The Seven-character Poetry Collection of Small Enterprises
Medium: Clothing label and programming writing
Dimension：Each piece 35.7 x 26.3 cm x 12
Outside packing 41 × 28.5 × 3.5 cm
Exhibition：Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai, 2021-2022. TOKYO Gallery + BTAP, Beijing, 2021.
Since 2015, Xu Bing has collected tens of thousands of clothing brand labels from small private enterprises. These labels reflect the history of their entrepreneurship, development, bottlenecks, conversions, and acquisitions when put together. Meanwhile, we can also consider the brand name as inherited with people’s expectations and aspirations for their future. We develop a “poem writing software” particularly for this project. The computer program searches for appropriate words and sentences among fashion label tags to create a “Seven-Character Poem，” then later compiled into the collection. It is also an advancement in the creation of an “artist book.”
Media：Mixed media, Video installation
Time length: 2'8'' now (work still in progress)
Exhibition: Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, 2021-2022. XieZilongPhotography Museum, Changsha, 2022.
This is the first still-frame animation work to be shot in outer space using a satellite in orbit past its service life. Using images transmitted from the ground and a self-directed camera on the satellite, man-made pictures interact with images taken from the satellite while orbiting the earth and are incorporated into the animation. Imagine the “Standard Person” interacting with outer space, carrying a bundle as he/she run about in outer space with words spilling out from his baggage. The satellite orbits around the earth 15 times a day, and when it is located above different geographical locations, the language of the spilled words in the animation changes with it as well. This work represents far-reaching concepts shaping the existence of humanity such as human civilization, language, and time, reminding us to look back at our blue earth in the context of the zero-gravity conditions of space, and also to cherish the only home we know – the one single small blue dot. At the same time that you are viewing the work in the gallery, the work is still continuously created in outer space.
Artificial Intelligence Infinite Film (AI-IF) Project
The project lead team: Xu Bing, Feng Yan, Zhang Wenchao, Sun Shining
Medium: Artificial intelligence generated film with variable duration
Time length：variable duration
Exhibition：The 5th Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival, 2021. Museum of Art Pudong, 2021-2022.
This project works closely with artificial intelligence scientists to develop a real-time feature film production artificial intelligence system with no human production personnel (directors, screenwriters, photographers, or actors, etc.). The audience can input the movie type (such as science fiction, crime, love, etc.) according to their needs. The audience can also change the narrative plot or style of the movie by entering keywords or sentences and making a never-repeated movie produced by AI. This project aims to pursue an element that natural persons cannot create but is also in demand and not found in traditional film. Its concept is based on the shortcomings of natural persons, such as prejudice in the judgment of problems due to a narrow sense of emotions, greed and evil thoughts driven by political and economic interests, restrictions because of the limitation of knowledge and vision. AI suggests the “internal structure” of human life by accumulating various human image materials from a calm standpoint. This project is an experiment of the future possibility of AI film.
The genetics of reading image
Media: Mixed media
Dimension: 145x100x2.4cm x 8
Exhibition: Mirroring the Heart of Heaven and Earth—Ideals and Images in the Chinese Study, The Palace Museum Meridian Gate (Wu men)，Beijing
One wish of mine since 2004 was to create a book that can be understood by all human beings using public signs. It’s been more than a decade since the start of this project, but it is nowhere near ending, and keeps evolving. With the age of globalization, and the now emerging globalization of “graphic expression” brought by the digital computation, new modes of expressions such as emojis and memes adored by the new generation are now making their appearances in the main exhibition hall of the Palace Museum—signs that appear to bear no association to ancient traditions. The audience might find it hard to adjust to the translation of 《兰亭集序》in emojis and memes, but the sense of alienation produces is vital to the intention of this work—to supply regular modes of thinking with a new “elements”. In this way can we better understand both our traditional and contemporary cultures.
