Born in 1955 in Chongqing, Xu Bing grew up in Beijing. He attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1977 and stayed to teach after graduation in 1981. He immigrated to the States in 1990, and in 2008 returned to his homeland for the teaching post of Vice President at his alma mater. His works have been exhibited at the most prestigious including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The British Museum in London, Le Louvre in Paris, and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. He was made a MacArthur Fellow, the highest honor in the arts in America in 1999, awarded the 14th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2003, the first Artes Mundi in 2004, the Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern Graphics Council in 2006, and named one of the 15 Most Notable International Artists by Art In America.
Everyone has their own �70s, but if I talk about mine, I am namely speaking of my history of ignorance. Compared to my counterparts in "Anonymous," Today, and "Stars," I most definitely arrived very late at my enlightenment. As a matter of fact, I have always had a profound respect for these people. Every time I describe my personal experience in learning to paint, I have the habit of comparing myself with them, and I just can never figure out why I was so far from "getting it" at the time. When Bei Dao (1) and Keping (2) were at the Democracy Wall (3) and outside art museums protesting, I was too fascinated with drawing plaster busts in the Academy. Now that I think about it, it is inconceivable that I was merely an observer to all the important events of the time. From the Triangle at Beijing University(4), Democracy Wall, the Stars Art Exhibition at Beihai Park, April Film Festival at Culture Palace*, to People�s Art Mini Theatre where Gao Xingjian (5) used to put on his plays, I have been there and seen it all, albeit as an onlooker. When the April Fifth Tiananmen Incident broke out, others were busy transcribing poems and giving speeches at the Tiananmen Square, while I sketched away among the crowds, because I felt it appropriate for an artist. Just like Huang Zhen (1909-1989, Chinese diplomat and artist) joining the Long March: I never thought it special, but he did quite a few sketches during the Long March, which served as historic documentary, and it really impressed me to think of him as a great figure who had one extra role more than everyone else [on the Long March]. I was an outsider "present" at the historic events of my time, which I treated exactly the same as the lectures at the Academy: I never missed a single one.
I remember going to "watch" a poetry reading held by Today at Bayi Lake in Yuyuantan Park. I was cramped between the shoulders of discussants, being pushed towards the trapped "Youth Leaders." I did not know any of them, and cannot recall clearly who was who, but perhaps I saw a face that may have belonged to Huang Rui (6). He saw me, his eyes stayed on me, and then he stopped his grand speech all of a sudden. Embarrassed, I looked down at myself and realized I was wearing my Central Academy emblem. Not long after I enrolled at Central Academy, the dean�s office found for us some school buttons, white text against green background, made from cloisonn�, a rare treasure back then. My fellow students and I wore them at school, and most of us took them off when we walked out of the school gates. When I realized [at the Today poetry reading] that I forgot to take mine off that day when I left school, I immediately backed out of the crowd, took off my button, and weaved my way back in to watch what was going on.
That moment of staring at each other could be described as a silent yet mutual recognition between two types of youth learning to paint at the time - the ones who grasped on the opportunity of traditional training and the ones who taught themselves. I was not only proud of my status as a student at the Academy, who got to study European classical plaster busts in those sublime studios, while envious of those Song of Youth (7) -style youth leaders. Nevertheless, I believed that they would find some plaster busts to sketch when they were not busy with the protest, and had tried to earn a spot at the Academy. I should say these two tracks (enlightenment and ignorance) both had their constructive intentions at the time.
Now that I look back, I was basically trotting down the ignorance track, which had to do with my background. All of the schoolmates I grew up with were the same, too. They were even worse, probably have never been to Democracy Wall. This was an exclusive Peiking University kids circle, all of us very honest and scrupulous due to our politically-incorrect families: Capitalist roaders, reactionary scholars, with parents accused as "deliberately unwilling to be part of the people," (8) related to elders who were landlords or capitalists, or spies with connections overseas. Therefore, my friends usually grew up with a single parent, or an older sister driven crazy. (Back in those days, if the oldest of all siblings was a girl, more often than not she was driven insane, which is so bizarre! Maybe it was because older sisters came of age earlier and were hence under much more pressure.) Most of these schoolmates later went abroad, and I have bumped into four of them on foreign streets: three in New York, one in Manchester. And out of these four, two of them with fathers who committed suicide, and the other two with an oldest sister still in a mental asylum. (Thank God, my family has more robust genes for our nerves and overcame all the hardships.)
We kids with politically incorrect families grew up with the guilt of naturally making trouble for the Revolution. When it came to our families, there was nothing we could do, and even our teachers belonged to our circle. Many of my teachers at PKU High School (9) were young teachers who almost got framed as Rightist themselves during Anti-Right Movement. And because of their mistakes, they were later distributed to teach at PKU High School. What these teachers had in common was they were highly intelligent, full of knowledge, passionate with reasoning, and seriously competitive. With their wit and lessons learned the hard way, they subconsciously leaned towards the politically correct track. This was something very easily absorbed by the kids "with potential to be correctly educated," which resulted in a competition between teachers and students to see who was more correct. The flaw in our blood was something nobody could change, so all we could do was to work much harder and devote ourselves much more than others to prove that we, too, were useful people. That kind of casual ease from "the Red Five Types" (10) or the offspring of government and Revolution officials, before they were brought down, was out of the question among us; none of us would dare to show the attitude of not caring, which shaped our character.
