Xu Bing

Xu Bing
b. 1955, Chongqing
Printmaker, installation artist
Xu Bing was a self-taught artist and an ‘intellectual youth’, sent during the Cultural Revolution to work with peasants in suburban Beijing, when he was admitted in 1977 to the Print-making Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he received his BA (1981) and MFA (1987) degrees and remained as a member of the faculty until 1990, when he moved to the United States. A Book from the Sky (1988), an installation of a series of prints of thousands of fake Chinese characters, exhibited at his first solo show at the China Art Gallery (Zhongguo meishuguan), won him nationwide and then international recognition as one of the prominent (and famous) Chinese avant-garde artists. It also won Xu an invitation to the United States as a visiting artist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1990), his first exposure at the Venice Biennale (1993), and the extremely prestigious ‘Genius Prize’ from the MacArthur Foundation (1999).
In 1996, Xu exhibited his New English Calligraphy at the Pace Art Foundation in Texas, a project he had been working on since 1994. In this installation, presented in the form of a classroom, Xu attempts to teach his audience how to use a Chinese brush and ink to write English words employing the structure of Chinese characters. Ever since the mid 1990s, Xu has been busy exhibiting his works around the world. Major shows include solo shows at the Boston College of Art (1995), the Konstmuseum Uppsala in Sweden (1996), the ICA in London (1997), New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (1998), as well as important group shows like the South Africa Biennale (1997), Kwangju Biennale (1999) and Sydney Biennial, Australia (2000). Xu’s obsession with language, Chinese characters and calligraphy in particular, was on display in his retrospective show at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC (2001).
Xu Bing’s attitude towards language is multi-dimensional. On one hand, he seems to doubt the reliability of the written word—the thousands of seemingly rigorous characters in his A Book from the Sky turn out to be nothing but nonsense. On the other hand, he tries to create a kind of written language that may help people from different cultural backgrounds better understand each other—the character-words in his New English Calligraphy look familiar to both Chinese and English readers. In still other cases, he seems to believe that language is aggressive—in his Cultural Animals (1994), the body of a live mating male pig is printed with English words while the body of a live mating female pig is printed with Chinese characters. Xu Bing has been working and living in Brooklyn, New York, since 1998.
Abe, Stanley (2000). ‘No Questions, No Answers: China and A Book from the Sky’. In Ray Chow (ed.), Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Reimagining a Field. Durham: Duke University Press, 227–50.
——(2000). ‘Reading the Sky’. In Yeh Wen-hsin (ed.), Cross-Cultural Readings of Chineseness: Narratives, Images, and Interpretations of the 1990s: Berkeley: Center for Chinese Studies, 53–79. [See also Patricia Berger, ‘Pun Intended: A Response to Stanley Abe’, in the same volume, 80–99].
Erickson, Britta (2001). Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words The Art of Xu Bing (exhibition catalogue). Washington, DC: Arthur M.Sackler Gallery.
Yang, Alice (1998) ‘Xu Bing: Rewriting Culture’. In idem, Why Asia? Contemporary Asian and Asian American Art. New York: New York University Press, 24–9.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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