1. It is now more than ten years since you reestablished your studio in Beijing. Are you glad to be back? What has changed in Chinese art since you first left for American roughly thirty years ago?
I have been back in Beijing for more than 10 years, and time flies. Am I glad to go back? I think life is mixed with different feelings. I went back mainly to be the vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, so it was a new challenge for me. As an artist, I also needed a lot of energy to deal with the frictions from the Chinese system and traditional art. In China, if you want to do something that you find truly interesting and worth doing, such as education, you need to waste a lot of time doing meaningless things in order to achieve a small portion of what you want to accomplish. So those years I was extremely busy. However, while I was busy, I don’t think every minute was well spent.
What’s different from 30 years ago? In recent years, China is rising and art is an ideologically sensitive part; Chinese contemporary art naturally attracts international interest. Works with a strong sense of Chinese reality (whether superficial or internal) have received increasing attention. The artist actively seeks artistic inspiration from the rich social realities around and begins the process of art practice that is autonomous, ignoring the Western modern art framework.
2. You were a participant in the mass relocation of artists and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution. Did the experience of being sent to the countryside change the way you thought about art? About politics?
For me, that experience is actually an important stage in life. Because this experience has provided an always-present and valuable reference to my thinking, which allows me to really understand the essence of Chinese people. The part of the countryside I stayed in was remote; old traditions still remained. I saw for the first time that auspicious words “Thousands of Gold” and “Fortune and Treasures” were written in a single word, not in a book on folk art, but in the cabinet of the village official’s house. I was deeply touched at that time: this was not something that you can obtain from books. When it comes to weddings or funerals, another aspect of the peasants–their brilliant mind–will manifest itself. For funerals, the peasants will use rice paper to make various things, which is completely a local version of a “Second Life.” The elders found some paper written with illegible patterns and traced those strange characters on the white cloth to make prayer flags. Once they knew that I wrote calligraphy, they asked me to do the same thing. Later, when I studied the text, I learned that this is called guihuafu (ghost’s calligraphy), which is a type of text that can communicate with the underworld. I encountered these things classified as “folklore,” and there was a ghost spirit attached to me, which affected my future creation.
My artistic creation in the village has evolved from drawing blackboard newspapers to making a mimeographed publication called “Brilliant Mountain Flowers.” My role as an artist was to make engravings on wax paper. All my interest lies in the fonts and styles of each word. In fact, the use of Chinese fonts has a strong political meaning, especially during the Cultural Revolution, although I was unaware of it at that time. It was all a formal classification—Songti, Laosong, Imitation Song, Hei Song, Bian Song, and Xie Song (different fonts). My goal was to use what I have to reach the artistic level of PLA Literature and Art (an official magazine popular during the Cultural Revolution). In a person’s life, one can only be extremely focused for a certain amount of time. I used up that amount in advance: I used it in making mimeographed publications during the Cultural Revolution. Later, I made a lot of text-related works, and some people were surprised: “Xu Bing’s calligraphy skills are so good!” Actually I have a lot of experience with the structure of Chinese characters from the Cultural Revolution period.
3. You have spent much of your life affiliated with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. How has this association affected the way you make art?
For a long time, our understanding of the art foundation is paranoid. We pay attention to the foundation of painting, but not the foundation of thinking; we hardly consider the conditions an artist needs to face in the future, and spend a lot of time on basic training for sketches, which is an outdated mode only suitable for artists in ancient times. Imagine a student who starts to prepare beginning with the examination for secondary school, then undergraduate, and finally graduate studies, from geometric plaster to the dual human figure… The amount of time we spent training an artist on sketching is surprisingly long. For such a large amount of time of training, there is no change in the subject, only the degree of difficulty. The whole process only solves a technical matter–learning to draw a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional plane to look three-dimensional. At that time, many teachers from the Central Academy of Fine Arts returned from studying in France. French academies of the 19th century still played a relatively large role in our art education then.
