The ABC of 「The Tobacco Project」

The "Tobacco Project" collects and organizes various materials related to tobacco, which constitutes a project that is difficult to define whether it is an extension of sociology or art.The plan started in 2000 in Durham, the seat of the Duke family in the United States; passed through Shanghai, China, in 2004; and extended to Virginia, USA, in 2011-these cities are inextricably linked to tobacco.


 In 1999, I went to Duke University to give a lecture, and as soon as I entered the city of Durham, I could feel the smell of tobacco in the air.Friends introduced: The Duke family started with tobacco, so this city is also called "Tobacco City”, and because Duke University's medical center is particularly good at treating cancer, this city is also called “Medical City.”Here, what an interesting relationship between tobacco and culture.

 I have a hobby. I like to visit local factories wherever I go. Those "smart" machines are more like art than installation art.After visiting the cigarette factory, I was attracted by the exquisite tobacco-making materials. Such exquisite materials made my thinking about this part of the materials sensitive and active.I decided to use these materials as a qualification to do a tobacco-related project.Professor Stanly Abe of Duke University supports this idea.I began to collect and study materials and visit relevant people.In a large number of materials in the Duke University Library.I learned about the historical materials of the Duke family's relationship with China. It was they who first brought cigarette technology to Shanghai.I thought at that time that I would move this plan to Shanghai in the future.Four years later, under the planning of Professor Chen Hong, the "Tobacco Plan-2: Shanghai" was realized.I added new works based on the materials and venues in Shanghai, which added historical, regional and realistic dimensions to this plan.In 2005, I visited the pipes collected by Kurolan and rena and began to learn about the history of Virginia tobacco.Here, tobacco is closely related to early immigration and the history of the American continent, and it is now the production center of “Marlboro”.With the support of kaolan and rena, the "Tobacco Plan-3: Virginia" was realized.And made a more in-depth discussion on the relationship between tobacco and human society.


Let us analyze the problem of using tobacco as a limiting material:

When I saw those exquisite tobacco-making materials in the cigarette factory, I thought these “substances” should not be burned, they can be used in other places-such as art.The feeling of the material is often the original cause of the idea of the work, which is the most reasonable relationship between the artist and the work.I want to use tobacco as the main creative material, and the next step is why and how to use these materials.First of all, the materials I have limited to this project are limited to tobacco-making materials. This is because I know that the field of tobacco will be a subject that is so rich that you may not be able to start.Selectivity is important, and the first choice is to limit your own choice. Tobacco as a material will be effective, because in the general concept, tobacco is a bad thing, and art is a good thing. Humans are dependent on both, and combining the two into one will inevitably produce a new force. Tobacco permeates life. People are familiar with smoking and their understanding is fixed. Few people look at it and use it from another perspective.When I tried to treat it from a different perspective and put it in another field, I found that it was both a brand new thing.

Xu Bing Tobacco Project Shanghai 009.jpg

When I came into close contact with tobacco as a material, I realized that they should not be given more subjective judgments, they already carry too much social content.I don't want my work to just be added to the ranks of publicity.I don't need to work hard on this matter because it is already something that everyone knows.The value of my work comes from a kind of cutting into tobacco without subjective judgment.Think of them as an attribute-free material, and put them back in their original position. They only have specific conversations and exchanges with the material. At this time, the tentacles of thinking can be expanded infinitely, and the rare parts can be seen.If you always judge with morality and stakes, you won't be able to see the real part of it.The relevance of works of art to social content actually does not need the artist to worry about, not to mention the material of tobacco, it has taken care of this relationship by itself.The artist's judgment is naturally reflected by the movement of the ”hand".I know that my task is to enjoy it as happily as a smoker. There is no need to think too much. If you think too much, there will be no taste when you smoke.

