Saturday, February 7, 2015

International Artist Xu Bing Discusses His Iconic "Book from the Sky"

Art Museums are one of the great treasures of our time. In my travels I've had the privilege of visiting wonderful and often surprisingly rich collections. By means of the internet we can now discover many treasures outside the scope of our horizons, one of these being The Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami. The Frost's international connections have resulted in a string of exceptional exhibitions by artists from Asia, South America and elsewhere. On February 21 a new show will open titled Xu Bing: Writing Between Heaven and Earth. Included in this exhibition will be Xu Bing's massive "Book from the Sky" installation, which has been rarely displayed in its entirety.

The full exhibit encompasses 5,000 square feet and features the artist’s iconic installations plus newer artworks that challenge viewers' perceptions of cultural identity and language, including a never-before seen piece that Xu Bing is creating specifically for this exhibition at the Frost. Due to its massive scope and size, only a handful of museums in the world have shown the complete Book from the Sky with all of its hundreds of original components and handmade carvings that took the artist four years to complete. This project of the 1980's was designed to show how the written word can be turned into propaganda and rendered meaningless. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests Xu Bing's work was deemed too controversial thus resulting in his move to the U.S. the following year.

Writing Between Heaven and Earth features many thought-provoking newer works such as Book from the Ground, an interactive staging of two computers running chat software that lures visitors to simultaneously decode universal signs and symbols, or his Suzhou Landscripts which at first glance appear to be traditional Chinese landscape paintings but upon closer inspection reveal Chinese logographic script writing, in which the water is composed of the word for water and the mountains are composed of the word for mountain. Another piece is titled Square Word Calligraphy Classroom which is constructed as a classroom with an instructional video, model books, ink, brushes, brush-stands, and blackboard with the creation of a one-of-a-kind writing system that transforms English into Chinese, but with a twist: these characters also turn out to be comprised of English letters.

Trained in China during the 1970s as a Master Printmaker, Xu Bing was born in Chongqing in 1955 and grew up in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. A core tenet of his work is the preservation of Chinese culture and traditions. Chinese characters and traditional landscapes feature prominently in his work.

EN: In what way does your “Book from the Sky” serve your mission of making “art for the people”?

Xu Bing: In all honesty, when I was creating The Book from the Sky, we were just emerging from the socialist, realist and pragmatic styles of art, so what I wanted at that time was to create a modern and international work of art, and did not really think about this concept of “Art for the people.” At that time, I really wanted to dabble in modern art, but as for what modern art is now, I do not know. Hence, emerging from an old era and entering into a new one, with no specific direction going forward, I created a work that carried myself and my experiences in its entirety. In the transitional phase between the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese economic reform, this work reflected a generation of intellectuals that conveyed this sense of questioning for the unknown, and pursuit of culture and civilization in a vast new world. Because the arts of the past were too practical, or service oriented, this work aspired to explore the more profound aspects, or the essence of ‘things’. As for the concept of “Art for the people,” it was only after I had participated in the western contemporary arts scene, and through contemplation of the relationship between art and the common people did I come up with such an understanding.

EN: Who have been your major influences as an artist?

Xu Bing: Growing up in an ordinary familial environment, for a child, or anybody for that matter, I think the figure that creates the biggest impact on a person’s life in his growing years is his mother. With that, I am very fortunate that I had such a great mother. On another note, it is difficult to pinpoint/list an artist or a figure who has influenced me the most. Honestly, I have quite an open-minded attitude towards the arts. In other words, I have great respect for all the artists that participated in the development of the artistic movement at any point and stage. Moreover, they have also helped me in my understanding and reflection of “what is art.” The exploration and contemplations of such artists from different periods and generations have all contributed to my understanding and attitude towards art. I have been inspired and influenced by different artists at different phases of my life. For example, during my university years, I was very drawn to Jean-François Millet. In addition, I was also greatly influenced by my teacher Gu Yuan. Afterwords, I was greatly inspired by Andy Warhol—not for his artistic style, but more for the ways he conveyed a certain culture in America at that time. These are what I’m most interested in. Another example is Marcel Duchamp and his attitude towards his life and art.

EN: What prompted you to produce a work of this scale?

"Art for the people."
Xu Bing: At that time, I had enough experience and time to devote myself to making large scale works. I also realized such large scale works as “Phoenix” were created after I had returned to China in recent years. I’ve thought about why China has spurred me to create large scale works, and concluded that it must be connected to the atmosphere and environment of China as a country.

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The artist has been invited from Beijing to Miami to present a lecture on February 21st from 4:00-5:00 p.m. with the opening reception running from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public. The lecture will take place at the Florida International University’s Graham Center GC140 (seating is expected to fill quickly, registration in advance is recommended to

For more about The Frost Museum at FIU visit

Xu Bing's family roots are in Wenling of Zhejiang province. He was born in Chongqing, China in 1955. In 1977 he entered the printmaking department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (CAFA) where completed his bachelor’s degree in 1981 and stayed on as an instructor, earning his MFA in 1987. In 1990, on the invitation of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he moved to the United States. Xu served as the Vice President of CAFA from 2008 to 2014 and is now the professor of CAFA, advising PHD students. He currently lives and works in Beijing and New York. Solo exhibitions of his work have been held at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington DC; the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; the Joan Miro Foundation, Spain; National Gallery of Prague and the Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas, amongst other major institutions. Additionally, Xu Bing has shown at the 45th and 51st Venice Biennales; the Biennale of Sydney and the Johannesburg Biennale amongst other international exhibitions.

Xu Bing's remarks here were transcribed and translated by Delissa Putri Handoko. Xu Bing: Writing Between Heaven and Earth is curated by Dr. Lidu Yi, a professor and historian of Chinese art at FIU.  

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