Xu Bing

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communication, deconstruction, language
Visual Arts (installation art)
Asia, Eastern, America, North
China, United States of America
created on:
May 12, 2003
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The disarming, the playful

Born in 1955 in China, Xu Bing moved to the USA in 1990. He uses traditional techniques like calligraphy to make language less effective and thus to draw our attention to it as such. In effect he takes written words to pieces, to highlight their role in communication both within and between cultures.
"I grew up during the cultural revolution, at a time when our language was continually being changed. Mao ordered the whole system of writing to be simplified; hence as children we were often asked to learn new signs for words and to forget old ones. The authorities then decided that the new signs were no good after all, and we had to relearn the others. That made our culture pretty confused," says Xu Bing.

The monumental installation "A Book from the Sky" (Beijing, 1988) is made up of large printed sheets of paper with Chinese characters. These sheets are connected with each other and hung from the ceiling like a bed´s canopy, or are fixed to the wall or bound together as tomes and left open or shut on the floor. The use of threads in book-binding, the sequence of headings and marginal comments and the use of indigo covers strictly follow the traditional practice of book-printing and -binding in China. But in one crucial respect Xu Bing changes this exquisite and seemingly authentic presentation of the national culture of writing. The more than 4000 signs on the sheets are free inventions. They are certainly beautiful but, viewed more closely, turn out to be unreadable.

It took the artist three years to cut all the new characters into the wooden blocks used in printing. He took the characters in a standard Chinese dictionary to pieces, then put them back together in new ways. Hence the new, fake characters look very much like the old, authentic ones.

"The work speaks in the land´s usual syntax, takes it to pieces, then hands it back wholly crippled," writes Alice Yang. In fact the experience of how language can be used and misused is for Xu Bing of crucial importance. "Earlier, a few words were enough to seal a person´s fate. They could send a person to death or wish him a fine life. There was a saying: ´Use a brush like a knife or a weapon.´ All over the streets there were placards with propaganda slogans. As far as I can remember, they were all full of written characters reaching down from heaven to earth. Finally one had the feeling that words have an enormous power."

With "A Book from the Sky", the artist manages skilfully to disarm the texts by draining them of all meaning. Language - a system of symbols which is important for the integrity and continuity of a culture - lingers only as an empty shard. As Alice Yang says: "Xu Bing´s work regrets and welcomes at the same time the loss of certainty as regards knowledge, and so he returns again and again to the point of origin, on the border between a culture´s death and rebirth." The artist is referring to the period in Chinese history in which a stagnant world-power was to be changed into a modern state through a process of painful political and social adaptation.

With this installation Xu Bing made a sudden name for himself as a leading representative of the Chinese avant-garde. But only a year after the Tiananmen massacre his work was mistrusted by Chinese cultural politicians. According to the Chinese press, it contains subversive material.

Xu Bing, who moved to the USA in 1990, says of himself that he belongs to the generation of artists who had ten years of socialism, ten of the cultural revolution, ten of opening towards the West, then ten of living in the West. The last ten years have also left their mark on his work "A New English Calligraphy" (1994-97). Xu Bing feels that his experiences have crystallised out in the meeting of two disparate cultures.

In this work, too, he uses the traditional forms of letters to develop a new system of writing. In months of work, he so modified Arabic letters as to make them like Chinese characters. The effect of an English text with these characters is bewildering both to English and Chinese readers. The former first take the text to be foreign but are then able to read it, whereas the latter first take the text to be Chinese but are then baffled.

The artist likes most to present this work in the variation of "New English Calligraphy Classroom". On entering a gallery or a museum, visitors find themselves to be in something like a classroom. A video on the wall urges them to take their places at desks and to write characters on paper with brush and ink. In front of them lies a book of examples from the artist together with instructions. While copying the characters out, visitors start to realise that they are writing in a familiar language something which only at first seemed to be alien.

Xu Bing is convinced that this process challenges the habits of vision. "It is all intended to act like a computer virus in the human brain, causing normal processes of thought to collapse." But the visual fusion of two languages from different cultural circles and the process of copying tends to subvert the feeling of alienation. Visitors start to realise that the differences between the two systems of writing are slighter than they had supposed and that the oriental may not in fact be especially exotic.

Xu Bing says of himself that he is not trying through his art to change or even to reform society directly. "But I have found a way of bringing what is worthy and precious in Chinese culture into contemporary society by using Eastern cultural methods to pose contemporary questions."

(Translation: Phil Stanway)
Author: Irene Sauter and Alice Grünfelder 


Xu Bing was born in 1955 in Chongqing (Sichuan Province) in China and was taught the art of calligraphy by his father. He studied at the Art Academy in Beijing, gaining his MA degree in 1987. He has been an American citizen since 1990, the year in which he was later made a honorary fellow by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Xu Bing lives and works in New York and in 1999 received the esteemed Genius Award of the Mac Arthur Foundation.