Tobacco is very permeable. It is pervasive and eventually ashes. It has various channels of relationship with the surrounding world and everyone-economy, culture, history, law, morality, faith, fashion, living space, personal interests, etc.Not only is the tobacco-making material itself very rich, but the information associated with it is richer and endless, which makes it impossible for us to plan thoroughly.The process of creation is like Pandora's box being constantly opened.For example, during the period from 1999 to 2000 when the "Tobacco Plan: Durham" plan was in progress, the litigation against tobacco companies caused by the adjustment of nicotine content by former tobacco companies a few years (1997) was at its climax.The 14.5 billion compensation from tobacco companies has changed the economic position of the U.S. tobacco industry, and has even affected the cigarette factories that funded this project to change the way they cooperate with us.In 2004, the day before I flew to Shanghai for this project, I learned that “555” was preparing to establish the world's second largest tobacco production base in Jinan, China. After more than 20 years of negotiations, the project was approved by the Chinese government.But at the same time, there is news that the Chinese government denies the matter.“555" is the brand of British American Tobacco, and Duke is its predecessor.Due to the difficult development of the tobacco industry in the “first world” of the West, coupled with the cheap and open labor market in China, the choice of the western tobacco industry and the transfer of the market really seem to be a repeat of the situation a hundred years ago.

In Shanghai, due to the Chinese state's control of tobacco, access to materials is more difficult than in the United States four years ago.And today, a few years later, when I visited Marlboro's huge production base, there was a stricter security check than entering the White House.The company doesn't want to have anything to do with our project at all-the attitude of “we don't even want to know”.But at the same time, the pious worship of tobacco by tobacco farmers and tobacco workers has made me further feel the “awkward” relationship between tobacco and human society.

Except for “tobacco” as the main line of the "Tobacco Plan", there is no stylistic consideration or connection between the works and the works.Some make small and exquisite things like "jewelry", and some control the entire space so huge that people can't grasp the scope and form of art.The semantics of the entire project are produced in the mutual setting off and “questioning” of many works, which makes the viewer's thinking go further.Here, the “ambiguity and uncertainty” of tobacco and the ambiguity of the material are transformed into a clear and positive language.This has become a feature of the artistic language of this project.

The full use of materials is also reflected in the use of specific scenes and environments.In "Tobacco Plan-1: Durham", I intend to penetrate the entire plan into all corners of the city and the inner memories of residents.Because the history of this city and every family or individual have something to do with tobacco.For example, in the Duke University Library, I opened up a “library” with all kinds of strange readings I made from tobacco-making materials.In "Tobacco Project-3: Virginia", the exhibition hall of the Virginia Museum of Art we used, named after ******, is Marlboro's subsidiary company.The most typical is the use of Gallery 3 on Shanghai Overseas Beach in "Tobacco Project-2: Shanghai".This gallery is an overseas operating entity.It was the most luxurious commercial space in Shanghai in the name of culture during that period.This kind of foreign investment operation strategy can be summed up by the promotion concept of Duke Tobacco's advertising slogan in China a hundred years ago: “Civilization, fashion, hygiene, and a new way of life”. Like early tobacco industry investors, they earn money from Chinese people to buy a “new way of life.” Money.


The huge windows of the exhibition hall of Gallery 3 on the Bund are facing the Pudong Development Zone, which symbolizes China's economic takeoff. The “Lujiazui” district is the production base of Duke Yingmei Tobacco Company a hundred years ago.I used this excellent venue to form a long roll of old photos of this place, which were hand-painted in the form of sketches on the large windows and walls.At this time, the scene of the old days overlapped with the vivid reality.The hand-painted effect creates a deep sense of tracking and backtracking.

So, what will this huge plan eventually tell people?

What I am interested in is: by exploring the long and entangled relationship between man and tobacco, reflecting on human beings' own problems and weaknesses.Historically, the relationship between tobacco and our human beings has been far and near. In some eras, it was regarded as a good thing, and both men, women and children used tobacco.Now it can be said to be the peak of human smoking cessation.The design of a cigarette case can indicate the contradictory behaviors of tobacco production, marketing, and non-smoking.Everyone knows that smoke is harmful, but they can't do without it.This kind of entanglement is like a relationship between lovers. It doesn't work when it's close, but it's not when it's far away.Human weakness and the meaning of smoke together constitute this awkward relationship, revealing the “helpless part” of human nature.It is actually difficult to judge the harm of smoke to human physiology and the infinite things that people get from the smoke.

