IT'S EARLY AFTERNOON when the Beijing-based artist Xu Bing saunters into the lobby of the Conrad Hong Kong in a rumpled jacket, jeans and his signature owlish glasses. Less than 24 hours ago, his PR reps were in a panic, unsure if he'd be allowed into Hong Kong because he'd mislaid a passport in New York, but a few strings were pulled and immigration let him through.
The 60-year-old artist was flying in for the Asia Society Gala, where he was being honoured, and for the opening of his concept store at K11. Disarmingly humble, Xu might be one of the most celebrated artists to emerge from China, but he seems all but oblivious of his clout. “He has little interest in the market or the art scene,” says curator and founder of Bank/Mabsociety Mathieu Borysevicz who organised the K11 project. “He just wants to do the work. [He's] almost like a scientist, experimenting, investigating.”
Among his most extraordinary experiments was Book from the Sky, a large-scale installation for which he carved 4,000 deliberately illegible Chinese characters into wood blocks. He then printed them onto hand-bound books laid on the floor and billowing scrolls, which he hung overhead.
“I wanted to break through from traditional calligraphy and distance myself from the past,” explains Xu, who began the piece in 1987. It took more than four years to complete. Daring and unexpected, the work had a huge impact when it was exhibited. “It was a simple, poetic way to challenge tradition and power,” explains Borysevicz. “Language is the foundation of civilisation, this is so much more truer for China. Book from the Sky turned a cultural treasure into nonsense.”
Xu's concept store in K11 was rooted in his more recent work Book from the Ground, which he describes as a reversal of sorts of Book from the Sky. While the early piece immersed viewers in a sea of text that no one could comprehend, Ground is a 112-page graphic novel written in a global language accessible to all. Xu tells the story of a city dweller, using hieroglyphics based on icons, ideograms, logos and symbols. He culled the latter from everyday sources, including sweet wrappers, airline safety cards and road signs. In the pop-up space on the ground floor of K11, the 2-D icons from the book were transformed into minimalist black-and-white objects such as T-shirts, cups and umbrellas available for purchase.
Xu has long been fascinated with language and art. Born in 1955 into a family of intellectuals in Chongqing, he was a shy child who practised calligraphy daily and often retreated into his drawings.
“I used to love drawing. That's a stage that most children go through when they are three or four, but after a while they develop other interests. But I wasn't that smart so I stayed in that stage,” he says with a smile.
The arrival of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s changed the course of his childhood because his father was imprisoned. “My father was working at Beijing University so he and that group of pioneers became targets. My parents were the first people to be scapegoated. They were blacklisted,” he recalls quietly. “It had a very big impact on me. When the family is suffering the kids suffer.”
A decade later Xu was forced to move to northern China to perform farm labour, but he continued to sketch regularly and soon became involved in producing propaganda art. “Like most young people, I wanted to do something to contribute to society. I worked very hard to do painting and calligraphy,” he says gesturing with his wrinkled hands. “It was a way to overcome the persecution of my family, so I had to overachieve in the other way – to be more involved in revolutionary activities.”
In 1976, following Mao's death, China's art schools resumed activity and Xu finally had the opportunity to enrol in the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA), where he studied printmaking. The capital soon turned into a hotbed of artistic activity and the young artist was excited to experiment with new ideas.
“The first time I encountered contemporary art was when I saw [an image of] Duchamp's urinal in my teacher's home – he was an art historian. It gave me big shock but I didn't really understand and I didn't get a really interesting sense from the piece,” he muses. Xu, however, was instantly fascinated by Andy Warhol. “I got a chance to see a small piece in black and white in a magazine. It was a silkscreen of Jackie Kennedy. That really gave me a lot of inspiration.”
Yet he was hungry to see more. “At that time I really wanted to know more about contemporary art because we didn't have so much information in China, so I took a chance to go to America,” he says. In 1990 he accepted an invitation to become an honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a couple of years later he moved to New York, where he lived until 2008.
While his early works continued his exploration of language, he gradually shifted away from the more traditional materials associated with calligraphy. He began working with silkworms, for instance, unleashing them onto blank volumes to leave black egg-markings creating a strange text. In another piece, he printed nonsensical roman letters onto a boar and illegible characters from Book from the Sky onto a sow. These he placed in an enclosure covered with books, where they were allowed to mate. Over the years, his career soared and he began exhibiting around the world with his works growing in ambition and scale.
“It's never about making simple objects for Xu Bing, but rather constructing a system or a grand narrative,” says Borysevicz. Among his most interesting endeavours has been the Tobacco Project, for which he created a giant tiger-skin carpet from more than 500,000 cigarettes. For another work titled Travelling Down the River, he created a nine-metre-long cigarette set alight upon a reproduction of a hand-scroll of a revered classical Chinese painting, which left a trail of burn marks and ash. The project was a compelling exploration of the culture, history and impact of tobacco.
Recently, he has focused on his Phoenix Project, a giant installation of monumental birds composed of materials from construction sites in China, which he debuted outside the Today Art Museum in Beijing in 2010. The 12-tonne birds were also shown at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art before travelling to the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York last year.
For this year's Venice Biennale, Xu introduced a new phoenix installation. “It's tougher, more aggressive looking, like a transformer,” he says. Situated over the water between two old boathouses, the mammoth creature composed of industrial detritus is a poignant commentary on the stark realities of labour in China.
“I believe in the history of Venice this is probably going to be the biggest single piece in the show,” he says. Aside from its size, the weight of its subject matter is significant. “It really emphasises some of the problems of the world today – divides in economies, urbanisation, capitalism, labour and the environment,” he explains.
Reflecting on his career, Xu says the terrain has shifted dramatically since his early days as a painter in the Cultural Revolution. “The work of an artist today has little to do with art itself. It's more about ideas,” he says.
Today, Xu describes his role as more of an ideologist of sorts and he revels in the freedom and flexibility this brings. “In the current situation, the boundary and definition of art is blurred,” he says pausing before breaking into a boyish smile. “Before I knew what art was but now I have less of an idea ... but I like that.”