Group Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2005 "Kunst und Cover / Lettre International“, Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany "Regeneration”, Arizona State University Art Museum, Phoenix, USA "Mahjong - Chinesische Gegenwartskunst“, Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland "Celebrate 22 Years”, Tilton Gallery, New York, USA "On the Edge”, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, USA "The Elegance of Silence“, Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan 2004 "Biennial São Paulo 2004”, Biennial, São Paulo, Brazil "A Real China Club Night”, Alexander Ochs Gallery, Berlin, Germany "Claude Closky, Xu Bing, Olaf Nicolai”, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden 2003 "Shanghai Biennial 2002”, Shanghai Biennial, Shanghai, China "Guangzhou Triennial 2002”, Guangzhou Triennial, Guangzhou, China 2001 "Free Exchange”, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England "Crossing Boundaries: East-West Symposium”, Print Art Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Portland, Oregon, USA 2000 "Sydney Biennial”, Art Gallery New South Wales, Sydney, Australia "Global Conceptualism”, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, USA "Power of the world”, Faulconer Gallery, Iowa, USA "Ev+a 2000 Friends and Neighbours”, Limerick City Gallery Of Art, Limerick, Ireland "Inside Out”, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia "Animal. Anima. Animus”, Fuller Museum of Art, Boston, USA 1999 "Banner Project”, MOMA, New York, USA "Half A Century Of Chinese Woodblock Prints”, The Museum of Art, Ein Harod, Israel "Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin”, Queens Museum of Art, New York, USA "Transcience: Chinese Art at the end of the 20th Century”, Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, USA "Five Continents and one City”, Mexico City Museum, Mexiko City, Mexico "Animal, Anima, Animus”, Museum voor Moderne Kunst, Arnheim, Netherlands "The Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art”, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia "The 3rd Art Life 21”, Spiral/Wacoal Art Center, Tokyo, Japan "CON(TEXT)”, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, USA "Zeitwenden”, Kunstmuseum, Bonn, Germany "Concerning Truth”, Gallery 400, The School of the Art Institute, Chicago, USA "Text Project”, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, England "Contemporary East Asian Letter Arts”, Seoul Arts Center, Seoul, Korea 1998 "Crossings”, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada "Site of Desire´98”, Taipei Biennial, Taipei Fine Art Museum, Taipei, Taiwan "Inside – out”, PS1 and Asian Society, New York, USA "Unreadable books. New letters“, The Mitaka City Art Centre, Mitaka, Japan "The Library of Babel”, ICC- Intercommunication Center, Tokyo, Japan "Project for International Park of Sculptures”, Open Air Museum of Brasilia, Brasilia "Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Xu Bing and Cai Gou Qiang”, Museum of Centre for Curatorial Studies, New York, USA 1997 "Around Us, Inside Us. Continents.“, Konstmuseet, Boras, Sweden "New English Calligraphy”, ICA- Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, England 1996 "Interzones“, Kunstforeningen, Copenhagen, Denmmark "Interzones-2“, Uppsala Konstmuseum, Uppsala, Sweden "Fractures Fairy Tales: Art in the Age of Categorical Disintegration”, Duke University Museum of Art, Durham, USA "Origins and Myths of Fire”, The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, Japan "New Works”, The International Artist in Residence program, San Antonio, USA "Installation / Performances“, Marstall Theater, Munich, Germany 1995 "China Avantgarde Movements”, Santa Monica Art Center, Barcelona, Spain 1994 "Cocido y Crudo“, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain "Jumping Typography”, O Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan "Flesh & Ciphers”, Here Foundation, New York, USA 1993 "Venice Biennial“, Biennial, Venice, Italy "Fragmented Memory - The Chinese Avant-Garde in Exile“, Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, Columbus, USA "Mao goes Pop: China Post – 1989”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia 1992 "Desire for Words“, Hong Kong Arts Center, Hong Kong, China "Looking for Tree of Life: A Journey to Asian Contemporary Art”, Museum of Modern Art, Saitama, Japan 1991 "I Don´t Want to Play cards With Cezanne”, Pacific Asia Museum, California, USA 1989 "China Avant-Garde”, National Fine Art Museum, Beiing, China

Solo Exhibitions (Choice)

Exhibition / Installation
2004 "Xu Bing in Berlin - Sprach-räume“, Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Berlin, Germany "The Glassy Surface of a Lake”, Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin, USA "Xu Bing in Berlin”, Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst, Berlin, Germany "The Well of Truth”, El Pozo de la Verdad, Sala La Gallera, Valencia, Spain "Where Does the Dust Collect Itself?”, National Gallery and Museum, Cardiff, Wales, England "Tobacco Project”, Shanghai Gallery of Art, Shanghai, China "Xu Bing & Gu Xiong”, Museum London, Ontario, Canada 2001 "North Carolina Museum of Art“, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA "Word Play”, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington, USA "Three Installations”, Elvehjem Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin, USA 2000 "Book-Ends: Imag "in" ing the Book”, New York State University, Albany, USA "Tobacco Project”, Duke University, Durham, NC., USA 1998 "Babylon Tower“, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, USA "Recent projects”, California Institute for the Arts, Valencia, USA 1997 "Classroom Calligraphy”, Fundacio Pilar i Joan Miró, Mallorca, Spain "Lost letters”, Asian Fine Arts / Galerie Prüss & Ochs, Berlin, Germany "New English Calligraphy”, Nationalgalerie, Prague, Czechia "The Net: A collaborative Installation”, December Art Gallery, Charleston, Illinois, USA 1996 "A Book From The Sky“, University Art Museum, Albany, New York, USA 1995 "Language Lost“, Massachusetts College of Arts, Boston, USA "Series Exhibition-2”, North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, USA 1994 "Recent Work“, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York, USA "Negotiation Table”, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, USA "Experimental Exhibit”, Han Mo Art Center, Beijing, China 1991 "Three Installations“, Elvehjem Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin, USA "Series Exhibition-1”, North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, USA 1988 "A Book from the Sky”, National Fine Arts Museum, Beijing, China "A Book from the Sky”, Tokyo Gallery, Tokyo, Japan 1986 "Modern Chinese Prints from the Central Academy of Fine Arts Beijing”, British Museum, London, England


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

The other Modernism

Contemporary Art from Africa, Asia & Latin America

(08 May 97 - 27 July 97)


Homepage of Bing´s German Gallery