XU BING (B. 1955)
XU BING (B. 1955)


XU BING (B. 1955)
Scroll, mounted and framed
Ink on paper
58 x 343 cm. (22 7/8 x 135 3/8 in.)
Executed in 2008

Xu Bing play on Qian Xuan. Two thousand and eight.
Albion Gallery, London, 2008
Private collection, Asia

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Angelina Li
Angelina Li

Lot Essay

Xu Bing
Born in 1955 in Chongqing, now living between Beijing and the USA, Xu Bing’s long and illustrious career has repeatedly expanded the boundaries of contemporary ink art. In 1991, Xu relocated to the United States. He continued to display and develop his earlier projects, alongside explorations of performance art in vogue in 1990s America. Xu’s time in the USA also prompted him to develop a completely new system of writing: Square Word Calligraphy. Repetitions, Book from the Sky and his Square Word Calligraphy works laid the groundwork from which Xu began to develop his Landscripts in 1999.

Landscripts are one of Xu’s major contributions to the contemporary art field. They depict landscapes using the radicals and characters of the Chinese language, dissolving the distinction between word and image in the representation of natural space. This dissolution forces us to reconsider the way in which humanity represents and conceives of nature. Xu’s process of creating a Landscript also refracts the complex interplay between China’s language and culture, making it accessible and relevant to a global audience.

The Chinese for Landscript, wenzi xiesheng 文字寫生, directly translates as “sketching from life with Chinese characters”. That is precisely how Xu developed this technique. When travelling in Nepal in 1999, Xu wrote his first Landscripts en plein air, working with a sketchbook on Himalayan hillsides. Xu arranged and angled individual Chinese characters across the page to form the structures of what he observed. As this practice matured, Xu became more versatile at adapting the pictographic structures of the Chinese language to a pictorial function. In the most accomplished and mature Landscripts, such as Wood, Rock, Water, Xu creates a subtle symphony of variation. Slight alteration in the composition, brushwork, and ink tone of individual characters creates a vast array of shapes, forms and structures.

Wood, Rock, Water

Wood, Rock, Water is entitled in seal script characters, with a subtitle or further inscription in Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy. As the title is only legible to those who read Chinese characters, it implicitly addresses an audience familiar with China’s rich history of landscape painting. Xu’s title breaks down the structure of classical Chinese landscapes into three constituent parts: wood, rock, and water. He then uses these three elements to build his composition. The end result is an image of the natural world, filtered through human systems of linguistic and pictorial representation.

The composition is anchored by the boulders and rocks that run along its lower register. These are set against the distant mountains and hills in the far left of the composition. Every rock and slope is executed with the same series of strokes. However, their orientation, density and overlapping layers builds a complex series of structures and surfaces. The careful placement of each character builds a three-dimensional composition. Dilution of ink reads as spatial recession. This creates a clear sense of pictorial depth, in which trees and rocks in a lighter tone are further away from the viewer. These rocks are given additional volume and texture by a profusion of grass and plants, written onto their surfaces in twisting and turning seal script.

A lexical forest grows up from these rocky outcrops. The trunk of every tree is adapted from the character mu, wood. Xu renders the foliage of each tree as a profusion of radicals, where the radical tells us the tree’s genus. The branches of pines are weighed down by thickets of needles represented by the radical gong. Stands of tall cypress are lush with heavily inked bai radicals. The angular branches of two flowering peaches reach out to one another across a stretch of water, culminating in the radial zhao.
The liquid element of the landscape is more subtly applied. Most of the water separating Xu’s islands and hills is implied by the blank paper surface: a technique known as reserve white. However, subtle ripples and currents flow around the edges of selected boulders. These ripples are executed in the undulating lines of the seal script character for water, shui. Each of Xu’s shui characters are extremely dilute, emphasising the fluidity and movement of the liquid they represent. This dilution also links the material of Xu’s art work to the pictographic meanings within the Landscript: the characters for water contain more liquid than the characters for rocks or trees. Xu combines all three elements of wood, rock and water in a nuanced exploration of the structures and processes of classical Chinese landscape painting.

The relationship of Wood, Rock, Water to classical Chinese landscape painting is, in fact, highly specific. Xu has arranged the work’s Landscript components to follow a seven-hundred-year-old composition by Yuan dynasty master Qian Xuan (1235-c. 1305), Dwelling in the Floating Jade Mountains, in the collection of the Shanghai Museum. The reference is explicit in Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy inscription that follows the formal title in seal script: ‘Wood, Rock and Water: Xu Bing playing on Qian Xuan, two thousand and eight’. Qian’s work records an idealised landscape from around the turn of the 14th century, executed in an archaistic style. The green peaks, layered copses of trees, and sparse signs of human habitation are all executed with specific bush techniques that reference historic models of Chinese painting. Wood, Rock, Water supplants Qian’s historically referential brush idioms and lyrical allusion with Xu’s unique Landscript process. In Chinese painting terminology, the reinterpretation of an historic model is a linben, or freehand copy. However, Xu’s does far more than reproduce Dwelling in the Floating Jade Mountains. He redefines Qian’s work as a linguistic refraction of natural forms. Wood, Rock, Water creates a series of productive synergies between classical and contemporary conceptions of landscape, between image and text, and between nature and its perception by humanity.

Xu reworks the structures of this Yuan painting into a pictographic script, situated within his contemporary artistic practice. At the root of this work, Xu is questioning how we discern, communicate, and understand meaning from the world around us. Wood, Rock, Water is undeniably contemporary. However, the Landscript practice used to create it is actually based on script types that would have been immediately familiar to Qian Xuan as a calligrapher. While Qian would never have conceived of using seal script characters to construct a landscape, the characters themselves would have been readily legible to him. He would certainly have understood their history. Seal script is one of the earliest forms of the Chinese language. Its translates shapes, structures and movements seen in the natural world into a system of writing. In his freehand copy of Dwelling in the Floating Jade Mountains, Xu jumps back several millennia before Qian’s time, to the origins of Chinese text.

Nature and Humanity

Xu Bing and Qian Xuan are on a certain level part of the same Chinese tradition of painting and calligraphy, consciously referencing historical models that enrich their own depiction of nature. However, the dominant understanding of nature in Qian’s time was quite different from today. In the pre-industrial age of Yuan China, the natural world was not seen as irreversibly vulnerable to human excess. Xu, contrastingly, inhabits an era in which we are aware that our activities are reshaping the planet: the Anthropocene of the 21st century.

Since early 2000s, Xu’s work has become increasingly focused on environmental concerns. In his Forest Project (2005) Xu raised funds for reforestation in Kenya. Xu taught Kenyan children to create works similar to his own Landscripts, but based in their own cultures and languages. He would then copy these children’s images into his own work, auction the work online, and use the funds to replant Kenyan forests.  In 2008, the year he executed Wood, Rock, Water, Xu began producing the Phoenix series, utilising waste products from Chinese construction sites to create compelling, powerful sculptures. These birds carry the promise of rebirth and rejuvenation, but also warns us of the scale of the environmental challenges we face. In 2015, the latest iterations of Xu’s Phoenix was displayed at the 56th Venice Biennale. Wood, Rock, Water is a transitional work Xu’s oeuvre. It bridges Xu’s meticulous examination of word and image, and the masterful use of words and images to address the environmental challenges that define our era.

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