Xu Bing lectures on creativity, tradition

Last Friday,  renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing gave a talk to a full audience at MASS MoCA on the eve of the opening of a new gallery devoted to the artist’s work. Recent visitors to the museum most likely marveled at his awe-inspiring exhibit, “Phoenix,” which features two massive birds made from construction site waste materials that hang gracefully from the lofty ceilings of Building 5 at MoCA, as well as pieces from his other installation, “Tobacco Project.”

In his talk, Xu discussed his work from the past 20 years, including the pieces on display at MASS MoCA. Through his work Xu creates a complexity of meaning by melding apparent dichotomies: industrial and beautiful; east and west; classical and contemporary. With his provocative and surprising use of material and subject matter, Xu challenges his viewers to see reality in a new way and experience his work on multiple levels.

Xu, who spoke in Mandarin and used a translator, began his lecture discussing his traditional Chinese training in which he mastered skills in both classical drawing and depiction of the rural Chinese experience. He received his training during the Cold War – a time when China separated itself from the rest of the world and valued traditional art highly. In retrospect, Xu credits his rigorous Chinese training with instilling in him a deep understanding of and appreciation for the form and precision that distinguishes him as a unique artist.

As an illustration of this point, Xu recounted the installation of the Phoenixes at MASS MoCA during which he insisted that the height of the birds be changed. He acknowledged that initially some view him as “picky,” but he said, “at the end they say this artist is doing it to make it even better.”

Xu went on to discuss his early work with contemporary art. He described one of his first experiments in which he placed silk worms inside a display of mulberry leaves. After a few days, the silk worms had eaten the leaves and spun cocoons within the display. Xu explained it was with “this work I really began to understand how to use traditional Chinese philosophical concepts to approach contemporary art.”

Xu’s more recent “Calligraphy” project, which will be part of the new exhibition, also juxtaposes a multitude of elements through the medium of language. Xu pointed to the screen on which there appeared to be a photograph of a banner inscribed with Chinese writing. A closer look at the lettering, however, revealed the words, “Art for the people.” Xu explained, “I use these characters that appear to be Chinese but are actually English.” Xu recounted that visitors to his calligraphy pieces often say, “people must be very unhappy because you’ve taken Chinese and turned it into English,” but he responds, “No Chinese people should be very happy because I have taken English and turned it into Chinese.” Xu jokingly likened the result of “taking two systems of writing and pressing them together” to “the traditional approach to forced marriage, taking two people and pressing them together and whether they are appropriate together, they are together.” Xu explained that his system of writing pushes us beyond our limits by presenting barriers to our normal ways of thinking. It forces us to look carefully, switching between different parts of our brains, and ultimately embrace a sense of humor.

In another of his new works, Xu eliminates language altogether and replaces it with symbols and icons to create a universally intelligible story. The book ultimately “overturns what our ideas are of culture” by eliminating the exclusionary element of language. Xu explained that we traditionally appraise a person by his cultural background, yet, “to read this book has nothing to do with your educational background, but instead the depth and breadth to which you’ve entered into modern life.” This work ultimately reveals the ways in which modernity is unifying us, leading us into “a new age of pictographic language.”

Moving back to the piece most familiar to visitors of MASS MoCA, Xu described the story behind the creation of “Phoenix.” He recalled visiting the site where the World Financial Center in Beijing, which was to be the home of his commissioned work, would be built. The construction site gave him a sense of shock that “came from seeing the conditions that the migrant workers had been living and working and the intense disparity between this and these huge modern buildings around Beijing.” The juxtaposition inspired him to create his graceful birds from the industrial waste at the construction site. This work, which Xu says has “taken on the flavor of Chinese reality,” epitomizes, on an enormous scale, his moving ability to create cohesive meaning and beauty from naturally opposing elements.