Xu Bing (b. 1955), who is included in any short list of highly influential contemporary Chinese artists, is singular amongst his peers for his deep engagement with printmaking. As noted by curator John Ravenal, the artist is “closely identified with language and printmaking – often joining the two to make spectacular installations” (Xu Bing: Tobacco Project; Duke/Shanghai/Virginia, 1999-2001 [Richmond, VA: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2011], 13]. Indeed, his monumental Book from the Sky (1987-91) is a tour-de-force of print-based installation – a work that had a major impact in China and earned him a worldwide reputation, eventually precipitating his move to the U.S. (resident from 1991-2008; now based in both countries). Yet Xu Bing frequently works on a more intimate scale as well, creating multiples and artist’s books that engage imaginatively and expansively with his chosen materials. Likewise, he is not tied to working within the techniques of printmaking; rather, it is a point of departure from which he begins his investigations into fundamental issues surrounding social history and systems of communication. His interest in these topics are well-matched to printmaking media, which has a long history of being used as a means of disseminating information to a wider audience (interestingly, the technique is also known to have originated in his native country over 2,000 years ago). Whatever the format for his expression, the artist’s rigorous philosophical inquiry into the nature of his materials – thereby opening connections to wider issues surrounding society and culture – is truly the stuff of genius, as recognized by the MacArthur Foundation in 1999 (for an overview of his career, see Joyce Hor-Chung Lau, “Xu Bing: An Artist Who Bridges East and West,” The New York Times, May 19, 2011).
Xu Bing’s Tobacco Project – an ongoing body of work that was originally conceived in 1999 – neatly illustrates the brilliant workings of Mr. Xu’s mind (Xu is his family name, Bing is his given name). The ideas behind the project are complex but his expression of them is so elegant as to be immediately grasped (and sniffed), yet there is also more than enough to engage the curious visitor in an endless exploration. The work offers tendrils that reach into a wide scope of social, economic, and art histories both in China and the U.S. — often establishing connections between the two – in subjects as diverse as botany and Blues music. In the artist’s words, it is “an examination of inherently human issues and weaknesses through an exploration of the extensive, tangled relationship that exists between human beings and tobacco” (Xu Bing: Tobacco Project, 67). In keeping with the multi-faceted nature of the topic, the artist enlists a wide variety of formats – including installations, sculptures, artist’s books, sketches, multiples, facsimiles, and multi-media works – to express his meditations on this lately maligned and fascinating herb that is so deeply entwined into the very fiber of both countries.
The most recent incarnation of the Tobacco Project – which currently numbers three distinct but interrelated exhibitions in the U.S. and China (Durham, North Carolina, 2000; Shanghai, China, 2004; and Richmond, Virginia, 2011) – is now on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut (through June 10). Though the works in each of the exhibitions are connected, and have built upon one another over time, the artist has been careful to tailor and customize each presentation to reflect the history of tobacco in the region. In each case, the preparatory research he has done resulted in new works. The exhibition catalogue, published by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, carefully and thoroughly explains the relationship between the three exhibitions, the histories they embody, and the artist’s intention and process. John Ravenal (curator of the Virginia installation) discusses the project as a whole, particularly with respect to the Virginia presentation; Wu Hung (curator of the Shanghai exhibition) provides a contextual basis upon which to understand the artist’s work, placing it within the wider scope of contemporary Chinese art and noting his contributions to its global rise to prominence; Lydia Liu (Tam Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University) writes an erudite personal response; and Edward Melillo (Assistant Professor of History, Amherst College) reviews the history of the tobacco trade in colonial America. An artist’s statement provides yet another level of understanding, in which he notes that he does not pass judgment on his subject, which has “already taken on the burden of too much social significance…I am simply engaging the material in a discussion, an exchange” (ibid., 64). As discussed and chronicled in the exhibition catalogue, Xu Bing’s process is laborious and time-consuming, and he relies on a large staff of assistants to execute his work. He also engages in an intense period of research and on-site visits for each location. A documentary that covers these and other aspects of the project is shown in the gallery and can be viewed online both on YouTube and the Aldrich’s website.
The first works to greet visitors to the Aldrich are Backbone (2011); and Traveling Down the River (Virginia Version, 2011), which share a connection to literary history and manuscripts. Backbone is an artist’s book in collaboration with the writer René Balcer comprised of imagery from historical “branding” stencils that were used to mark crates of tobacco. (The relationship between the success of colonial Jamestown and the marketing of tobacco is of particular interest to the artist, which he addresses in another work titled Tobacco Book [Virginia Version, 2011].) The names of the tobacco brands were compiled by Balcer into a poem that is “an ode to the African American women who [historically] performed the backbreaking tasks of tobacco processing” (ibid., 26). As with all of Xu Bing’s art, his choice of materials supports the work’s conceptual underpinnings. Backbone is printed on cigarette paper and bound with the brownish-orange tipping paper used to cover filters, then encased in a wooden box resembling a crate (the stencils were scanned and offset printed, one to a page, with added punctuation). The book is presented both in its bound and disbound forms, with each of the individual pages framed so viewers might read the entire poem. The composition was later set to music by Bluesmen Captain Luke and Big Ron Hunter (hear it on the Aldrich’s website).
