Prominent Chinese artist, filmmaker and educator Xu Bing visited the University’s Museum of Art (UMMA) this past Sunday to give a lecture entitled “The Origins of Creativity” as part of the Penny Stamps School of Art & Design’s ongoing speaker series. Bing’s work has always been highly reactive to his surrounding environment, both in China and the U.S., as his wide array of multimedia work — although often based in tradition — is always in dialogue with the present.
At a recent retrospective exhibit of Bing’s work in his hometown of Beijing, Bing — as the curator of his own work — pondered the question: “Where does this ability to make creative works come from?”
Having 60 works from his 40-year career all in the same place at once, it seemed like several different artists were responsible for the work on display. Where did these varying inspirations come from?
Bing’s earliest work of prominence, “Book From the Sky,” came in 1987, the same year he completed his Masters of Fine Art at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. The vast work featured large scrolls that spanned the length of the room, both lying flat against the walls and draped from the ceiling. Beneath the immersive environment of scrolls are luxurious and carefully bound books containing the same characters. For those illiterate in Chinese, the exhibit creates an almost holy environment of Chinese language. For those literate, however, it creates a confounding and uncomfortably unfamiliar illusion of knowledge.
Every day of Bing’s childhood, his father would make him fill one page per day with Chinese characters that “followed the literary tradition of China.” Happening all around him at the time, however, was Chairman Mao’s reorganization of the entire Chinese language. In a time of increasing global connectedness, such rigid enforcement of the rules of language made no sense to Bing.
Thus, reacting to his environment, Bing dedicated several years to formulating 4,000 fake Chinese characters on wood blocks to be neatly printed onto these scrolls. They are a complete mockery of the subjectivity and limitations of language. They were also a perceived as a threat to the Chinese government. And, as such, Bing relocated to the U.S. in 1990.
“The path every artist takes isn’t always under their control,” Bing said in his lecture. Art is the manifestation of each individual’s “cultural-genetic code.” When we take thinking to unfamiliar places, this is the realm from which we can create. In this way, art, just like Bing’s forced relocation, is not planned out.
Bing characterizes his early works in the U.S. as “existing in a place between two cultures.” His first exhibit in the U.S. — “Transformations” — translates a text from English to French to German and so on until it is eventually translated to Chinese, at which point it’s essentially nonsensical. Ironically, the lecture itself was a display of this loss of meaning, as Bing had to continually correct his English translator in a comically clear display of his point.
Bing continued producing art that is more than initially meets the eye for the next two decades. He’s had an ongoing series of “Background Story” works that look like ancient Chinese ink paintings but are actually milky glass backgrounded by plants. His largest recent work, “The Phoenix Project,” transforms the remains of construction site debris into two 100-foot long phoenixes. Covered in a careful arrangement of LED lights, the phoenixes represent the transformation of the ugly process of rapid urbanization into something beautiful.
For Bing, while art is often in conversation with the past, it should never imitate it. Artistic ability is not dependent on one’s IQ or historical knowledge. Good art always reacts to the present. While many of Bing’s works appear to follow Chinese tradition, they are all in one way or another layered responses to current local and global events.
“Dragonfly Eyes,” Bing’s latest project, is no different. Bing has always had an acute awareness of the environment he interacts with on a daily basis. In “Dragonfly Eyes,” a storyline is made using a composite of real surveillance footage and acted out scenes. In this sense, the whole world is a film set. The work, intentionally shocking, blurs the line between reality and cinema.
This presentation was sponsored by the University’s Confucius Institute, Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, the Penny Stamps School of Art & Design, Museum of Arts and the Department of Film, Television and Media Studies.