This type of training and education system is very conservative, rigid and limited. Art education should help students to acquire not only the art foundation but also the ability to see the world and to complete a work from a blank piece of paper–to build and cultivate creative thinking to make the ideas come true. The main thing is for students to also learn from the quality of their teachers. For example, when I prepared a sketch exhibition, I invited participating artists to recall the situations when they created their work. In the end, many of the memories are not about techniques, not how the sketch should be drawn, but a certain sentence that their teacher said. These words have left a very deep impression on the students, and have a profound impact on how they live their lives, how they view the world, and how they see art.
And then I looked back at my teachers. What did I learn from them? Chinese artists of earlier generations have a capability that was cultivated in a relatively conservative education system, and it would stimulate us to keenly reflect on conservative and ignorant education methods, to reflect on art and art in essence from a different perspective. I later discovered that our teachers were very good at advancing art to its extreme, even in very restricted conditions.
I found a huge impact on my own art creation. For example, I would first create a limit or a condition for myself before starting the new project. Only within this limit could I push my creativity and originality to an extreme. With great excitement. It’s like swimming: if you slide your arms in the air, you can’t go forward because it doesn’t have any resistance. In my work Dragonfly Eyes, I first created a limit for myself, which is that each frame of the movie must be obtained from the public surveillance and I was not allowed to shoot any frame myself. In Book from the Ground, all “words” must be a collected icon that is already in use.
4. You continue to maintain a studio in Brooklyn. What is the purpose of doing so? How often do you go back and forth between Beijing and Bushwick, and how does it affect your art-making?
I maintain a studio in Williamsburg. I used to work and live in New York, so there are a lot of creative materials there. After returning to China, I was very busy. Even though I didn’t have much time to deal with the New York studio, I kept it. I found that most institutions in the West are still contacting and communicating with my New York studio. Later, I often come back to my studio in Williamsburg, as if to take a breath from my busy life. I like the atmosphere in Williamsburg. When I first arrived, it was a large warehouse area, but later young artists and hippies started to gather, changing the cultural landscape rapidly. I like it a lot.
Besides, this is an old Italian area. I have a lot of Italian friends who I know through my previous landlord. There are good traditional Italian foods and coffee here. Williamsburg is like a small town on the outskirt of Manhattan. Every time I go back here, I feel very quiet and relaxed. I normally come back two or three times a year to do some projects, but each time I am only staying for a short period of time, from a week to ten days.
5. Much of your work–The Book from the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy–has to do with language. Why are words–both Chinese characters and English words–so important to your art?
I have an abnormal relationship with written words. My mother worked in Pekin University’s library when I was a child. She was busy with work, so she often kept me in the library when she had meetings. I have known all kinds of books for a long time, but they are strange to me, because I can’t understand them at that time. Once I had learned enough to be able to read and understand, China had entered the period when people were not allowed to read what they wanted; the only available reading was Mao’s “little red book.” When the Cultural Revolution ended, I returned from the countryside to the city. I took advantage of my parent’s work-related access to the library, and read all kinds of books from the stacks’ enormous holdings. The more I read, the more muddled my thinking became, until I felt as if something had become lost to me. I was like a starving person who all at once has too much to eat, and winds up so uncomfortable that he is filled with disgust.
Characters are the most basic element of human culture. To change the written word is to strike at the very foundation of a culture: to reconstruct language is to cut to the heart of one’s being, which all the rulers of the past dynasties are familiar with.To establish political power and be a sage for hundreds of generations, the first thing is to reform and unify the characters. Such reform touches the souls, so it is a real cultural revolution. Different characters also reflect the most profound responses and the very origins of different races and civilizations. In addition, the particularity of Chinese characters can also be related to our unique Chinese culture and personality. The characters help us understand why China becomes what we see today.
My characters are not a useful dictionary, but more like a computer virus, because it plays a role in the human brain–the conversion of the readable and indecipherable, in the inversion of concepts, disturbing the inherent thinking mode and knowledge concepts, creating obstacles to our communication and expression, challenging our mindsets. In the process of trying to find a new reference or approach, we must think out of the box, stay alert to the words and find a new conceptual framework to restore the foundation of our cognitive knowledge. This is the function of my words.