Adjacent to Backbone is a yawning display case that houses Traveling Down the River (Virginia Version, 2011), which encompasses book arts, sculpture, and performance art. It is comprised of a reproduction of one the most famous scrolls in Chinese Art, Along the River during the Qingming Festival (Zhang Zeduan, 1085-1145) — which depicts throngs of Chinese citizens traversing a classical landscape on a national holiday – on top of which is placed a cigarette that spans its length; it was initially ignited and partially burned by Xu Bing at the opening reception on January 29, and the burning process will be continued periodically by museum staff until it is fully spent. In his discussion of the Shanghai version, Wu Hung states, “The charred scar on the painting’s surface not only alludes to the damage caused by smoking but also registers the passing of time – a shared element in both smoking a cigarette and viewing a traditional handscroll” (ibid., 37). Due to the appropriated scroll’s status as a national treasure, Traveling Down the River has personal associations for those of Chinese descent, but its message – particularly the implications of the mark that cigarette smoking has left on Chinese history and its impact on the people – is one that can easily be extended to the American experience as well.
The exhibition continues on the second floor of the museum, where the viewer encounters a live tobacco plant on the elevated walkway to the galleries (Nature’s Contribution, 2011) paired with a bush devoid of foliage – upon closer examination, each of the branches is tipped with red match-head paste (Match Flower [Virginia Version, 2011]). Wafts of the next work to come, 1st Class (2011) (detail illustrated top) — drift in from the adjoining space. Easily the most spectacular work in the exhibition, 1st Class is a massive “rug” comprised of generic cigarettes of the same name that resembles an oversized tiger pelt. When entering the gallery, the taint of cheap tobacco immediately overwhelms (higher grades of the product greet the senses in an adjacent room), together with the concurrently tremendous visual impact of the piece, which measures approximately 40 x 15 feet. As the viewer circles the work, thousands of cigarettes shift and glimmer, like a mirage. (They are adhered to a support at either the filter or tip to form bands of white or orange, respectively, at undulating angles that mimic the whorls of an animal’s hide). Conceptually, the piece contrasts a luxury product — in China, a tiger skin on the floor is an ultimate status symbol — with its dirt-cheap materials. The Shanghai version of this piece (which was the first), employed a Chinese generic brand called “Wealth.” Further, 1st Class juxtaposes the toxic qualities of cigarettes with their appeal – both as a sensory experience and a personal accessory.
The final rooms of the exhibition contain a host of works in a variety of media that encourage intimate consideration, including books, sculptures, multiples, and facsimiles — many of these are rooted in Xu Bing’s training as a printmaker. Some are new to the Virginia version, such as Puff Choice (2011), a work that revives historical styles of American cigarette packaging and marketing that the artist uncovered in his research. The box is a recreation of a “flat 50s” box, which is a historical packaging style for cigarettes; it is made of a balsa wood and stamped with an image from a branding stencil like those used for Backbone. Inside are several double-length American Spirit cigarettes joined at the filter (in keeping with one of the ways cigarettes were manufactured in the past; they were then cut apart). These are accompanied by reproductions of “trading cards”: colorful, cartoon-like images that were once included in cigarette packages and collected. Cigarettes were once packaged in a similar way in China, represented in a related work titled Chinese Spirit (2000), which was first created for the Duke exhibition. Also on display are the artist’s father’s medical records, which chart his death from lung cancer in 1989 at the age of 64 after a lifetime of smoking; though they are in Chinese and therefore illegible to most visitors, the notes are paired with disturbing sketches of the disease’s location in his lungs. These records also appear in facsimile in Calendar Book (below). Nearby, a group of sketches reveal the artist’s thought process, describing selected works in the exhibition as well as one unrealized concept. These final works offer fascinating glimpses into the artist’s thought process.
As a whole, the tobacco project can be understood as a visual essay – an expansive exploration of the significance of one of the world’s most commodified plants. As noted by the artist, “Tobacco has permeated our existence. It is something with which we are all familiar, and rarely do we look at it from another perspective or use it in a different way” (ibid., 64). The artist’s deep inquiry into the very nature and significance of this humble weed will be revelatory to anyone who takes the time and effort to consider it.
Xu Bing: Tobacco Project is on view through June 10, 2012 The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut. The Aldrich is supported, in part, by the Connecticut Office of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Xu Bing: Tobacco Project has been organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with generous support from Carolyn Hsu-Balcer and René Balcer.