In 1972 Deng Xiaoping returned to his post, and a small group of people went back to high school. PKU High School needed someone who could do arts and crafts, so they asked me to stay in high school. Deng wanted to resume the Three-Step Rocket plan the former president of Peiking University had: Primary School Attached to Peiking University → PKU High School Middle School Section → PKU High School → Peiking University. Not long after word was out, Deng was accused of trying to stage a comeback, and the plan was put off again. When I graduated from high school, the Red Guards in PKU High School, Tsinghua High School (12), The Beijing No. 1, 2, and 3 Middle Schools decided to write to the CYLC (13) central, requesting to be equals of industrial workers and peasants and move to the toughest, most laborious places. This letter was released in Guangming Daily (I later learned that this was done out of the will of someone in CYLC central), and became a small climax for the Down to the Countryside Movement. We chose the poorest counties and communes in Beijing to cut the line. I was really grateful that the PKU High School had let me study in high school, so I was working even harder for the School than I had in middle school, pulling all-nighters and getting very little sleep for extended periods, which resulted in my worsening health - insomnia, headaches, and low fevers. I sent off my comrades when I stayed home resting. Half a year later I seemed fine, so I did the paperwork to join my friends. I was distributed to Shoulianggou Village, with another boy and three girls, and we acted as The Rusticated Youth (14) of the Village.
This was a mountainous area north of the Great Wall, suffering from extreme poverty. The year we were there they had no harvest, so they shared the payment from the government for us to settle, and gave the shack next to the pig pen for us to stay in. The shack was really seeing its last days, with rat holes everywhere; whenever a wind blew outside, the dirt flew up with the wind from the holes. The shack was surrounded by the pig pen, and we shared the two big cookers with the pigs. Deep and high in the mountains it was freezing, so we warmed ourselves with a clay pot of bits of charcoal from cooking. Every time we needed water, we had to first use all our might to break through the surface ice in the water tank, which was at least an inch thick. We did not have to leave for work until much later during winter, and sometimes I managed to steal some time before work to copy a page of Cao Quan Stele in calligraphy, and my ink brush would freeze with the paper.
I arrived in April, by that time winter had not passed yet, the shack was too cold to live in, and so the other male Rusticated Youth, Xiaoren, and I went to stay with Party Administrator Sun. He only had a large kang bed-stove where everyone slept. I was the guest, so I slept at the top of the kang, Xiaoren immediately next to me, and then Sun himself, his wife, eldest son, second son, eldest daughter, second daughter, and at the tail was an intellectually-disabled mute child. This place was so poor that rarely would any girl from outside the Village want to get married into here, which explains why they would often pair off relatives, and they had a much higher rate of having genetically retarded children. From my point of view, it was a little bit like a matriarch society, where each family centered around one female, and needed two men to sustain it, for no other reason but poverty. On the outside, it appeared as though families followed Communist monogamy, when in reality some families were as such: a woman would not only have one husband but be attached to another man [who was not actually married to her]. This woman would then be managing both men�s income [for her family], and this was not kept as a secret within the confines of their household; it was very much out in the public. If any kind-hearted person wanted to play matchmaker for the bachelor [in this relationship], the woman would nag all day in the Village: "This heartless thing, if I died my daughter would still be around!" Of course the well-intended matchmaker would feel his or her hard work suffered injustice, and would then come out to defend him or herself and fight with the woman. If someone lost a squash on their property, this would be the same strategy they employed to find out who stole their squash.
In the Village there were First Wife, Second Wife, Third Wife and Fourth Wife, about which for a really long time I had no clue. It was not until I stayed with a bachelor for a winter that I found out much more about the Village. Although Shoulianggou Village was very poor, it was visible from the name of the Village [which literally translates into "collecting food supply ditch village"], that at least it was still doing better than villages called Shaliangzi [phonetically "sand as food"] and Haoyanliang [phonetically "last scrap of food gone"]. In the past there had been a landlord at Shoulianggou, who died during Land Reformation in the hands of the militia who dragged him into the mountain trenches and killed him with rocks. His land, house and women were thus distributed to poor and lower-middle class peasants, and his four wives were given to four bachelors. What I failed to figure out was that the these wives did well with the poor and lower-middle class peasants, to the degree that it was hard to even imagine them as wives of a landlord. Back in those days the traveling film troupes only came once a year [thus not much entertainment or exterior culture coming through], but during those years of oppressed desires, the trenches were very happening in terms of sexual activities. One child now looked more and more like the second eldest son next door, and deep down everyone knew what was up, just never explicitly said anything, and it didn�t really matter anyway: everyone was related.
Later on, whenever I told this story to my friends, their first reaction was always, Then how about you Rusticated Youth people? I would answer, We were advanced young intellectuals [who knew better]; it was completely normal with us, and most people refused to believe me. Now that I reflect on this, us Rusticated Youth were actually the abnormal ones, especially when we were all in our late-teens, deep in the mountains, living together like a family. In the center of our shack was the common space, separated from the two sides with two curtains; Xiaoren and I were on one side and the 3 girls shared the other. Sometimes when one or some of us had to travel or go home, very often leaving just one guy and one girl alone on their own side. When we got up in the morning, we came out from our own curtain, sharing one basin of water to wash our face, and then discussed what to eat that day. We definitely acted like a young married couple, but absolutely nothing physical.