“Wujing Cuishi” (A Room Assembling Five Classics) in today’s language means the “Library”. The ancient Chinese are experts at using images to express their comprehensions of items of complexity—looking at images is reading texts. “Shu Hua Tong Yuan”(Writing and drawing bear the same root) in my understanding is less a note on style but more an indication for semiotics. The way Chinese write the character “Shan” (mountain) is the same with which they draw a mountain. Despite the technics of signification, hieroglyphs, and coreference in modern Chinese, its hieroglyphic constituents still form the genetic core of this language. When we read the word “门” (door), we see the image of a door. If we bolt the door, adding a rod/stroke on it, then we have“闩”(latch). When we write the character “囧”(undesirable distress), aren’t we already drawing an emoji?
I often feel a sense of gratitude, to be able to witness the fact that we are still communicating in a mode as ancient as pictures and images as we step into the era of cyberpunk and the space age. It feels like time travel, living in this conjuncture, feeling that life itself is being stretched across time and space. It is not quite accurate when we say we are entering the age of image—we’ve been doing this for the past thousands of years. Today, so much of our everyday life is lived in the scope of the cellphone. It is our portable library and museum; and the first thing that occurs when we turn it on is to read the signs.
My expressive sensitivity to signs is derived from the genetics of reading images carried in my body. It is in our tradition, and it works best when activated/animated.
Medium: Mixed media installation
Exhibition：Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai.
This installation art is founded on the law of perspective, but it does not end with visuality.
Stretched by gravity, this sky-dimming “Square Word Calligraphy” reaches to the ground. While creating a distorted textual space, it simultaneously puts the viewers into a tension between “seeing” and “reading”.
Problem regarding “seeing” first arises when viewers stand underneath the work. In addition to the reversed text, the contortions and overlaps make the characters in the exhibition hall even harder to read. Meanwhile, the mirror on the floor embeds the text into a huge “wormhole model” that interconnects the two inverted spaces. It is not hard to find that the reversed characters become legible in the mirror image, but the audience in this space still cannot see the entire work. The combination of the installation and the museum space seems to present a theatrically inviting quality. As viewers go to higher floors and their viewing perspective switches, the distorted characters gradually appear normal. From the top floor, the viewers can finally see the front of the characters, but remain unable to read the text in its entirety. Where lies this work’s ideal perspective?
In fact, the whole installation is comparable to a giant “optical illusion” model: people are used to reading words written on a flat surface, so when words are stretched in space, the ideal viewing perspective is being pushed further conversely. As the three-dimensional is converted to the two-dimensional, the law of perspective inherently builds a wrestling relationship. The interaction between the form of the work and the viewing point compels the ideal viewing perspective to an unreachable height outside the museum. This perspective only exists conceptually.
The law of perspective exists because of the limitation that human sight cannot be bent, while in this work, this limitation itself becomes a kind of “material”. The law of perspective is a kind of language through which we describe the world. Like all other languages, it serves as an intermediary between our thinking and the outside world. There must be blind spots in our thinking since it is shaped by various languages. (Or, As thinking is shaped by various languages, blind spots exist outside of linguistic demonstrations.)
The Square Word Calligraphy contained in this work is transcribed from an excerpt by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Whereas it appears to be an analysis of several visual experiments, this passage actually points to a common misunderstanding in human cognition. Wittgenstein believes that people are used to summarize concepts with logic and systematically understand the world through clarifying concepts. In reality however, this practice keeps us away from real parts of the world. Just like what’s going on in the present world, the tension between civilizations seems to be fundamentally derived from dislocations and differences in human perspectives. An arena full of tensions and gravitations is thereby created. The characters, distorted by space, fall into a chaos of illegibility in which every single element points to an “ideal perspective” suspended (or hanging) outside the exhibition hall. As if all the chaos in the world stems from an unknown purpose. Unseen but exists.
Video, surveillance camera footage taken from public live-streaming websites
I’ve wanted to make a film from surveillance footage since 2013, but I had no access to the necessary resources. Since 2015, surveillance cameras in China have been linked to the cloud database: countless surveillance recordings have been streamed online. So I took up the project again. I collected a huge amount of footage and tried to use these fragments of reality to tell a story.
With no human agency operating them, surveillance cameras produce fascinating footage round the clock. Ineffably silent, these cameras record incessantly. Sometimes they record images that are beyond logical understanding, captured in one mad, fleeting instant. When these seemingly random yet intricately connected clips are assembled, what's the distance between the video fragments of real life and 'reality'?
