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A Book from the Sky, Xu Bing, 1988, mixed media, installation view. Courtesy of the University Art Museum, State University of New York at Albany.
Xu Bing's A Book from the Sky
Chinese printmaker Xu Bing is a teacher at Beijing's prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts and a respected practitioner of the official social realist style. Some conclude his approach to art was influenced by his term at a re-education camp during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution of the late '60s and early '70s. He returns to Beijing in 1975.
In the mid 1980's Premier Deng Xiaoping opens China to the West and welcomes a loosening of Communist Party ideology. Foreign books, paintings, and popular culture have flooded China, and Xu Bing and his contemporaries encounter the philosophies of Sartre and Nietzsche and the paintings of American pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Xu Bing retreats to his studio in 1985 while other Chinese painters explore previously banned styles such as surrealism and abstraction. In 1988, he presents a single stunning installation at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Beijing: A Book from the Sky.
The piece fills a large exhibition hall. Museum-goers wander among 400 handmade books scattered on the floor, admiring Xu Bing's traditional Chinese typesetting, binding, and stringing techniques. They walk beneath 50-foot-long printed scrolls which hang from the ceiling, and they stand before wall panels printed in the style of Chinese outdoor newspapers. Visitors stare at his hand-printed calligraphy, each character carved from its own pear wood block; they discover that although it looks like written Chinese, it is utterly without meaning.
A Book from the Sky receives approval, even from official critics, who declare its blending of the ancient and the new as an important advance in Chinese art. In February 1989, Xu Bing's piece is included in the government-sanctioned group exhibition at Beijing's National Museum, China/Avant-Garde.
Four months later, the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square begins a period of political retrenchment. Now, the Chinese press criticizes the avant-garde movement for its "bourgeois liberalism." Critics single out A Book from the Sky, whose meaninglessness, they believe, may hide subversive intent. A member of the Ministry of Culture delivers a severe reprimand. He likens the piece's ambiguity to a character in an old Chinese folk tale who wanders aimlessly, searching for his way home like a "ghost pounding on walls." As Xu Bing later admits, "The reason why people have so many reactions to A Book from the Sky is because it didn't say anything."
Xu Bing is placed under surveillance, which he later describes as creating a difficult atmosphere for producing art. He emigrates to the United States in 1990. The first new work he shows in the States is the last he produced while still in China, a hand-rubbed impression of a three-story-high stretch of the Great Wall of China. Xu Bing calls the piece Ghosts Pounding the Wall.
Xu Bing lives in Brooklyn, NY, and shows his work in museums and galleries all over the world.
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