“Xu Bing”: The Art View and Action Logic of a Fatalist

Source: CAFA Art Info

Text by Zhu Li, translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Photo Courtesy of the United Art Museum 

Date: Jan 12, 2018

Trying to summarize Xu Bing and his work as completely as possible is not an easy task at all. His artistic expression has such an open and rich context that he has been infinitely open to the possibilities of artistic language and imagination, while he has mediated thoroughly on society, culture and reality and provided his unique treatments which trigger broad and delicate tensions, which also makes it really difficult to summarize in a few words. As a spectator and inferior artist, I think that I could obtain some interwoven clues only by tracing the development path of his ideas and the cultural context when he created his works. As for this unique artist who cannot be bypassed by contemporary art history in China even in the international world, where do his creative strength and his perception come from? Where does his unique value lie? What kind of enlightenment does his art experience and thinking method bring to us and can it be borrowed, transformed and absorbed?

Anyone who has been in contact with Xu Bing would know about his modesty and gentle quality. Quoted from words about him by those who live besides him, “he has never been witnessed being angry with anyone, and never has he hurt others’ feelings.” Even confronted with adversity, he never complains and frankly accepts and resolves it all silently. In contrast, his artistic thinking and performance are so “deviant” that they constantly lead people to jump out of their inherent cognitive and thinking modes. It seems that he has “a most ingenious brain” but he always said that he is incapable of acting, thus he has to be more hardworking and serious than anyone. He constantly emphasizes that “art is dominated by fate”, this is a sort of “fate of destiny”, it is by no means planned. Such a gentle and unpretentious artist, has actually created so many artworks in great quantity and quality, which arouses our curiosity. What kind of experience has created such a “Xu Bing”? This might provide an entrance for us to try to understand Xu Bing.

Xu Bing mentioned in his essay entitled “Ignorance as Nourishment”, if compared with radical and enlightened youths of the 1970s, he “has embarked on an ignorant road”, which is related to the environment that he grew up in Peking University. As a child who was born into a family with problems during the revolutionary age, being honest, subdivided and serious became the feature of their character. His experience of running a maroon publication “Brilliant Mountain Flowers” when he attended a team trip, was considered to be the unique period of his life when devoted to “pure preoccupations.” Whether his experience of not smoking a cigarette during the period of educated youth or having the longest interval of not visiting or that he guarded the apricot forest but he did not eat any apricots, all of which brought the satisfaction of self-restraint, or his determination that he did not return home during the whole winter vacation as all he intended to solve was the basic drawing problems, Xu Bing’s pursuit of “perfection” really comes from the character of “physiological indulgence” born within him. To a certain extent, this determines his attitude, method and behavior of logic when he creates.

Then, where do the nutrition and ideological foundation Xu Bing relies on in his creations come from? He wrote in his preface to “My True Characters”: introspection of the national character, wisdom in cultural genetics, the experiences we obtain from related socialist experiments as well as the experience we learn from the West. These qualified features are intertwined with blind sports, which constitute our unique nourishment.


Xu Bing often writes or talks in a “fateful” tone, and this oriental philosophical way of speaking stimulates the hidden soul of everyone living in this floating world. He makes us discover that we should understand naturally and confidently at each stage of life, and we should smartly deal with those uncontrollable forces in our destiny and turn them into our unique strength.

Corresponding to this ancient world outlook with a certain religious feeling, in Xu Bing’s creation, there is an invisible clue of “Zen.” Besides to his work Where Does the Dust Itself Collect? which could be taken as his most representative work of oriental wisdom, Zen thought has emerged in his early printmaking practices. While studying and discussing the plural character of printmaking, his Five Series of Repetitions has presented the process of “from nothing to something, from something to nothing” from a technological and visual level. And his work Book from the Sky earned him fame as it is “against traditions” in the most traditional way, although his idea stems from the lost feeling brought by the influx of Western thought in the 1980s, but “nothing could be gained, and nothing could be proved” in Zen is also reflected in this work, including Ghost Pounding the Wall during the same period, as well as his recent works, it seems that we could not really recognise what Xu Bing really wanted to say, but he also seems to have told us everything. The philosophical metaphor and uncertainty in his series of American Silkworm Series, the “invisible hand” beyond the man-made and scientific control in Tobacco Project, “the Truth-False Paradox” in his Background Story and Dragonfly Eyes are full of Zen.