Let me introduce a few works in detail below:

"Book of Golden Leaves"

 People in the tobacco industry are used to calling tobacco leaves “golden leaves.”This book made of "golden leaf" paper is printed with a story about how the Duke family introduced cigarettes to China: "Duke's first words after learning about the invention of the cigarette machine were: 'Bring me a map.’When they brought the map, he looked through it, but he was not looking at the map, but at the description under the map, until he found the legendary number, population: 4.300 million.He said: ‘That's where we are going to sell cigarettes.’There’ refers to China."(Note: Taken from the passage in the book "Big Business in China" by Professor Sherman Cochran in the United States.) Since then, a wonderful history of capital and cultural wars with tobacco as the axis has begun.Duke sent young employees to China to promote the technology of growing cigarettes and cigarettes.Employees who can speak Chinese will double their wages. The spread of cigarettes to China as a kind of “civilization” is really a bit like the early missionaries (previously, the Chinese only used pipes).I put a lot of tobacco leaf insects in this book, and let them eat the pages into a pile of pieces during the exhibition.

"Desk Calendar"

It is related to the history of my family.My father is a smoker and died of lung cancer 20 years ago.When I started the Tobacco Project, I thought of looking for his medical records before his death.This medical file is the log of doctors and nurses. The first page is the patient's smoking history, the middle is the record of the development of the disease, treatment measures, and the effect of medication, and the last page is the record of the years, months, days, hours, and minutes, and the cause of death.The desk calendar is made of “American Spirit” cigarette case wrapping paper, with a wrapping paper pattern on one side and a case record on the other.

"Qingming Shanghe Map Volume"

It is an installation in the Durhan Tobacco Museum.An unfolded hand-rolled "Qingming River Map" with a lit 8-meter-long cigarette on it, burned on the picture, leaving a trace.This Chinese Song painting depicts traditional folk life and the budding period of Chinese capitalism.The long river gives people a sense of time.The smoke that was burning silently burned very slowly, but it made people feel uneasy.It will pass after it is burned, just like a person smoking a cigarette, as if it has passed a lifetime.The nothingness of smoke is a kind of destiny.When this work was exhibited in Durhan, due to smoking regulations, half of it was indoors and half was outdoors, and only half of it was burned outdoors.The other half continued to burn in Shanghai.

"Glory and Wealth"

It is a huge tiger skin carpet made of 660,000 cigarettes.Tiger skin is of special symbolic significance. The colonists went hunting in Africa and Asia. The most typical commemorative photo is a tiger skin carpet in front of them, with two indigenous people standing next to them.This is the specific information of the meaning of “tiger skin", and it is also a metaphor for the meaning of this image appearing in this plan.This "carpet" is so comfortable that people really want to lie on it. It is full of drunk gold fans, with a kind of domineering emerging capitalism and a desire for money and power. It's a lot like a feeling in China today.This work was inspired by "Tobacco Project-2: Shanghai".It was named "Ronghua Fugui“ because it used ”Ronghua Fugui" brand cigarettes.This brand of cigarettes is almost the cheapest, one yuan per pack.Interestingly, the cigarette used in the production of this work in Virginia is "Fest Class", a pack of one dollar.

 The most interesting part of this work is the “taste”.The huge carpet fills the entire building with a strong smell of tobacco, which is particularly effective as an “artistic language”.In our understanding, humans have visual art and auditory art, but they do not realize the “art of smell”. Perhaps the perfume industry is the art of smell.In Japan, there have been activities to smell fragrant wood very early, which is similar to the “tea ceremony”.Once in South Korea, I was inspired by a sentence from a friend: “Have you noticed that the air in every city tastes different.”It's like this. New York has the taste of New York and Beijing has the taste of Beijing. This shows that the sense of smell has cultural memory and can be used to express it.

"The Invention of Smoke 1920"

This device realized an idea that I did not fully realize in Durham.In Shanghai, we found an old tobacco warehouse and created a huge fantasy installation “Indoor Sea of Clouds”.The text of the cold white neon light comes from the advertising words of the old Anglo-American tobacco Company: "Tobacco invention.It is also the most convenient and satisfactory method...Neat, pure, and the most hygienic.”The mist of dry ice used on the stage covered these words, revealing a strange light.The smoke “washed” the ruins of history clean and empty.At this time, other parts reveal a deeper sense of historical traces.

