Xu Bing “The Five series of repetitions: Crop Fields” 1986
The above is one of the series of 12 prints using a reduction technique. Instead of overprinting with each successive block, so as to build up a layered image, Xu Bing here prints the blocks in a sequence, starting with the uncut block and ending with a blank piece of paper. The sequence of prints shows the undeveloped land, represented by the uncut block, gradually being turned into crop fields, becoming lighter and lighter as more is cut away, and until blank spaces start to appear, and then disappearing altogether into blank space, presumably into building plots.
I like this a lot. It represents the erosion of agricultural land with the rapid spread of urbanisation, but artistically, it also shows a marriage of process and idea, so that the medium and the method of working it, which is a process of irreversible loss, becomes the message.
Printmaking is commonly associated with grass roots and seems to thrive when workers and peasantry are being empowered. Xu Bing, who, as the son of a professor, was sent to the countryside for re-education during the Cultural Revolution, was educated at Beijing College of the Arts and trained as a printmaker. When he began as a printmaker, he made prints of agricultural life which avoided censure, probably because they were apolitical rather than the fact that they were unromanticised. Later, he experimented with words- in Chinese characters- making playful combinations of characters into a single one- a kind of word art calligraphy which enjoyed mass popularity.
However, his printmaking developed as more of a fine art when he started to focus on making explicit the process. His work entitled “5 series of repetitions” from 1986 (above) starts with the black uncut block and proceeds through each of the stages of the cutting.
He began to experiment with making prints from a wide variety of surfaces, including truck tires, so that his work began to take on a more abstract quality. His massive installation “Ghost pounding the wall” was made by a process of frottage from the Great Wall.
As his work became increasingly abstract, it fell out of favour with the Communist authorities, and his major installation “Book from the Sky”, consisting of scrolls, posters and bound books full of invented pictographic characters was banned in China on the ground of its “inaccessibility” to the common people. In fact, Xu Bing, by choosing the form of language over its content, was probably reacting to the abuse of language by the Chinese political propaganda machine. Such distorted and manipulated language has already lost its meaning and become fake. The Communist regime had attacked the traditional written word in its vendetta against educated people and “bourgeois” literature, but by doing essentially the same thing and revealing that language had become untrustworthy, Xu Bing crossed the line. The materials of “Book from the sky” were printed using traditional woodblock printing methods and consisted of characters that looked authentic but were meaningless. The text had been stripped of all denotational meaning, but in the process, had evolved a wealth of connotations and symbolism.
After falling out of favour for creating art that did not “speak” to the common man, Xu Bing left for America, where his collaboration with Ai Wei Wei resulted in an elaborate hoax “Wu Street” that expressed deep cynicism about the art market and how it arrives at its “values”.
His experimentation with the written word continued, and resulted in Square Word Calligraphy, English words written as Chinese characters, which confounds expectations by making meanings emerge from what appears to be undecipherable to non-Chinese literates. Later, he experimented with using BOTH the calligraphic from and the meaning in pictures that were made using graphic characters. For example, the character for “tree” is used to represent trees in a landscape. By doing this he might be said to be returning the words to their meanings and going back to the origins of pictograms.