Male Feng, MASS MoCA, 2012
The magnificent installation of Xu Bing's Phoenix, a pair of two Chinese phoenixes (feng and huang), is in fact made from thousands of abandoned materials and workers' daily necessities that Xu Bing collected from construction sites in Beijing. While Feng Huang are traditionally associated with rebirth after suffering and rising from ash, Xu Bing's Phoenix can be seen to signify the cycle of the painstaking development and renewal that is inherent in the process of urbanization. Furthermore, Phoenix pays humble respect to the efforts of ordinary workers and draws attention to urban topics such as environmental issues and labor conditions.
When Phoenix traveled to Shanghai (2010), MASS MoCA (2012), New York (2014), and the 56th Venice Biennale (2015), audience from all over the world was not only impressed by the splendor of the two birds but also moved by the countless scars and hopes carried by them.
Materials: Carved Stone
Location: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany
The Forest Project is an experiment of creating a self-sustaining system that will move funds from wealthy areas to impoverished areas for planting trees. Its feasibility is based on the following principles: firstly, utilize free online services such as auction and sales hosting, money transfers, and even online teaching to achieve the lowest possible costs; secondly, benefit everyone involved in the project; thirdly, utilize regional economic discrepancies ($2.50 is a subway ride in New York, but it can plant ten trees in Kenya).
Indistint forms of plants and stones can be discerned through frosted glass. Eventually an image of a landscape emerges, reminiscent of East Asian painting. There is a passageway between the showcases, allowing a view behind the scenes. Here the visitor sees dry twigs and branches of pine trees, and also decorations mode of simple materials- modeling clay and cotton wool, all held together by sticky tape and fishing line... Finally the visitor is able to see something that would normally be kept hidden at an exhibtion. Behind the walls of the exhibition space there is a maintenance space, with heating pipes and empty shelving. A view from the outside only shows the surface. It is only when we try to find out what is beneath the surface that we can discover the background, and everything becomes intertwined in the image.
Book From the Ground
Book From the Ground Design
Book From the Ground Design
Book From the Ground Design
Book From the Ground: From Point to Point
Book From the Ground Software
Installation view at Xu Bing: Book from the Sky to Book from the Ground, Eslite Gallery, Taipei, 2012
Xu Bing has been undertaking his Book from the Ground project since 2003. The artist first compiled symbols drawn from the public sphere and wrote a book using only these signs. The book is written in a way that any reader, regardless of his or her cultural or educational background, can understand. As long as one lives within the contemporary society, he or she will be able to interpret the book. Due to the universality of its visual language, it could be published anywhere without translation. For the Book from the Ground installation, Xu Bing recreated his studio's working environment and brought some materials to the exhibition space, implying that this is a never-ending project in progress. Xu Bing’s studio also made a character database software that corresponds to the language of the book. Users can enter words either in English or in Chinese, and the program will translate them into Xu Bing's lexicon of signs. It thus serves as an intermediary form of communication and exchange between the two languages. As personal computer and the internet become increasingly integrated into daily life, the lexicon of digital icons grows accordingly, and the symbolic language of Book from the Ground has been further updated, augmented, and complicated. In response to his own Book from the Sky, a work dated 30 years earlier whose language is illegible to anyone, Book from the Ground is legible to all. It is an expression of Xu Bing’s long-standing vision of a universal language.
Book From the Ground: From Point to Point can be purchased from various bookstores and websites.
Installation view at Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Washington D.C., 2001
Installation view of Living Word
Work in progress
Materials: Cut and painted acrylic
Location: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA
The work is mainly comprised of over 400 calligraphic variants of the Chinese character “niao”, meaning bird, carved in colored acrylic and laid out in a shimmering track that rises from the floor into the air. On the gallery floor Chinese characters in the “simplified style” script popularized during the Mao era are used to write out the dictionary definition for niao. The bird/niao characters then break away from the confines of the literal definition and take flight through the installation space. As they rise into the air, the characters “de-evolve” from the simplified system to standardized Chinese text and finally to the ancient Chinese pictograph hasde upon a bird’s actual appearance. At the uppermost point of the installation, a flock of these ancient characters, in form of both bird and word, soar high into the rafters toward the upper windows of the space, as though attempting to break free of the words with which humans attempt to categorize and define them.