With a meticulous attitude, elaborate production, creative thinking focused on a meaningless meaning, this has always been the artistic method Xu Bing has persisted in. A huge workload in morphology brought a “sense of monument” that cannot be neglected. What does this meaningless meaning refer to? It seems to point to a sense of infinity. The uncertainty of audience overlapping perspectives with distinctions does not bring the only “meanings”, a series of non-standard answers that can be calcified one by one through texts. Exactly as Shen Yubing said, “there is no misunderstanding but a little knowledge” about Xu Bing’s work. The instinct of interpretation just confirms that the obsession people have been accustomed to is confirming the meanings. When we try all means to search for the meaning of life, even if we meditate we discover the meaning itself does not exist, and it is unnecessary to justify it, the meaninglessness or pan-meaning constitutes the greatest meaning.

Xu Bing never deliberately talked about the knowledge or cultivation of Zen, but his principle of behavior as well as his attitude towards work and life comprehensively embodies this typical Chinese wisdom. Mostly he resorts to experience and feeling to touch the essence of issues, rather than rationalizing or evidence. This freedom, consciousness and nature, is his status as an individual. Zen emphasizes an epiphany, which is directed to the human heart, with informal practices. It is about a state of “originality”, with intuition one grasps the meaning or essence beneath meanings. When one stays in a calm, authentic and clarified state, he can naturally recognize the most profound level of all things on earth and he can also find where the most universal value of human society and individuals lie. The exclusions of paradoxes in Zen Buddihism also exist in the values of Xu Bing, enlightenment and confusion, good and evil, eternity and ephemerality, essence and phenomena, spirit and material are not antagonistic, but they can be mutually transformed, explained, interdependent and combined. In Xu Bing’s work, we often find that he is very good at using this paradox or the conversion of paradoxes.

Even though Xu Bing can always be “enlightened”, he cannot avoid being trapped in fog. “The more rapid variation this world changes, the more clues we have found, but the more we cannot explain clearly, the more words we want to say but cannot expound thoroughly exist,” he wrote in his artist statement for his large retrospective exhibition “Xu Bing” after he returned to China for ten years. In fact, Xu Bing’s “pessimism” or “helplessness” are hidden deep inside and cannot be easily detected. He has always been actively worked, being kind to people but strict with himself. He tries his best to help others to dispel doubts and he makes apocalyptic statements but he seldom talks about the intention of “bitterness of life.” He once made a startling remark: the key proposition of life is to “spend”, which means the ability of how to spend time. He is such an “optimistic pessimist” which is somewhat in line with the assertion by Romain Rolland in “Michelangelo” that: there’s only one kind of heroism in the world – if he still loves the world after he sees the truth.


After the Forest Project, Xu Bing began to embark on a road beyond the art system. Prior to this, there are more reviews on his Animal Series, Language Series and Tobacco Project, his work continues with the relatively clear and continuous thread. He has many artworks which are not so familiar to the public, relatively small and fragmented conceptual creations in the 1990s and the beginning of 2000, such as A, B, C, My Book and Post Testament, Cultural Negotiations, Wu Street, Braille, What’s Your Name, Body Beyond Body, Monkey’s Moon, Warmth from the Golden Apple, The First Reader and so on. As an ongoing experiment, they show the endless inspiration from the artist.

When we sort out the context of these works and we lament on the richness of Xu Bing’s thinking, actually we find a series of works with traces of Western thinking that Xu Bing has constantly adjusted his own artistic thoughts along with his development. For quite a long time, as we have been longing for the mainstream of Western art system, it is quite difficult for the artists that live inside the system to find its shortcomings. In order to figure out “what exactly modern art is,” Xu Bing went to the United States in the 1990s. He recalled that while he was “integrated with” the environment, he had inevitably come across the bottleneck of “linear creative logic”. On the narrow path which constantly leads people to “create amazing art” and “create for the sake of creation,” he had been naturally trapped in the limited and poor state of the art field. The helplessness of human creativity causes him to become interested in animals, what’s most important, he realized that art seems to being losing its key values. These backlog of doubts prompted Xu Bing to peel off the shell of Western contemporary art further to find the location of art in his heart.

