Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum’s first major exhibition of contemporary art opens with Xu Bing, one of China’s best known and critically acclaimed artists, exhibiting around the world. ‘Landscape Landscript’ is the first exhibition devoted to his landscapes. Born in Chongqing, southwest China, in 1955, Xu Bing grew up in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) he was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ after which he studied printmaking, becoming successful as both an artist and teacher.
He left China for the United States in 1990 and in 1999 received the MacArthur ‘Genius Award’. His subsequent awards include the Fukuoka Asian Culture prize (2003) and the first Artes Mundi prize (2004). In 2008 he returned to Beijing to become Vice President of China’s foremost art institution, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). He has exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; and the Joan Miro Foundation, Spain, amongst other major institutions.
Xu Bing works in a range of media: print, sculpture, and installations involving live animals. His international success has grown in response to his ability to embed complex ideas about art and culture within accessible, playful works which engage the audience. The work which brought him initial popular recognition, Tianshu or ’Book from the Sky’ (1987–1991), a four-volume, stitch-bound book, in the style of classical texts, is filled with what appear to be Chinese characters. The text is, in fact, composed in a script invented by the artist, printed with over 4000 handcarved woodblock characters which have no intelligible meaning. Book from the Ground (2003-ongoing), which exists as a website, an installation, a computer programme, and a printed book, is, conversely, a writing system which can be understood by anyone from any culture, literate or not.
Drawing on glyphs or what Xu Bing calls ‘pictograms’ developed in a variety of contexts over the past half century, from airport signage to international brand logos and ‘emoticons’, Book from the Ground tells the story of a day in the life of an ordinary man. Central to all Xu Bing’s art is the theme of language: its uses and changes; misunderstandings; and dialogues within and between cultures. As a Chinese artist, Xu Bing has focused particularly on the pictorial quality of the Chinese language which, he maintains, lies at the core of Chinese culture. His Landscript series uses Chinese characters for landscape features to compose landscape paintings which have the appearance of traditional Chinese landscapes, as developed since the Song dynasty (960–1279). In this way, characters for ‘stone’ make up an image of rocks; the character for ‘tree’ makes up trees; and ‘grass’ for grass and so on. Xu Bing has produced four new pieces for this exhibition which develop further his technique of using characters as brushwork.
His Landscripts will be displayed alongside his early landscape sketches and prints, with more recent works which depart from traditional landscape styles. He has also selected a number of European landscapes from the Ashmolean’s collections in order to explore how different traditions interact and to throw light on the fundamental elements of Chinese culture. “The Ashmolean is one of the world’s leading centres for the study of Chinese art – with collections dating from the Neolithic period right up to the present. We are therefore thrilled to present the work of one of China’s most exciting and innovative artists working today to a wide UK audience.” Dr Christopher Brown, CBE, Director of the Ashmolean