The colorful, shimmering imagery of the installation imparts a magical, fairy-tale like quality. Yet the overt simplicity, charm and ready comprehensibility of the work has the underlying effect of guiding the audience to open up the “cognitive space” of their minds to the implications of, and relationships between, word, concept, symbol and image.
Book from the Sky
Installation view at Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas, USA, 2016
Installation view at Crossings/Traversées, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1998
Installation view at Elvehjem Museum of Art, Wisconsin, USA, 1991
Installation view at Elvehjem Museum of Art, Wisconsin, USA, 1991
Elvehjem Museum of Art, Wisconsin, USA, 1991
Medium: Mixed media installation/ hand-printed books and scrolls printed from blocks inscribed with ''false'' characters
This four-volume treatise, produced over four years, was made with thousands of meaningless characters that look like Chinese, each designed by the artist in a Song-style font that was standardized by artisans in the Ming dynasty. For the immersive installation, the artist hard-carved over four thousand moveable type printing blocks. The meticulous, exhaustive production process and the work’s format, arrayed like ancient Chinese classics, were such that audiences could not believe that these exquisite texts were completely illegible. The work simultaneously invites and denies the viewer’s desire to read the work.
As Xu Bing has noted, the false characters “seem to upset intellectuals,” inspiring doubt in received systems of knowledge. Many early viewers pored over the artwork, obsessively looking for real characters.
Square Word Calligraphy
Inside An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy textbook
Inside An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy textbook
Inside An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy
Practicing Square Word Calligraphy with its textbook and tracing book
26 letters in English alphabet written in Square Word Calligraphy
"Art for the People"
For Square Word Calligraphy, Xu Bing designs a calligraphic system in which English words come to resemble Chinese characters. Like a linguistic breeder, the artist combines Chinese calligraphy with English writing to create a new “species.” However, it is different from the nonsense characters in Book From the Sky, which give the viewer a feeling of hesitation, suspicion, and confusion. When reading Square Word Calligraphy, such feeling is joyfully resolved with the sudden revelation that the work does contain “real” text. Thereby into the Western cultural sphere was written a brand new, Eastern art form. Established notions of Chinese and English no longer retain, and perceptual norms are reset, marking the new potentials that challenge the foundation of cognition itself.
After developing this lettering system, Xu Bing created a new installation piece modeled on adult literacy classes within the exhibition space. He also added a textbook, an instructional video, and a practice sheet just like those used in classroom settings. When the audience goes into the gallery, it is as if he or she enters a study space.
Square Word Calligraphy Classroom
Materials: Mixed-media installation; instructional video, model books, copybooks, ink, brushes, brush stands, blackboard
The intention of this installation is to simulate a classroom-like setting modeled on adult literacy classes, in a gallery or museum space. Desks are arranged with small containers of ink, brushes and a copybook with instructions on the basic principles of ''New English Calligraphy,'' a writing system invented and designed by the artist. A video titled ''Elementary Square Word Calligraphy Instruction,' is played on a monitor in the exhibition space, capturing the audiences' attention and inviting them to participate in the class. Once they are seated at the desks, the audience is instructed to take up their brushes and the lesson in New English Calligraphy begins.
Essentially, New English Calligraphy is a fusion of written English and written Chinese. The letters of an English word are slightly altered and arranged in a square word format so that the word takes on the ostensible form of a Chinese character, yet remains legible to the English reader. As people attempt to recognize and write these words, some of the thinking patterns that have been ingrained in them since they learned to read are challenged. It is the artist's belief that people must have their routine thinking attacked in this way. While undergoing this process of estrangement and re-familiarization with one's written language, the audience is reminded that the sensation of distance between other systems of language and one's own is largely self-induced.
Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?