In the early days when he spent in the East Village in New York City, Xu Bing had already discovered a true “avant-garde” art from the deceased revolutionary predecessors, they did not come from the simple attitude of “art origins from life,” but from the “overall perception of the epochal nature of life”. Xu Bing summarizes as: a methodological transformation of art already existed caused by the sensitivity to social and cultural conditions. This comprehension is based on the long-existed thinking and perception, which has been associated with artists who carry on the genes of socialist academics while living in Western societies. Over a decade later, with his ideal of art education, Xu Bing returned to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, he vividly expressed his consistent value of art in “A Letter to Young Artists”: where you live, you need to confront the issues there, there is art when there is issue to be solved. Your situation and your problem are actually the sources of your artistic creation.

The consistent progress of his project of Forest Project concerning the fields of society, economy, nature, ecology, public welfare, culture and heritage have endowed him with some precious experiences: how to get rid of the dilemma of art and keep moving forward, as well as where does the inspiration of art come from. “Only if you keep a distance from the art system, can you bring new blood and strength to the art system.” The key value of art is by no means the issues on the level of technology, pattern and style, nor is it concerned with the “quiz” that implies tests on thinking and creativity, instead it properly integrated the skill, style and creativity into a language that never existed before, as it explains and reveals the era an artist lives in. Therefore, obtaining energy from “social scenes” outside the art system that has become the most important clue of Xu Bing’s creation in the past two decades, especially reflected in a series of creations after he returned to China.


At the Solo Exhibition of Xu Bing ongoing at the United Art Museum, Wuhan, for the first time, a domestic audience can experience Xu Bing’s art in a comparatively complete and concentrated way. Over more than three decades, although there are many intersections in Xu Bing’s creative context, it seems to me there are a few clues: First of all, the most famous Language Series is based on his research on characters, symbols, language and the cultural traits that they represent, including Book from the Sky, Square Word Calligraphy, Script, Book from the Ground, Forest Project, Character of Characters, and so on; Secondly, Animal Series that uses human beings to stimulate human strength including Cultural Animal, A Case Study of Transformation, American Silkworm Series, Parrots, Bird Language and Wild Zebra and so on; Thirdly, the methods and languages of “transformation” include the transformations between oriental and western thinking, tradition and contemporary, the inherent properties and perceptions, such as Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?, Background Story, Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll, Tobacco Project, Phoenix and Dragonfly Eyes and so on. I have to say that most of his works contain plentiful references, making such preliminary classification seem to be unsatisfactory, they often contain overlapping connotations and multilateral metaphors.

As the most important presentation of this exhibition, the audience could watch the full version of Dragonfly Eyes. This film uses the flood of CCTV video in the Internet age as its material, focusing on the narrative literature, it tells the story of a girl who cannot confirm her identity – story of a “Dragonfly”. Xu Bing talked after the screening of the film, in a society that is full of ubiquitous surveillance of CCTV, Dragonfly Eyes confirms the imagination of “Truman’s World,” likewise, the audience can never find what he wants to say, the world has become increasingly blurred, this film seems to prompt such a vague state: Is this a film? Where is the boundary for human beings? What is the relationship between reality and the virtual, monitoring and being monitored?

Despite various mediums he has utilized, there are many contextual relationships between Dragonfly Eyes and his previous artworks. Xu Bing is naturally sensitive to the notion of essence in things, such as “type”, “mode”, “method”, “way” and “symbol”, from the perspective of materials, the raw materials from public channels of CCTV, the public cognitive system of Book from the Ground, the paradigm of Chinese painting in Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll have the “common quality”, they are not subjective invention or fabrication, but they possess the “naturally formed logic and universally recognized foundation”, they belong to some common concepts and super-cultural human and super-regional shared experience. From an artistic point of view, this film has transformed “limitations”, shifted “truth and reality”, like many other works, the film is all about “making a feint nod to the east but attacking the west.” Producing a narrative film is not the aim in itself, but the multiple levels of thinking and discussion should be the key points for discussions.


Having departed from what people expected, Xu Bing’s large-scale creations seem to be more and more “clumsy”. Many think that it is hard to find the ingenuity of “skillfully deflected” or “turning a stone into gold”. This probably comes from the nature of his “honesty”, and also from his years of evasion of erroneous artistic creation: he does not hope to present “wisdom”. Since 2008, Xu Bing has successively completed many new works, among which Phoenix, Travelling to the Wonderland, Dragonfly Eyes, are actually from his response to the “social scene,” reflecting the social and cultural issues happening to China, even the whole world. They are huge in body and complicated in procedure. As a new language mode and status, they appear in the sequence of Xu Bing’s creation, all of which have brought different voices.