I would now like to take this opportunity to talk about the most romantic thing that took place in the last two years of my teenage life. [There was a saying that goes] "poor mountains breed beauties," and the poorest family in this village was the Zhous. Mr. Zhou was an idler, and Mrs. Zhou was a humble woman: somewhat tall, her face as wrinkled as a piece of crepe paper, but you could tell she must have been really pretty when she was young. Every day you would see the Zhous hustling around, tearing down their walls and building new gates [but really they needed not to and they were not doing anything of particular importance], and that was simply because their pigs never grew any bigger than the day before, which was why they were poor. According to the locals, it was said that pigs died because the feng shui of their gates was bad. Zhou�s eldest daughter, [nicknamed] Erqinzi, was a known beauty in the entire commune. One of the three girls in my group played the accordion in the county culture club, and every time she came back from the club she would tell us, "The entire culture club cannot compare to Erqinzi." In my opinion, Erqinzi was certainly pretty, and that was because she never recognized her own beauty. She loved to laugh as she spoke, which seemed somewhat na�ve, and never gave off any uncomfortable feeling to others; she was also very hard-working, her braids dragging down to her waist, which became her accessories. Throughout the year, this girl wore the same floral-printed apricot outfit. When it was warm, she took out the cotton filling and it would become a single-layer shirt. When it got cold, she put the cotton back.
Erqinzi�s house was right across from the little school field. Once when it was late, I was crossing the little field diagonally to where I lived, and heard someone call me from the shadows, "Xiaoxu," which was what I went by in the Village. I turned around, and saw Erqinzi sitting on the fence of her house, topless, her breasts were showing. I was caught out of the blue and didn�t know how to react, so I just said, "Hey, Erqinzi," and kept a proper pace through the school field. The next day she saw me and said, "I did my laundry last night. It�s getting warmer." Every year around this season when she waited for her clothes to dry, everywhere seemed inappropriate for her to stay; she couldn�t stay in her house either because everyone would be home.
When all the Rusticated Youth started to return to the cities [because the Cultural Revolution ended], Erqinzi came to me and said, "Xiaoxu, can you do me a favor? [I know] you go to the commune quite often; can you take my braid and sell it there next time you go? I�ve already told my dad that I wanted to cut my braid." I said, "That�d be a pity." She said, "I want to cut it." I said, "Why don�t you ask your older brother to do this." She said, "I don�t trust him. I trust you." A few days later, she came with a black and thick braid, and opened [the wrapping paper it was in] to show me. I was going to the commune for a journal we were printing the next day, with the big braid in my bag. It felt so heavy. I never knew hair could be that heavy. I can�t recall how much I sold the braid for, but anyway I wrapped the money with the same paper the braid came in, took it back and gave to her. That much money meant so much to her; it was her only personal part-time job.
Male Rusticated Youth would get 10 points each day for their work, mostly hard labor, and no matter how difficult they had to catch up with the leader of their group, because he would only get 10 points too. Every year they worked hard to earn food for the next. What I most dreaded was squatting all day in the field weeding; it really felt like hellish training. Life in an agricultural village certainly was difficult, but it never seemed this way at the moment; I guess it was because of [things I did].
I did lots of ridiculous things back in those days, which included creating competitions. One was who persevered best in not smoking tobacco, because everyone swore they would never smoke once they got to the village. It turned out that out of more than a hundred male Rusticated Youth, I was the only one who never touched tobacco during my "line-cutting" time. The other competition was whose time between two trips home lasted longer. I always waited until there was a national art exhibition or city art exhibition to return to Beijing, and often was left alone at our Rusticated Youth post. I was quite content with my self-discipline. When there was only me, I didn�t cook much, but rather relied on another family for dinner. The pig pen was at the entrance to the village, so anyone passing by would just give me a few leaves from their vegetables, and that�d be one meal. One day a shepherd herded past; there was a lot of hustling and dirt flying around as usual, but when I smelled the reek, for some reason I thought it was fragrant! Perhaps I was just craving for it so much. Sometimes I would put some chili peppers in my mouth so I would salivate, and it felt so good. I guess my mouth needed some stimulation.
All the villages around the area were hidden in the mountains; even the Japanese troops didn�t notice when they passed by, but there were certain words that were same as Japanese. I later took some Japanese, and found in Japanese cars are called "guluma," (15) and in Shoulianggou they were also called "guluma." There were many other similar examples, so perhaps words were used [or pronounced] one way in Tang Dynasty, and passed onto Japan, but later altered in Chinese without people in the mountains knowing. (16) The most common last name here is 卻, pronounced "que," but in the dictionary it is "xi" as an ancient last name. (17)
The Village was so marginalized that ancient customs were well kept. The first time I saw 黃金萬兩 (ten thousand ounces of gold) and 招財進寶 (welcome in all the fortune and treasures) written as one word was not in any folk literature or art but on the cupboard at the Party Administrator�s house. The kind of culture shock I experienced was unlike that which surprised me in books. When it came to weddings and funerals, it was easy to see the ideological side of the locals. For funerals, they paper-m�ch�d all kinds of stuff that resembled a more approachable version of "second life." (18) The elders found some old paper patterns, following the weird characters on them, and traced them onto white fabric to make funerary flags. (19) They then found out that I could do some calligraphy, and got some ink, so they asked me to help with this. I later did some research on the characters and learned that this was called guihuafu, a Taoist talisman writing that can connect the living and the dead. My importance in the Village was expressed through weddings [too]: whenever there were people getting married, I was invited to decorate the newly-wed�s bedroom, which had nothing to do with my ability in artistic installation back then, but rather, my parents, older and younger brothers and sisters were still alive, which made me a "whole person." (20) The bed made by someone like this would bring the newly-weds lots of offspring, both boys and girls. These things that I learned at Shoulianggou, which can be recognized as folk practices, possessed some ghostly atmosphere that followed me and impacted my later creative works.
