Xu Bing Retrospective in Taipei

Xu Bing: A Retrospective
Xu Bing: A Retrospective at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

In March of 2014 I went to see the Xú Bīng 徐冰 retrospective at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum 台北市立美術館, easily my favourite gallery space in Taiwan. Xu Bing is a Chinese artist working mainly with representations of language, particularly in the context of interactions between East and West. I first discovered him through an article about character amnesia that discussed A Book From The Sky 天書, a work that continues to capture my imagination.

I should warn you: I’m not an art critic and these photos were shot on my cruddy smartphone. If you’d like to peruse something much more informed and professional about this exhibition I recommend perusing the curator’s statement, English language reviews here, here, and here, or this virtual tour. What follows are a few fleeting impressions of my own from a few hours in Xu Bing’s world.

Ghosts Pounding The Wall 鬼打墙
Ghosts Pounding The Wall.
Chinese classical painting assembled from found material
A Chinese classical painting installation.

The work in the entrance to the museum is Ghosts Pounding The Wall 鬼打墙, a work that didn’t make the slightest bit of sense to me. The windows fronting onto the atrium were all done up to look like classical Chinese paintings made out of found materials, most of which are somehow related to whatever objects they represent (e.g. trees were made out of leaves).

A Book From The Sky 天書
A Book From The Sky.
A Book From The Sky 天書
From the other side.
Detail of A Book From The Sky 天書
Nonsensical characters.
Detail of A Book From The Sky 天書
An unintelligible compendium.

A Book From The Sky was every bit as awesome as I imagined it would be. In a nutshell: Xu Bing spent years learning traditional printmaking techniques, invented thousands of credible-looking characters, and made a ton of important looking stuff with absolutely no semantic meaning. For someone who grows up learning Chinese characters the effect is to look at any of it and think “hmm, that character looks familiar but I just can’t place it” and, as such, the actual meaning of the text feels oddly familiar yet utterly elusive. For a foreigner like me just starting to learn Chinese all I can really do is appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the project as well as the concept behind it.

1st Class, a tiger rug made from cigarettes
A tiger rug made from half a million cigarettes.
Xu Bing’s Tobacco Book
Tobacco Book.
Square Word Calligraphy sample in greyscale
Square Word Calligraphy.

I wasn’t really sure what to make of 1st Class 虎皮地毯, the famous tiger rug made out of half a million cigarettes, or other parts of the Tobacco Project, but it was still cool. What did make a whole lot more sense (in some roundabout way) was the Square Word Calligraphy Classroom and associated artworks. This part of the retrospective aimed to answer a simple question: what if English words were constructed much like Chinese characters? This idea was explored through a number of interactive exhibits as well as playful renditions of famous fairy tales and other western works of literature into Xu’s odd-looking “square word” characters.

Square Word Calligraphy Classroom 1
Square Word Calligraphy Classroom.
Square Word Calligraphy Classroom 2
An interactive exhibition.
Square Word Calligraphy sample in red
Square Word Calligraphy sample in red.

Overall I had a really interesting time at the Xu Bing exhibition and recommend everyone go check out his work if you have the opportunity.