"Middle Cut"

This work is the most unusual work of art in the entire "Tobacco Plan". It is only connected by arrows with six tobacco-related texts.The first is a document on the investment and commercial activities of the British American Tobacco Company in China a hundred years ago.The second is the report record of the British American Tobacco Company's sales of cigarettes in China. The document shows that between October 1919, an astonishing number of cigarettes were sold in Shanghai in one month (a total of ***).The third is the record of the British American Tobacco Company's profits in China from October 1918 to June 1919.The fourth is a document that the British American Tobacco Company transferred part of its profits in China to the United States to fund Trinity College (the predecessor of Duke University).The fifth is that in July 1998, Duke University invited and funded Xu Bing to implement the budget and payment stub of the "Tobacco Plan-1: Durham" project.The fifth is a payment check for some of Xu Bing's works in "The Tobacco Project: Durham" in the collection of the American Museum in August 2004-a century-old cutaway.This work plays the finishing touch to the entire "Tobacco Plan".

"Puff Choice"

It was specially produced for "Tobacco Project-3: Virginia".In the study of the history of Virginia tobacco, two things have given me a lot of inspiration: first, the design samples of the Virginia tobacco brand in the old days.Second, I learned about John, an early immigrant.The deeds of Ralph and others.I handed these design samples to the writer Rena and asked him to write a poem with these brands.I used cigarette paper and design samples as materials to make a special book for this poem.I intend to use this as a favor to John.Ralph's greetings.

The preface to this book has this content:

“Between 1607 and 1609, Britain sent 644 people to America for adventures.The average life span of immigrants in this period was 6 months. They died of disease, cold, hunger, or conflict with the Indians, leaving only 60 people in less than a year.Ralph is one of the survivors.

This is the third immigration operation in the UK, and it is destined to suffer the doom of the previous two annihilation.But things came to 1612, due to John.Some of Ralph's actions have reversed the situation and changed the history of Britain and even mankind.

This year Ralph planted some tobacco seeds he brought back from Trinidad in Virginia.Two years later, when he saw an Indian princess walking naked through the streets of James Village, which had only five or six houses and dilapidated churches at the time, he fell in love with her and married her.At the moment when the immigrants died one after another, Ralph was learning from his Indian relatives about tobacco cultivation and pest control techniques.Finally, he cultivated a unique Virginia tobacco, and quickly occupied the British market with its unique quality.

Ralph came to London in 1616 with his beautiful wife and a ship of golden tobacco.These two products of the new world have attracted the attention of the public.Unfortunately, the Indian princess fell ill in another place and died.Ralph buried her in Greve and returned to America alone with a lot of money and goods.Ralph's experience has led to a rapid and eternal transformation of the fate of immigrants.

Ralph's other move soon after this was: in 1619, he introduced the most important concept in tobacco history-brand.He named the tobacco he cultivated "Orenoko".This word reminds people of the myth of the ”golden Country".This kind of smoke exudes a unique soft fragrance.As a poet at the time described: “Sweeter than the breath of the most beautiful girl.”These qualities of Virginia tobacco are expressed by the words ”Orenoko".Although Ralph gave this tobacco a name just like naming a child, this small step gave “tobacco” an extraordinary identity.

I never knew John.Ralph and others, the information about him comes from the portable books of this trip to Virginia; Ian.Gatley's book "Nicotine Girl: The Cultural History of Tobacco".I appreciate Ralph's attitude towards the world and the quality of doing things.

The patterns in this booklet can be said to be the “reproduction” of the concept of “Orenoko”.From the brand name to the image design, it reflects that people pin their future and ideals on their carefully produced tobacco as if they are looking forward to their children, relatives and friends, or keepsakes.

From the changes in the visual design of a certain brand in different periods that have survived to the present day, we can see the components of the original genes in today's brand image, and we can also see us-people themselves.

Tobacco, a species entangled with humans, has undoubtedly driven the development of human society, economy, and trade in many aspects.As a visual artist, I have also seen its improvement in many aspects such as the advertising industry, visual communication disciplines, and the effectiveness of font use-these contributions are outside the original functional purpose of the tobacco industry.”

The "Tobacco Plan" started with an interest in the taste of tobacco leaves and tobacco-making materials, but as a result, it has developed a huge and growing one, between art and history and sociological research, or it is to explore sociological issues in an artistic way; introduce artistic activities in a sociological way.The occurrence and results of art are sometimes like this. The sensitivity of some people to something leads to changes in the old artistic methodology and brings out some new methods.


       May 8, 2011