Now I would like to talk some more about art. It can be said that my earliest effective art "theory" study and art ideal establishment were both done on the mountain slope across from Shoulianggou. There was a forest of apricot trees that was my paradise. First of all, I never had an apricot when I was there my contentment came from self-discipline. Then there was the luxury of focusing on the enjoyment of the changes in nature. Every day I took my painting kit and books up to the mountain, but soon afterwards I had very few choices of books to bring with me, so one day I finally picked a compilation of articles by Mao. All the good ones I learned by heart before, and I knew the text too well to actually feel anything from the content.
But that day under the apricot trees, what I felt and got from reading the Mao compilations was rare in my reading experience, and I still remember it afresh today. One fascinating paragraph on art was from an article that had nothing to do with art:
"The Hundred Flowers Campaign is about pushing the arts and sciences forward, about prospering our nation�s socialist culture. Different forms and styles in art can develop freely, and different schools of science can debate freely. By using the power of the admission to force encouraging one style and one school while forbidding another style and another school, we think this will only harm the development of the arts and sciences. The issues within arts and sciences should be solved by having free discussions in their respective fields, by experimenting in reality, and not by using some simple key."
Today I refer back to the passage, and can hardly understand why I felt so much for this paragraph on that specific day. Maybe it was because this passage was a big contrast to the art environment back then. My excitement was mixed with enlightenment and anger; how well did Chairman Mao put these connections between each other, that they seemed so clear, so reasonable! What happened to all those people working in the arts nowadays? Sitting underneath the apricot tree, I read a few sentences, thought them over, looked around at the mountains, and for the first time I sensed the ideal and breadth of mind, the sublime and brilliant theories. What I gained that day was hidden inside the heart of an amateur painter, occupying an important place.
PKU is in the suburbs, and people around me were not exactly connected to the art circle. It was not until much later that I finally got introduced to painter Mr. Li Zongjin through my mother�s colleague. Mr. Li resided in a thick-walled deep-windowed old building in the Yan Nan Garden in PKU. He took out his small oil sketches from the past to show me, and that was the first time I experienced the characteristics of oil painting. Mr. Li sensed that I could actually see what he wanted me to, and took out bigger paintings, one of which was "Sketches at North Sea" that I had seen published before. The time I spent at his house seemed as though the Cultural Revolution never happened, as though it was an isolated time and space, as though it had nothing to do with the bustling of art creation secretive, only existing in the dungeons of ancient churches, only between the priest and little monks.
After supper in the village, I often went to the locals� homes to paint portraits. When I was done, I took a photo of the original work to give to them as a present. Those portraits were in a style similar to that of Wang Shikuo, and I had a copy of "Selected Drawings of Wang Shikuo" handy. Wang was very good at peasant portraits. Since what I was learning from was nearly identical to what I was painting, I did a pretty good job with this set of paintings. Only the gloomy and dark lighting (one light hung between two houses) resulted in darker paintings.
Every time I returned to Beijing, I would take my paintings and visit Mr. Li. Once, he had a large oil painting hung in his small house, from ceiling to floor. It was his best-known piece "Flying to Reach Bridge Luding" that he took back from the History Museum to correct. He had encouraged me to paint more portraits, but that time when I went back to the village, all the elders refused to let me paint them. I later learned that while I was home in Beijing, Fourth Master passed away, and I had just painted him before I left, so rumor had it that my painting took his life away. Well, since I had pretty much painted all of the villagers, I henceforth turned to landscape.
I have been to Mr. Li�s place not more than three times altogether. The last time I went, no matter how long I knocked on the door, no one came to answer. I asked around and found out Mr. Li killed himself a few days before. It was revealed to me that he had long been labeled as a rightist. He used to teach at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and was then demoted to the Choreography Department at the Film Academy. During the Cultural Revolution, people like Mr. Li were forbidden to paint, and when this penalty was finally loosened and he could paint again, he discovered that he had cancer. He couldn�t bear the jokes that life had played on him, and killed himself not long after he corrected his masterpiece. Back then the aesthetics was largely under Soviet influence, and small colorful landscapes were all the rage. Every time I painted I thought of Mr. Li�s small oil paintings, all those wet stone staircases, lit from the back. I could never reproduce the same kind of feeling.
Back then there was this saying: "Rusticated Youth needs the countryside, the countryside needs Rusticated Youth." How to actually put knowledge into practice definitely involves some wisdom as well as knowledge. Among the Rusticated Youth, some rose early to collect feces from each household for methane experiments, others flipped through books to pair up ingredients scientifically for livestock. This sounded very much like what they had said about advanced Rusticated Youth in the paper. No wonder. Soon we became the advanced Rusticated Youth.
What I was good at was "publishing" blackboard paper. There was a small blackboard smudged with mud where everyone gathered before work in the village. The paint was almost gone, so it wasn�t really far-fetched when I thought at first that it was only some material to patch up the wall. One day I had the sudden urge to paint it with black ink, and found something random to copy onto the board, and the point was to showcase my artistic talent. When I was done it looked so brilliant and attractive (it was before the slang "eye-grabbing" came out); even from hills far away this shiny black rectangle was visible, which in contrast made its surroundings look even more bare and lonely. Afterwards, the blackboard paper started by a Shoulianggou Rusticated Youth became a "legend" everyone talked about. Once I came back from grocery shopping and heard someone saying, "Someone from Beijing came to read our blackboard paper, and praised how well our Rusticated Youth did with propaganda art!" I asked around and found out this person was Liu Chunhua, who painted "Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan," and was the chief of Beijing Cultural Bureau at the time.