In this installation Xu Bing uses dust that he collected from the streets of lower-Manhattan in the aftermath of September 11th. In the work, Xu Bing references the fine whitish-grey film that covered downtown New York in the weeks following 9-11, and recreates a field of dust across the gallery floor that is punctuated by the outline of a Zen Buddhist poem, revealed as if the letters have been removed from under the layer:
As there is nothing from the first,
Where does the dust itself collect?
In the work Xu Bing discusses the relationship between the material world and the spiritual world, exploring the complicated circumstances created by different world perspectives. The dust was applied to the floor with a leaf blower and allowed 24 hours to settle.
The work won the inaugural Artes Mundi Prize, the Wales International Visual Art Prize in 2004 and was later shown at various venues across the world.
Landscript, as the title suggests, is “pictures” that Xu Bing intentionally made with “script.” This project started when the artist went to the Himalayas in Nepal in 1999 and sketched “scenes” with Chinese characters. China has long had a tradition that “calligraphy and painting have the same origins.” Xu Bing’s Landscript, landscape-in-script, transformed the visual images of landscapes to linguistic forms, inviting the viewer to reassess the particularity of Chinese culture hidden in landscape paintings and providing a unique way to “read a scene.”
Art for the People
Art for the People at the entrance of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, 1999
Art for the People at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2001
Art for the People , 1999
Materials: Mixed media installation;
Dimension: 36 x 9 ft (1097.3 x 273.4 cm)
Location: Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999; Victoria and Albert Musum, London, 2001
Commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, this work was created for the Museum's ''Project Series,'' a group of monumental banners designed by international artists to be displayed outside the entrance to the museum. Xu emblazoned his eye-catching red-and-yellow banner, measuring 36ft x 9ft, with the slogan ''ART FOR THE PEOPLE: Chairman Mao said'' inscribed in his own invented system of ''Square Word Calligraphy'' -- English words deconstructed but then re-configured into forms that mimic the square structure of Chinese characters. With its prominent display above the museum entrance, the banner and its slogan served both as a motto for the museum and as a public airing of one of Mao Zedong's most fundamental views on art. Reflective also of the artist's personal conviction that Mao's concept of art for the people is universally relevant; the work exemplifies the way in which Xu integrates his particular cultural background and life experience into the international context of contemporary art.
American Silkworm Series
Location: Beijing, China
Materials: Performance media installation with live animal / Live Pig, books, mannequin, wood blocks, ink
This work was created as an extension of an earlier project: A Case Study of Transference. A life-sized mannequin in human form, covered in false-character tattoos, was placed inside an enclosure containing a male pig, similarly tattooed. The intention was both to observe the reaction of the pig towards the mannequin and to produce an absurd and random drama -- an intention that was realized when the pig reacted to the mannequin in an aggressively sexual manner. The entire process was documented and the resulting photographs were exhibited several years after the event, in 1998.
Tobacco Project III: Richmond
Front: Light as Smoke; Middle: Match Flowers; Back: Backbone
Light as Smoke
Location: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, USA
Medium: Mixed media installation/ Tobacco leaves, live tobacco plants, various tobacco related materials
A site-specific continuation of the Tobacco Project series, a project investigating the long and entangled relationship between human and tobacco.
After executing the project in Durham (2000) and Shanghai (2004), Xu Bing brought it to another important city related to tobacco: Richmond, Virginia, home of Philip Morris and mother company of teh famous Marlboro cigarette brand. During the residency, he studied tobacco's intimate relationship with the American continent and its early immigrant history. In addition to Tobacco Book, Traveling Down the River, 1st Class (another "tiger-skin carpet" composed of over 500,000 "First Class" brand cigarettes), and many works created for the first two phases of Tobacco Project, he expanded his art project on tobacco inlcuding print works. These works raised profound questions about history and reality, global capital, cultural immersion, and labor market.
Selected work description:
It is a book composed of early tobacco brand designs that Xu Bing collected in Virginia. He then asked his friend Rene Balcer, a writer, director, and filmmaker, to write a blues poem incorporating tobacco brand slogans. It is titled Backbone after an early brand of tobacco.