Compared with his transformation of the cognitive system and methodology of elite intellectuals conveyed in Book from the Sky, Square Word Calligraphy, Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?, Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll, Xu Bing directly touches the social propositions along with the rapid development in today’s China, there are differences in experience and thinking. In terms of personal experience, the process when I watched Dragonfly Eyes made me very upset. As with the dialogue after the screening, writer Fang Fang mentioned that, the comparatively simple story, the free voice-over and constantly flashing catastrophic lens, make the “philosophy” of the film want to express what cannot be organically connected with the work itself. This involves an important question: the density and intensity of thinking, under the influence of material with inherently strong attributes, how could they be transformed into “compliant” and an “effective” visual language, so as to better match the “idea” of the work itself.

The first work he created after he returned to China, Phoenix, uses building materials that are often overlooked but are familiar materials, while their strong symbolism and the energy behind them require a stronger “contest” or “conversion” to control, a similar classic, such as Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?, light and heavy correspondence makes people feel the solemn tingling. At the moment when Phoenix is rising, the audience can easily think of such issues as “the relationship between the original value of capital and the value of a material and spiritual life behind the glory” led by the artist, It’s so easy to respond as the materials are the meaning, which makes those who waited for Xu Bing again to “surprise” people feel frustrated.

Just as Book from the Sky triggered tremendous discussion and criticism more than two decades ago, Xu Bing is not interested in arguing yet and commentary will not dictate his actions today. Instead, the reviews on the Phoenixdocumentary during the show made him firmly believe in the future effect of this prophecy. In his opinion, this piece points to the real internal conflict within Chinese society since the reform and opening up. This “forward-looking” attitude toward social judgments will be prompted by the ever-changing cultural scene.

And this variation happens anytime, anywhere. According to the curator Wang Xiaosong, due to the limitation of various factors of time and effect, Travelling to the Wonderland (model + documentary) has been changed to Phoenix (3D printing model + documentary) so that the exhibition reversed its direction of “temperament”: “Poetry and Afar” were hidden behind a black fleece curtain, and “Gone in Now” became the unfinished “final chapter.” This episode has brought some profound meaning: brutal reality on the surface and hidden good ideals in the shade, the juxtaposition of light and shade, as if to become somewhere in the arrangement, so filled with a “fatal sense” to present the mysteries of life and the world.

Text by Zhu Li and translated by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Dialogue with Xu Bing 

Zhu Li: Many people are surprised by your inexhaustible creativity and the sensitivity of the art language and conversion of material between traditional, reality and Western resources. We all expect to know where the source of the sensitivity and creativity is from. As you mentioned, a person’s life was absorbed only for a period of time, and for you, you were absorbed by editing “Brilliant Mountain Flowers” magazine when you went to live and work in the countryside. Has the impact of this run through your life?

Xu Bing: For people, all things are destined and your work is determined by your character. The things that are carried by your body, either come from the genes, or from the experiences of life, and they must be reflected in your work, and of course more importantly, it is reflected in your working methods. I have always told people that you can only be serious if you do not have a talent, and I am a serious person. In fact, the attitude when working also reflects the quality of a person, and a small thing will separate the good things from ordinary things in the end. When I was in secondary school, I published blackboard newspapers for the school day and night, and later my body broke down. During the period of going to live and work in the countryside, I forgot the pain and dedicated myself to manually printing “Brilliant Mountain Flowers” magazine, and the body and mind never has the preoccupied feeling after that.

Zhu Li: The exhibition has been being prepared for more than one year, why do you want to make such a large-scale thematic and retrospective exhibition in Wuhan at the node of returning to China for a decade. Do you want to have a conclusion? Or is there any other consideration? Do you think your experience, way of thinking and working methods can be learned?

Xu Bing: In fact, I have a passive personality, reconciling myself to my situation. When there was an opportunity, I took it. Since I returned to China in 2007, I have always wanted to make a large retrospective exhibition because people have always been very concerned about my work, but most of them have never seen the entire works, only some fragments from a variety of magazines, so I would like to have a communication with people in China with a show bringing together my works. I believe that the effect of putting my works together would be different because my works are rich. When some artists find a style or schema they will be engaged in it for a lifetime, I do not belong to this way of thought of artists, although they reveal a good effect in the group exhibition, we will find that the artists’ thought is relatively simple in a solo exhibition.