Blackboard paper turned into a printed journal called "Na�ve Mountain Flowers," and this was the brainchild of the local peasants, whom we pulled in to make art. I was still playing the role of art directing, also carving wax paper, the textual part had little to do with me, after all there were many of my classmates who were good writers. My entire interest was focused on fonts the direction where People�s Daily and Wen Hui Pao fonts were headed, the font style and size difference between the editorial and the literary and art sections. I had this ambition then, that one day I would edit a book of "Collection of Chinese Artistic Characters." In fact, the Chinese font used had a very strong hidden political message, especially during the Cultural Revolution. I had no such awareness then, and all I did was categorize them Song, Old Song, Imitated Song, Bold Song, Flattened Song, Tilted Song whether or not the last stroke was lifted up, and at what angle, and the ratio of thickness and size between horizontal and vertical strokes. My goal at the time was to use the technique of wax paper carving to reach the criteria of "People�s Liberation Army Literary Arts." In that little mountainous village of a few young people, one hand reaching into their pants to catch lice, one hand carving wax paper, copying those highly formalist articles! "Na�ve Mountain Flowers" had eight issues printed. When the first issue came out from the press, it was directly sent to "Nation-Wide Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius Positive Result Exhibition." Nowadays, this journal is thought to be part of my early works and exhibited in Western art museums. It has nothing to do with the grand results of "criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius;" it was solely respected for the delicate and beautiful production of wax paper carving-printing techniques.
Everyone could only have one period in his life to be seriously focused. The equivalent of mine was used up much earlier than it should have been on these oil ink printed journals unconcerned with content but all about the beautiful production for which I poured my heart out.
Later I made many works that had to do with words. Some people were astonished: "Xu Bing has such amazing calligraphy foundation!" Far from it; to be honest, it is simply because I had a good understanding of Chinese character bone structures, all thanks to the Cultural Revolution.
Frankly speaking, when I insisted on going "line-cutting," not only did I find the idea of throwing myself into the wide, wild world romantic, I also had a selfish thought; that is, as a Rusticated Youth, the possibility for me to get in to the Art Academy is far greater than that of staying in the factories on the streets of the city. Attending Central Art Academy had been a dream since childhood.
Because of "Na�ve Mountain Flowers," the county culture office knew that there was a Rusticated Youth who could paint. They transferred me over to deal with worker-peasant-soldier art-creating, and this was my first time getting close to a popular creative group of the time. I made a painting of several red guards going from Beijing to Tibet, later published in Beijing Daily. That was my first time publishing my work.
It was this painting that started all the dramatic twists on my road to the Academy. In order to prepare for that year�s National Art Salon, it became crucial to get this painting improved upon. Back then, professionals and amateurs combined creativity, and I was reposted to the National Art Museum of China to correct paintings with professional painters. One day on my way to the restroom, I heard someone mentioning "the Art Academy is accepting applications." All of a sudden I became much braver, walked up to that someone and said, "Can I go to the Art Academy? I am a Rusticated Youth, and I have been correcting paintings here," which, was saying that I am pretty good a painter. That someone was the Academy�s Mr. Wu Xiaochang. He exchanged a few words with me, and said, "Xu Bing, you�re still young, you should spend more time in the countryside labor camps." I was very disappointed, but then a thought hit me: how could he have known my name was Xu Bing It must have been the art exhibition office that introduced my condition. At the time, the important art schools all belonged to the "Central Five Seven Art College" with Jiang Qing as the president. Admission started with the schools doing all aspects of research, finding out where there were well-behaved youngsters who also painted well, and then they distributed the head count. When I was walking back from the restroom, I had a feeling that the Academy would most definitely distribute a spot to Yanqing County for me just to recruit me.
And the admission process began that year. Peiking University, Qinghua, medical schools and foreign language studies all came to Yanqing to recruit, and had all interviewed me. My mother telephoned to remind me that it did not matter what school it was, I had to get in one of them, but I didn�t listen and had my whole heart set on the Art Academy to come fish for me. I knew that if I took up a different specialty, my ideal of becoming a painter in this life would completely get blown away. When the recruit ended, I saw all others had gotten their own games launched, but only the Art Academy never arrived. I didn�t know what to do. One day, I was standing under a grass awning for cover from the rain while a people from Beijing were discussing admissions. I felt my heart pounding. The Art Academy had finally come! But after asking, I found out it was the Film Academy that was looking for professionals in filming, and it seemed that the Art Academy was about done, and I thought photography studies was more or less related, so I showed them my portfolio. They set matters straight on the spot. My portfolio was sent to the county admissions office. Later on Beijing Film Academy�s Mr. Mung said, "You paint so well, but the Film Academy does not require such high quality in painting. " Afterwards, Xiao Ren in my group filled in this spot, and he went on to become the nation�s number one photographer hired by the state; all of the national leaders starting from Deng, Zhao, Hu, Jiang to Hu (21), were all photographed by him.