Tobacco Project II: Shanghai
Honor and Splender
Honor and Splender (detail)
Work in progress
Work in progress
Installation view -- Pipe
Work in progress
Untitled small work
Installation view -- Traveling down the river
Work in progress
Location: Shanghai Gallery of Art, Shanghai, China
Medium: Mixed media installation / Tobacco, found objects
A site-specific continuation of the Tobacco Project series, a project investigating the long and entangled relationship betwene human and tobacco. In preparation for the inaugral exhibition at Duke Univeristy, Durham, North Carolina, in 2000, Xu studied many archival materials and discovered the relationship between the Duke family and China – they were the first to import tobacco-rolling technology to Shanghai. This inspired him to bring the project to Shanghai. In 2004 he released Tobacco Project: Shanghai, curated by Wu Hung.
It featured the Shanghai versions of Tobacco Book, which were first shown in Durham, and also new artworks specific to the materials and venue, broadening the dimensions of his Tobacco Project in terms of history, geography and reality. Through tobacco, the project raised profound questions about history and reality, global capital, cultural immersion, and labor market.
Selected work description:
Honor and Splendor, 2004
Xu Bing used 660,000 cigarettes to compose a giant "tiger-skin carpet." With a soft and luxurious appearance, the "carpet" is a massive display of desire, seduction, and danger – ideas that have been long associated with tobacco but also predominant in the human history. The title not only hints on the brand of cigarettes being used, "Wealth" brand, which is ironically one of the cheapest cigarettes in China, but also alludes to what the "carpet" represnts: desire for wealth and status.
Traveling Down the River, 2000-2004
A long uncut cigarette burned on a reproduction of a famous Chinese handscroll painting, Along the River during the Qingming Festival by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145). Zhang's painting depicts the scenary of the peak of Chinese people's commercial life in Song dynasty. The long river embodies a sense of history. The burning cigarettes marks the passage of time, leaving a kind of "emptiness" that is the ultimate destiny of tobacco.
Out of the entire Tobacco Project series, Prophecy least resembles an artwork. It comprises six texts related to tobacco. The first is a document concerning the investments and commercial activities of the British-American Tobacco Company in China. The second is a ledger of the British-American Tobacco Company’s cigarette sales in China, revealing exhorbitant sales figures for the month of October 1919 in Shanghai. The third records the profits of the British-American Tobacco Company in China between October 1918 and June 1919. The fourth document describes how the British-American Tobacco Company transferred a portion of their Chinese profits to America to fund Trinity College (which later became Duke University). The fifth is from July 1998, the budget and check stub from when Duke University invited and sponsored Xu Bing to make “Tobacco Project: Durham.” The sixth and final one is from August 2004, the receipt for the purchase of a portion of “Tobacco Project: Durham” by an American non-profit. A hundred years of prophecy, this work serves to outline the entirety of the Tobacco Project.
Tobacco Project I: Durham
Trade cards for Chinese Spirit
Trade cards for Chinese Spirit
Traveling Down the River
Study for Traveling down the River
Longing, installed in Pack House at Duke Homestead
Xu Bing working at Tobacco Book
Xu Bing visiting a local tobacco factory
Xu Bing at work
Location: The Duke Homestead & Tobacco Museum, The Perkins Library Gallery, Duke University, and Pack House at Duke Homestead, Durham, North Carolina, USA
Medium: Mixed media installation/ tobacco and tobacco related objects
In 1999, Xu Bing accepted an invitation to lecture at Duke University in Durham, North Caroline, and serve as artist-in-residence. The minute he arrived in Durham, he could smell tobacco in the air. He soon learned that the Duke family had got its start farming tobacco, so Durham has long had a reputation as a "tobacco town." On the other hand, because of Duke Medical Center, renowned for its cancer research, it is also a mecca of medical treatment. Xu Bing was intrigued by the ironical paradox that this tobacco capital continued to promote tobacco products but at the same time established an advanced medical center for cancer treatment. Perhaps not coincidentally, Xu's own father died of lung cancer after smoking for many years.
Through trips to farms, factories, and historical sites, coupled with archival research and reading, Xu came to understand the deep intertwined bond between the people, the industry, the Duke family, the university, and the city. Based on his research and personal experience, he created a variety of objects related to tobacco that compose Tobacco Project: Durham.