Critics’ Picks

Xu Bing, Ghost Pounding the Wall, 1990–91, mixed media, dimensions variable. Installation view.


Xu Bing

Taipei Fine Arts Museum
181, Zhongshan North Road, Section 3
January 25 - April 20

Xu Bing left China in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and moved to the United States, where he infused themes of cultural transference into his linguistically sensitive work. Weeks before his relocation, however, he initiated a large-scale stone rubbing of part of a Great Wall bell tower, Ghost Pounding the Wall, 1990–91, as a personal memento and a critique of the monolithic isolationism of the Chinese state. For his current retrospective, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum is presenting this immersive 104-foot-long installation—part appropriation, part relief print—in its lobby, and it foreshadows change.

Curated by Chia Chi Jason Wang in collaboration with the artist’s New York studio, the show focuses on the literary aspects of Xu’s oeuvre. It features the solemn but unreadable installation Book from the Sky, 1987–91, which is on loan from the Hong Kong Museum of Art (the smaller artist’s edition is currently on view in “Ink Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). The piece consists of a set of three long scrolls hung atop rows of opened handmade books: These texts all suggest authority and tradition, but they are empty of meaning, written in over four thousand invented characters. A conceptual and technical tour de force, this initially confusing work draws its power from the discrepancy between formal display and content, a strategy the artist uses in many of his large-scale installations, prints, and videos—twenty-two of which are on view here. Dense with visual references culled from his forty-year oeuvre, The Characters of Characters, 2012, a short, handpainted animation, best summarizes Xu’s mythology by beautifully unifying calligraphy and contemporary imagery—bones, military deployments, smokes, brushstrokes, hair, and traffic jams, among others.

Xu returned to Beijing in 2007 to become vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and though his goals have moved towards advocating Chinese cultural singularity in its struggle with Western materialism, ultimately, his work and this show demonstrates the possibility of cultural convergence.