Nonetheless, good things often take much longer and require more hardship. The postal service was cut because of a flood. By the time I got my Art Academy notification letter, the test date was already passed by several days. When I received the notice, I was working in the fields, and didn�t even bother to go back to my place, just dropped my hoe and headed towards the direction of Beijing. I got out of the mountains, hitchhiked in the car of a Maoist Propaganda Team for the Workers, and went straight to the Academy. I was wearing a red jersey vest, with my straw hat in my hand, a very typical Rusticated Youth look. The army representative in charge of admissions said, "We thought your commune kept you to be a secondary school art teacher. What shall we do now? The test is already over. I guess you just have to test yourself." He asked me to write an essay first; I was so tired and rushed, it was impossible for me to come up with an essay. I suggested, "I could test art-making first. I�ll work on the essay when I get home tonight, and I�ll bring it over tomorrow." He agreed. I shut myself in a classroom and started my "test" while the teachers� discussions in the next classroom regarding whom they were going to admit could be heard clearly. That was when Mao�s five-volume Selected Essays by Mao just came out, and I painted a Rusticated Youth sitting outside a mine, reading Selected Essays by Mao, with a small oil lamp nearby, titled something like Light in the Heart. I was so worn out when I got home that night that I telephoned my writer classmate Xiao Chen and asked him to write an essay for me due the next morning. My old classmate was such a great friend; the next morning, he gave me a neatly written essay. That same day, I did a colored plein-air sketch, and the test was over. When I bid the soldier representative farewell, I begged to look at other applicants� paintings. He took me to a classroom, where each applicant�s work occupied one wall, and upon looking at those, I felt assured. The peasant portraits that I did in the Wang style, plus a few copies of the "Na�ve Mountain Flowers," all sat there nicely. I trusted that the Academy teachers� eye.
And once again, I returned to Shoulianggou this old-fashioned, simple, soil-smelling, folk wisdom-soaked and humorous place, this living place that suited my biological rhythm. At long last, I wanted to "enjoy" the hardship for another while, for when I knew I was leaving, I started cherishing every day in the village. Half a year passed, I still hadn�t gotten my admission letter. During this period, a lot of important events happened in China. The Cultural Revolution ended, and the College Entrance Exam resumed. I went back to the Academy alone to check out what was going on. There were quite a few posters around the campus, on one of which written by the worker-peasant-soldier students at school was a statement that the school should reject this group of new students and redo the application process. My heart sank again.
A few days later, my admission letter arrived, and I finally became a student at the Central Art Academy. I would become a professional painter. I quickly packed up my belongings, shouldered tons of luggage, and felt invincible and stronger than ever. A large gang of villagers walked me to the state route. Before I left, one of the respected gents came to look for me, and said this over and over, "Xiao Xu, you are the best in our village, but when you get to that big place, you will meet people who are even better, there are always mountains higher out there." This sounded too much like popular literature or soap opera, but when I heard it I couldn�t help but feel that I was on the verge of tears, and wondered if I should really go as the villagers had completely taken me in.
After heated debate between the teachers and students at the Academy, they finally accepted us as the 77th freshman class. My college classmates were so different from my secondary school classmates. Before, all my classmates� families had problems, but now all of my classmates were with the correct roots and therefore they held their heads high, and I was like a guy who managed to blend into the revolutionaries successfully. These classmates were really modest and bland; they were all very nice, and we were all pushing ourselves to our limits.
Back then we only filed our own majors after we were accepted. I firmly requested to be a painting major, not print-making or traditional Chinese painting major when I was filling out my card. My reasons were: traditional Chinese painting was impractical, and the public didn�t like prints. But in actuality, the Academy had already made the decision for me and put me in print-making. In fact, Chinese print-making was a strong suit in the art field. The old guys were still with us; Mr. Li Hua taught us woodcut techniques. He often sat across from me in class, and nodded with every stroke I made with my carving tool. Nowadays when I think of it, I am filled with happiness. There seemed to be some kind of aura that connected the rhythms of the two generations.
In China, everything was just beginning to revive, and I locked myself up in the studio, sketching European plaster busts under Xu Beihong�s student�s direct supervision. I was so content, and much more industrious than others. I could sit hours in front of a plaster bust, as if my metabolism stopped completely. Other people told me I was being really harsh on myself, but when I compared sitting in an art studio to squatting in the field weeding, there was nothing hard at all.
In the second semester of my first year at the Art Academy, the last section of the drawing class was a long-term project; we had to draw David. Going back to drawing western plaster busts and anatomy models was monumental in new era art education at the Art Academy. Drawing David was also very "monumental" for each student. Winter vacation immediately followed the two-week class. I didn�t go home that break, but invited an old painting friend to paint with me, sort of counting this as sharing the Academy studio space and our old friendship.
I was still working on the same assignment over winter break, and that was out of an "academic" consideration. We emphasized realism, but after painting in the Art Academy for a while, I realized that few people actually achieved the "reality." Even for the long-term projects, the results, more often than not, represented not the subject matter, but the paper itself. The goal became completing a piece that best illustrated the coolest way of arranging lines and areas the techniques its purpose long since forgotten. I decided that I would paint this David over and over to see how deep I would be able to get and if I could control my subject matter instead of my brush strokes. After a whole winter break, I saw a David plaster statue coming out of the paper. The hair dangling in front of his forehead for which he is so famous seemed within reach. When I got deeper and deeper, new "technical" problems appeared:
I studied the relationship between the black, grey and white in light created by the plaster structures and the dusty colors on the surface of aged plaster (these busts were brought back by Xu Beihong from France, and after every school and institution�s reproduction, they didn�t look like plaster anymore, but rather even more rich and interesting with their surface texture). I was solving all sorts of problems I encountered with every step, millimeter by millimeter, between my pencil and the paper.
School was going to start again soon, and Mr. Jin Shangyi came to check on the classrooms, and when he laid his eyes on this David, he stopped for quite a while and walked away without a word, which left me feeling a bit unsettled. Not long afterwards, an Academy source said that Mr. Jin said, "Xu Bing�s David is by far the best ever since the Academy was founded." That was thirty years ago; China�s realist drawing techniques have advanced really fast, and there have been better David drawings.
