“Being & Nothingness”: A Profile of MacArthur Genius Grant-winning artist Xu Bing

Imagine a book that has all the qualities of a prized relic of Chinese history: crisp, beautiful letterpress printing, hand-sewn bindings, careful layout, detailed margin annotations. Now, imagine not being able to read one word of the book, even if you know some Chinese. Your literacy has been supplanted by an odd sensation that the words are floating right there on the edge of your subconsious, on the tip of your tongue.

Even though it has been 16 years since Xu Bing first exhibited Book From the Sky, his monumental, otherworldly work composed entirely of illegible Chinese characters, the piece is still haunting. The work launched the artist’s career and defined the conundrums he would puzzle over in the years to come: How can characters be illegible, yet still Chinese? What are the limits of language? What do words symbolize?

Book From the Sky drew praise from the art and intellectual establishment in late-’80s China, as an idea and a creation. But it also drew sharpcriticism for its shocking reinterpretation of traditional linguistic forms. In the intervening years, public opinion turned in Xu’s favor. Today, the artist is firmly established as a major player in the international art scene, having won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1999 and appeared in a succession of major exhibitions in the U.S. and in China. In recent years, he has experienced homecoming exhibits in both countries: At the end of 2002, his work was included in the government-sponsored First Guangzhou Triennial and in the Shanghai Biennale-his first shows in China since immigrating to the U.S. in 1990. And this spring, Xu will return with new work to the Elvehjem Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, the venue that held his first solo exhibition in the U.S. a decade ago. For an artist who has said, “I worked for many years to create something that said nothing,” his ways of saying nothing have spoken very powerfully indeed.

Excerpted from the profile that originally appeared on pages 90–95 of the March/April 2004 issue of Print.

Posted in design, profiles, Uncategorized, Writing at July 18th, 2009. Trackback URI: trackback