on view are complete nonsense. To an American viewer, this might not be immediately clear, but none of the Chinese characters are real; they read as gibberish. From 1987 to 1991, Xu carved carefully crafted, completely invented Chinese characters into wooden blocks. Ordinary Chinese characters are created by using different line components to form a character, and Xu skirted the line of reality and absurdity by using some real components, but then combined them in ways that do not make sense.
Xu grew up during the Cultural Revolution in Beijing, and Book from the Sky is in part his reaction to the things he experienced during that time in his life. The nonsense characters that appear in his work are a reaction to the propaganda and manipulation of language that Xu grew up in; the exhibit seems to be full of substance, but on closer inspection, is absolutely meaningless. During the Cultural Revolution, art was seen as a tool used to serve the people, rather than be art for its own creative or ideological sake. Art was used to serve people, rather than be channel for creativity. Xu simultaneously displays a respect for functional art, invoking the traditional medium of hanging scrolls, while adding his own twist to display his disregard for it. The Blanton put it wonderfully when they described Xu’s art as having “neither one of unconditional reverence for tradition nor denial of its value,” but rather a position that pays homage to Chinese tradition while molding it to fit contemporary issue. There is a long tradition of calligraphy writing and characters as a form of art, and Xu pays homage to this in every aspect of Book from the Sky. He purposefully does this, using the magnitude of the work, and the deliberate choice of medium to make it seem weighty, ancient and meaningful, even though it is not. The meaninglessness of something that is supposed to have meaning is what we can reflect upon when we walk out of this exhibit. As viewers, this pushes us to reflect on what words and language really mean, and how they can be manipulated.
Due to artistic restrictions by the Chinese government in 1990s, Xu moved to America, but has since moved back to become the vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Book from the Sky, after a successful exhibit in China in the 1990s, has not returned since.