With the hundreds of sketches I had made in completing my assignment I found the purpose of the assignment. The training in drawing was not to force you to learn how to draw in a particular way. Instead, it was through this kind of training that you could turn from a careless person into a sensitive one, one that is disciplined and understands all the methodologies, and has an accurate eye for what is whole and what is fragmentary. Sketching one pencil, one piece of paper is just some convenient way but definitely not the only way to achieve the qualities mentioned above. Qi Baishi could see in a cabbage or two chili peppers something so very interesting, which has everything to do with his decades of wood-carving. That was his "sketch" training.
I collaborated with quite a few art museums all over the world afterwards, and they have always seen me as a picky perfectionist. My eyes are very strict, and I can catch one millimeter�s difference between the design and the construction at one glance and will call for a redo from ground zero if I see a mistake. That is the same with caring about small things while sketching.
After the David incident, the school began to consider that it should transfer this Xu Bing to the painting department. They felt that they should not waste his talent in his profound composition, and therefore he should paint. However, when the dean suggested this to me, I totally did not get it, and said, "It�s nice to draw with everyone in my current print-making class. I�d like to just stick with it." Since my professional thinking was already set, he never brought this up again. Now it seems that it was fate that I did not get to transfer, otherwise I might become another Yang Feiyun.
The old Art Academy campus was at Wangfujing, and I did not like all the noise there. I always got headaches from walking around the department stores. At the time, all my heart was still left at Shoulianggou, except for solving my "sketch problems," which was my way to escape. I have no idea why I especially missed that place. Every time I recalled the muddy road on the border of the village, that mortar, those grass bumps, my heart jumped. This kind of attachment to Shoulianggou should have totally been applied to some girl. True, I did start dating my first girlfriend pretty late. Once, when my sister was critiquing my work, she commented, "The kind of feeling Xu Bing has for the countryside is a kind of romantic love. That�s great."
Back then my favorite artists were the French Millet and the Chinese Gu Yuan, both associated with peasants. When I see their paintings, it�s almost as if I am addicted to some kind of specialty item. I was really clear on the attitude "some things are just not meant to be reached" in art, and I was leaving everything to destiny. There are things that nobody can do anything about, like Guo Lanying�s voice that contains some bitterness from a Shanxi girl, and just how one goes about mimicking that. And the only reason she became the representative of the century, was because she worked just such a little bit more than others.
My "infatuation" for the countryside was reflected in my woodcuts at the time. Starting from the first "Woodcut Techniques" class, I carved about over a hundred palm-sized woodcuts. I intended to incorporate every single woodcut technique, be it Chinese or foreign. I never imagined these small studies would become my first group of work that was influential in the art circle. These small prints were very plain and sincere, and when I go back to them from time to time, I am moved by my own past purity (well, all those years can make a person not so pure anymore; that�s why I went into modern art). Maybe it was because we had just gone through Cultural Revolution so that everyone needed to get a little bit of real emotion back, that everyone liked these small prints. They were different from "traumatic art" and not trying to make accusations, but rather to cherish those bland yet beautiful things in life of the past. These small prints left such a huge imprint in the art circle that they left a lot of people puzzled, "How did he come up with Tianshu? Such a promising young man taking the wrong path, what a pity."
Gu Yuan followed Mao�s philosophy of art in Speech, and I imitated Gu, while Wang Keping of Stars had already started experimenting with the French Absurdist art, way ahead of us. Keping was so advanced that everyone at the Academy was shocked. The Academy invited them for a panel. Back then, they were "the other," and we were "the plurality," which was the another way of saying the majority. I and "we" were quite stupid, but this stupid experience is worth paying attention to; it was a collective experience of all Mainlanders. Experience of the majority has more of a colloquial and illustrative quality, and it is something that everyone has to face, otherwise we are left with nothing.
Mao�s methodology and culture took the entire nation into an experiment that had never been tried before, and the price we have to pay is huge; it was a disaster. Everyone was part of the experiment; this essay is the story of a member of the experiment. All the things that happened had already happened. We were tortured and we ran far away, or sometimes we would turn around and make fun of it, but whichever the case, we couldn�t patch up what had already been done. Today we have to look for the useful things in whatever is left. The useful part is wrapped in a layer of disgusting and abhorrent things, but we have to get past this layer of "resentment" in order to find something that�s worthwhile. It is like how we treat the seemingly philistine American culture. A person who has sublime art ideals has to bear this vulgarity and get past it to touch the part of this culture that is valuable. Aside from those who are always ahead of their time, our generations� core of logic came from that era. What we obtained was distorted, yet still with its essence and traditional wisdom: methodology from the environment, from our parents, from how people around us in interact with this environment, and from Mao�s philosophy, and we turned this into part of our view of the world and personality. This is buried so deep in us and so stubbornly, that whatever theories we would encounter later would have to make way for it. In the Eighties, when all sorts of western theories flooded in and were discussed, understood and absorbed, I felt it was just another round of formal "presence." The part of our logic that had already been possessed was not easily replaced by something else. Somebody once asked me in New York, "You came from such a conservative country, how do you come up with such avant-garde stuff?" (Most of the time these people never understood where you came from.) I answered, "You were taught by Joseph Beuys, I was taught by Mao Zedong. When you compare Beuys to Mao, he is nothing."