6. An ongoing series is the phoenix series, made of discarded materials. When and why did you conceive of this series? Why are you continuing to make the phoenix sculptures? Can you describe the way you make them to fit a site-specific process?
In early 2008, I returned to the Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. I was invited to create a work for a building in CBD, Beijing. I generally don’t participate in public art projects, because I think they are difficult and a bit unfair —— when you create a gigantic landmark, you “force” all passers-by to see it. However, when I went to see the site, I was deeply shocked. The living environment of the workers was in sharp contrast with the magnificent buildings. I had just come back from the United States, and this sense of China had a strong impact on me. I came up with the idea that I would use the wasted construction materials and the tools used by the construction workers. At that time, the Phoenix was more concerned about the relationship between labor and capital. It is not only the residue of the urbanization of modern culture, but also a good wish for the workers. It’s both scarred and dignified.
After the 2008 economic crisis, Phoenix has not been placed in its originally planned position, because the capitalists disliked the irony and criticism in this work. They pointed out that the Phoenix seemed incomplete: it was too rough, maybe [it needed] to be wrapped with a layer of crystal. I realized the gap in our understanding of the work. After the capitalists retrieved the fundings, the Phoenix started “wandering” around the world to attend various exhibitions. Each exhibition adds new meanings and brings new dialogues with its special history, economy, and history. For example, in MASSMoCA, the Phoenix seemed to have returned to its previous existence. In St. John’s Cathedral in New York, it resonates with Christianity’s concern with human destiny and ordinary people because every piece of material [used in making the sculpture] has been touched by construction workers’ hands.
7. The Book of the Sky is beginning to look like a permanently major work of contemporary Chinese art. How has its meaning changed in the more than thirty years since it has been made? Does it have a political meaning, or only an artistic one?
From its first exhibition in China to later shows around the world, Book from the Sky has attracted great attention and brought out various evaluations and interpretations. The reason might lie in the fact that it doesn’t say anything. Every country is a political society. Even though sometimes artists don’t directly talk about politics, their works of art or reflect the social environment to some extent. What they reflect is not directly determined by the artist’s personality, his attitude towards the social relationship between art, and his grasp of a proper size.
It is difficult to judge Book from the Sky only by asking whether it is political or not. I’ve been reflecting on the nature of art during the Covid-19 crisis: good art is like an unknown virus, coming from an unknown origin, whose gene is yet to be figured out and put in order. The mutation of its gene is endless; good art always changes with the progress of civilization, and a new sense of aggression will appear.
8. The Book from the Ground correlates with the The Book from the Sky, but it is meant to be accessible to everyone–anyone who can read simple icons. Is this book a sequence meant to counter the esotericism of The Book from the Sky? Do people find it as easy to read as it is impossible to read The Book from the Sky?
Book from the Sky is a book that is ineligible to anyone, while Book from the Ground is easy to understand for everyone. The former expresses my doubts about the existing characters, while the latter reflect my ideal that we could have a universal language for all. The ability to read Book from the Ground has nothing to do with the readers’ education level, or their amount of knowledge, but their degree of involvement in contemporary life. As long as you live in today’s society, you can read the emoji language. In fact, both Book from the Sky and Book from the Ground will make intellectuals and scholars uncomfortable, because when they face these books, all their previous knowledge becomes useless, making them just as ignorant as the uneducated. From this point of view, in front of both books, people are equal.
The books were created almost 30 years apart. Imagine that we switch the year of creation for both works, we will see that both works are deeply rooted in the different contexts of the culture, politics and civilization of their own time. While my works appear in very different forms, the core ideas remain the same; the works become each other’s mutual annotation and inspiration.
9. A number of your works–indeed, many of them–involve the efforts of more than a few people. Does running a large studio like this result in making art that is more difficult to create? How do you feel about signing over art-work tasks to others?
