When I mentioned Xu Bing in a post here three years ago I referred to installations I could not see, in New York and Sydney, so it was a pleasure on Saturday to enter the portico of the Ashmolean for an exhibition devoted to his art. Ideally the Tate would put on a full retrospective, including his celebrated Book from the Sky (1991), but the Ashmolean's Landscape/Landscript was fine from the perspective of this blog, tracing as it did the artist's engagement with landscape and language. This story, from student sketches to four lithographs completed last autumn, The Suzhou Landscripts, is outlined briefly in the notes below.
Xu Bing was born in 1955 to parents who both worked at Peking University, but during the Cultural Revolution his mother was demoted and his father paraded through the streets and jailed. School was suspended and so Xu Bing taught himself calligraphy and engraving. In 1974 he was sent to a mountain village north of the Great Wall to do agricultural labour, as part of an 'educated youth' detachment. The exhibition includes a winter view of farm buildings drawn on wrapping paper in which the white children's crayon used to depict snow shows signs of having frozen in the cold and then melted.
In 1977 the Central Academy of Fine Arts reopened and Xu Bing was among its first intake. His training included trips to work alongside rural labourers and industrial workers - the exhibition has a drawing of a timber yard in northeast China whose stacks of logs foreshadow Xu Bing's later compositions based on notions of repetition. His sketching became simpler and more abstract as he left behind the influence of academic art (the Ashmolean has a case of nineteenth century French drawings to show how this shaped first Soviet and then Chinese socialist realism). Now employed as a teacher at the Academy, Xu Bing's developed his own vocabulary of 'shaping lines' for increasingly experimental woodblock prints.
Two of the most interesting landscapes in the exhibition, Mountain Rhythm and Mountain Plateau were made in July 1986 near the hydroelectric power station on the Yellow River at Longyang Gorge. As the catalogue says, 'the process was unusual. Xu Bing took with him to Qinghai copper plates that had been waxed in Beijing. In the open air he scratched through the wax to create the image, using a needle from the travelling printmaking kit he customarily used for his peripatetic teaching. He added the acid in the evening on his return to the workers' housing where he was staying and the images were printed on his return to Beijing.'
In 1987 he started his Repetitions series, which you can see on Xu Bing's website; 'for these works, he made an impression of each state - beginning with a solid black print from an uncarved block and ending with a blank white ''print'' representing the block after the raised surface had been completely carved away.' The example in the exhibition resembles blocks of newsprint in an unknown script and shows the Ziluidi system of agriculture in which each family was allowed to retain one plot for their own use.
The exhibition skips over the next ten years, when Xu Bing was establishing his international reputation after moving to the US in 1990. The idea for the Landscripts came to him in 1999 whilst sketching in the Himalayas. 'I sat on a mountain and, facing a real mountain, I wrote 'mountain' (you might also say I painted a mountain, as for Chinese people to write mountain and to paint a mountain are the same thing). Where there was river water I wrote the character for 'water'. The clouds shifted, the mountain colours changed, the wind blew and the grasses moved ... At this point I could set aside completely the historical theories of style and brushstroke and allow myself to be entirely in the feeling of that moment.'
For me the best kind of Landscript is composed purely of text, and there is a beautiful example in this exhibition from 2002, executed in ink on Nepalese paper with the characters for rock, rain, pine and so on. In the four new Suzhou Landscripts Chinese characters are less conspicuous, incorporated within the brush strokes of traditional landscapes (versions of paintings by Liu Jue, Zhai Da Kun, Zheng Yuan Xun and Wang Shi Min). The forms of ancient pictographs are also overlayed in red and the landscapes are surrounded with inscriptions in Xu Bing's Square Word Calligraphy (which turns English words into the shapes of Chinese characters).
The final room in the exhibition has works from Xu Bing's 2005 contribution to UNESCO's Human/Nature project and a 2010 adaptation of The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1679), which is discussed in a short MFA Boston video. The latter illustrates Xu Bing's belief that 'a core characteristic of Chinese painting is its semiotic nature': the manual is a dictionary of signs (some of which I have mentioned here before) and an artist need only memorise them, like a language, in order to piece together a world.