When I am writing this passage, I am at Mount Kenya realizing my Forest Project. This project is about how to get money automatically from the wealthy region to the underprivileged region. It is an experiment for planting trees and circulation systems. Its possibility lies in: 1) using modern day Internet technology to auction, shop, transfer payments, and teach, etc., all these free functions, in order to achieve the lowest cost (please go to www.forestproject.net for more information); 2) everything that is affiliated with this project�s running is profited; 3) the economic difference between two locations (two US dollars can only buy a one-way subway ticket, but here in Kenya, it can plant ten trees). This project explains best what I am doing today, and how it is related to my background. My work is less and less like standard art, but I want my work to be creative, with concepts that are accurate, solid and inspiring to others, and beneficial to society. I know that in my work the genes of an artist with a socialist background always stand out coverless. As I grow older, I lose all the energy to cover up the truth of myself. What is yours is yours, whether you like it or not. There is no way you can avoid it; it is just a direction you must take.
I am sitting in this garden hotel that has a very colonial style, but what I see is much different from other visitors, and that is because I have worried and lived with people who were even poorer than Kenyans. This makes me much less curious and sensitive to the sight of a grocery market on the streets of Nairobi that looks like a junkyard and the shepherding Maasai people who look as if they were still in the Middle Ages. Therefore, I can transcend the seduction of the fine arts and picturesque scenery, and find something that is more related to the survival of people.
To speak from the same logic, I can say that I have been thinking about and preparing for the concept and techniques of the Forest Project since the 1970s.
I say: art that is destiny is honest and sincere, and therefore it is valuable.
July 2008, in Nairobi, Kenya
(1) b. 1949, Chinese contemporary poet
(2) b. 1949, Chinese sculptor Wang Keping
(3) A long brick wall of Xidan Stadium on Xidan Street, in the Xicheng District of Beijing, which was the focus of democratic dissent in the late �70s, during the short-lived Spring of Beijing period
(4) Where student activities take place, in the center of campus
(5) b. 1940, Chinese-French writer, 2000 Nobel Prize laureate in Literature
(6) b. 1952, Chinese contemporary artist, co-founder of 798 Art Zone in Beijing
(7) An autobiographical novel about a young woman�s struggle in early 20th-cenutry China written by Yang Mo and printed in 1958, banned until after the Cultural Revolution.
(8) Whoever that committed suicide during Anti-Right Movement would be politically coined with such term during Cultural Revolution, criticizing them as without any positive value to the society and cutting themselves off from the Party and the people.
(9) High School of Peiking University.
(10) A Chinese social ranking after 1949, meaning people who or whose parents were revolutionaries, officers during the Revolution, industrial workers, poor peasants and lower-middle class farmers.
(11) Most of the Rusticated Youth during the Down to the Countryside Movement" in the years of Cultural Revolution were assigned to remote villages to experience life with farmers and other locals, which was Mao�s response to the chaos the Red Guards brought to cities. This assignment was colloquially referred to as "line-cutting."
(12) High School Attached to Tsinghua University.
(13) Communist Youth League of China
(14) The Rusticated Youth of China, a term referring to a young person who had received a high level of education, especially those who left the urban areas and were rusticated to rural areas to assume peasant, whether willingly or under coercion, from the 1950s to the end of the Cultural Revolution.
(15) The correct Romanization is actually "kuruma" in Japanese, くるま in hiragana, and 車 in kanji. Notice that even though some Japanese people have trouble rolling their R in English, the R in Japanese is pronounced as a cross between the English R and L, not exactly L, as commonly thought.
(16) Though Mr. Xu�s assumption may be possible, it is still very unlikely for the Japanese language to derive their kun-yomi ( 訓読み in Japanese, 訓讀 in Chinese, which is a kanji pronunciation system of original Japanese words before kanji was introduced as a writing system) from Chinese pronunciation. The other kanji pronunciation, on-yomi ( 音読み in Japanese, 音讀 in Chinese), is derived from original Chinese pronunciations of corresponding kanji. In this case, kuruma is the kun-yomi of 車 , and shya (as in 電車 , pronounced denshya, meaning train) is the on-yomi. Please see linguistics text for further details.
(17) Mr. Xu may have confused the two words 卻, pronounced only que with no other pronunciations found in Ministry of Education published dictionary, and 郤 , pronounced only xi with no other possibilities, and has two meanings: 1) a narrow gap, same as the word 隙 ; and 2) a last name whose record can trace back to the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BCE). These two words may have been mixed up due to unclear handwriting with radicals 卩 and 阝(邑) .
(18) This kind of funerary custom is also practiced in Taiwan, depending on the family. In a recent television talk show where the production team interviewed a family that runs such paper-m�ch� business for the dead in Taiwan, it was revealed that they also make updated modern items such as cell-phones and laptops and luxury goods such as Porsches and Jaguars, even Louis Viutton and Herm�s bags - they just can�t bear the same logo due to copyright issues. The surviving family will then burn these things cherished by their lost ones for them to receive in the afterlife.
(19) Mr. Xu used the character 帆 (fan, 2nd tone), which is a sail (and they hardly needed one in such mountainous area far from large water bodies), but what he really meant here is probably 幡 (fan, first tone), which is a funerary flag.
(20) As a tradition, people who were related to the recently deceased, widows and widowers are not allowed to attend weddings because they bring bad luck - they were "separated" by death, and weddings are about "bonding" and "being together." Such rules are not as strict today.
(21) Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang (1919-2005), Hu Yaobang (1915-1989), Jiang Zeming (1926- ), and Hu Jingtao (1942- ), respectively.