Today, the methods and forms of art creation have become so varied and comprehensive, art becomes increasingly uncertain and difficult to define, which reflects the characteristics of the contemporary times. The boundaries between different fields are disrupted. My art projects must rely on various technical support to realize the diversity of my materials. I feel like an architect, who has to realize a project within a limited time, and work with a team together. But I don’t really like to work with many people or to worry about management. However, to achieve a project that is filled with great curiosity toward the unknown, I have to work hard with a team. In this process, people from different fields activate each other’s wisdom, which is something I enjoy very much in my work.
10. What kind of art is now being made in China? You have a classical outlook–does that point of view come up a lot now in young people’s work? Is it still possible to make a good, classically inspired artwork in today’s China?
In my point of view, wherever you live, you have to face problems. If you see a problem, you have art. These problems become the source of your artistic creation. Most young artists are eager to enter the mainstream art system. However, for young artists, it is not important to dive into the system, but to find a suitable position and relationship with the system. It is necessary to bring new ideas to the “classical” art system, which cannot be found in the system itself, but can only be obtained from other fields outside of the art world. Today’s art becomes stunning on the surface but narrower in its methodology. Too many contemporary artists are capable of producing the typical modern art.
There is no obvious break between art education and Chinese traditional or classical art, which is a strength. If students consciously and actively try to examine the problems of modern art with distinctive Chinese experience, they can find a sharper angle to approach problems than those in the western art world. China’s history renders rich layers of experiences: the ancient tradition, the socialist tradition, and the experience of the Cultural Revolution. We should not waste all this “nutrition.” These nutrients, together with foreign knowledge from the West, can produce a mixed kind of ingredient, the rare ingredient, which is useful for future cultural development..
11. Please describe your recent film project, Dragonfly Eyes–how it was made, what it is about, its impact on the Chinese art world. Is your meaning generally social (across cultures), specifically political (particular to China), or both?
One night in 2013, I turned on CCTV because I was bored and saw some surveillance pictures on legal programs. The pictures [I saw] on that day have a special attraction for me. I realized that the charm of these pictures must be unique to surveillance images but something rare in ordinary images. All the feature films we have seen so far have been performed. However, every frame of the plot in the movie I wanted to make actually was happening in the real world. When I got this idea, I began to ask my friends who were making movies [about how to make the film] because I was a contemporary artist and had never made movies. Later, suddenly a large number of real-time surveillance images were connected to the cloud, and a large amount of surveillance video was broadcast live on the public network platform. At that time, we prepared 20 computers to download videos 24/7. It took us about two years to download the materials and write scripts at the same time. Finally, selected from 11000 hours of footage, we made an 81 min film, which can be said to the films with the largest amount of footage.
The problems reflected in Dragonfly Eyes are global. This new technology brings out issues and discussions on privacy, public security and other subject matter. We human beings are passive in face of these issues. I consulted with lawyers during the project, but at that time, few lawyers could state clearly where the legal boundary was. This technology is updating and spreading so fast that there has not been new laws or regulations to follow up.
Today, we have entered the post-surveillance era. In earlier times, the original purpose of surveillance technology naturally gives this technology a strong political concept, namely, surveillance and control. Governments of all countries use [surveillance] to monitor and manage citizens’ behaviors. The post-surveillance camera era is characterized by the wide use of surveillance technology by large public and private companies. People use it as a means to interact with the world. Compared with the old concept of surveillance, whose problems with privacy are widely acknowledged, this field has expanded the content of other, huge categories. The fact that I was able to make a movie entirely out of surveillance footage points to the relationship between people and cameras today.
12. Can you describe one or two of your most recent projects? What are they about? How are you making them? Do they have your particular mix of lyricism and social commentary?
The complexity of issues from various parts of the world continue to concern people who care about the fate of the world. As an artist, he (or she) must have something to say, which will be reflected in his art creation. I always have many ideas that I wish to express, but I frequently feel that my hands cannot catch up with my mind. I have several projects in progress at the same time. Some are very ambitious, some are very personal– so the work can only be achieved in my own studio. These works have not yet been completed yet, so it is difficult to describe to you. The process of making an artwork is similar to polishing the artist’s thoughts. When new works are released to the community, I hope to hear everyone’s feedback.