Although I have had large-scale solo exhibitions abroad, this is the first time to have a solo exhibition of such a large scale in China because of the limitations of various conditions. Why did I choose Wuhan? There were three reasons, firstly, it was my friend’s kindness, secondly, the space of the gallery is suitable for me, finally, I have just completed the “Dragonfly Eyes”, and I also want to organize the past works, so I took this opportunity to do it. Through putting these works together, I have made it clearer that the source of energy and the source of creativity of a person’s work must come from outside of the art system, rather than the art system itself. And people will also realize that these works actually form a self-closing system in which artists create mutual annotations and mutual discoveries. In fact, the previous works are created to interpret the latter pieces, and the latter pieces are used to remind the audience of the things that they have not been aware of in the past. The judgment of the work and the conversion of its value are placed in the social and cultural development process and flowing relationship is understood.

Taking the first work of Phoenix created when I just returned to China as an example, it was not accepted by many people including the art circles, when it was finished, but in many other fields, such as sociology, literary and political scholars, they loved it. It is on display as the final part of the exhibition, and it is certain that the original piece of this work can’t be displayed, but it is fortunate that a 17-minute documentary was deliberately finished at that time. When I looked back at this documentary, I found that the piece really carried a forward-looking judgment on society. This piece seemed to be created for as a real internal conflict that has arisen in Beijing or in China, since Chinese reform and opening up, I hope everyone can earnestly look at this piece of work again. The value of many works is revealed in a fluid cultural scene or in a new relationship constantly evolving on the social scene.

Zhu Li: Let’s follow the “outside of the art system” that you just talked about. In the morning symposium held after the film “Dragonfly Eyes” was screened, Mr. Yin Ji’nan also talked about the very important point at the beginning of the symposium – you are not interested in art in essence, but probably have an interest in people’s possibilities. I seriously hope to know what is the motivation that has always driven you to make art creations?

Xu Bing: This motivation comes from man’s life force. You have to do something that you hope to work at full stretch, the so-called power of art creation, namely the source of inspiration for artistic creation is really not the art system itself. In the end I got to know that my real source of inspiration came from the energy of the social scene and the enlightenment brought by social creativity. The energy is inexhaustible in this area. Because the social scene has been constantly changing, and especially in current times, it is too fast and people’s thinking structure has become passive, and it is too late for people to reflect on the lives. Social scenes are more interesting than exhibitions of contemporary art, and the creativity of the art system is really scarce and limited. When we went to the modern art museums around the world to see the exhibitions of contemporary art, I really felt they were very boring. People have been awed by culture for a long period, which gives art a special status, and it seems that we have to see some interesting things from very boring things. The system originally contains the things that have already existed, and you have to bring in the things that art does not contain, from another system.

Zhu Li: As you mentioned the social scene, I would like to invite you to talk about the relationship between art and the times. I do not know if you are concerned about current events. For us, the two major events that have recently taken place in Beijing include a series of social problems brought by Beijing’s collectively dismantling illegal buildings and the explosion of public opinion caused by the event of the kindergarten. The public opinions caused by the two incidents were fermented quickly and extremely, and the confrontation between public opinions and the power of the government truly made people feel lost, and I was puzzled at this moment, is it really useful to discuss art every day? What can art bring to people and society? In the face of a strong reality, is it really just for thinking?

Xu Bing: It is a good question. The work Where Does the Dust Itself Collect? is on show at the exhibition, and it is a case that might be able to answer your question. How powerful did the 911 event affect all humanity, but what should you do as an artist? How should you correspond, how to speak? In fact, we can’t be utilitarian and think art directly changes something, and art must be ineffective in the face of these things that happened in Beijing or in China today. No matter how important the art is, when your studio has gone and you are driven away, what should you do? In fact, these things do not allow us to respond directly, but they will become the new motivation for our reflection on the times. It should be your new intellectual motivation for artistic creation. For me, these things will surely make me reflect on my previous works, my works created since I came back to China, and how I judge the great relationship with the world. Therefore, such a big concept of “Travelling to the Wonderland” must be changed again.

The books and literature referenced by the text are as follows:

  1. “My True Characters”, written by Xu Bing, CITIC Publishing House, November, 2015

  2. “Zen Buddhism”, written by D. T. Suzuki (Japan), Shanghai San Lien Book Store, June, 2013

  3. The related reports and Xu Bing’s interview from the network