Richmond, VA

Xu Bing, 1st Class, 2011, approx. 450,000 1st Class brand cigarettes, dimensions variable.

Xu Bing, 1st Class, 2011, approx. 450,000 1st Class brand cigarettes, dimensions variable.

Xu Bing

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA)

Xu Bing, 1st Class, 2011, approx. 450,000 1st Class brand cigarettes, dimensions variable.

“Xu Bing: Tobacco Project” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts concluded a trilogy of exhibitions (the previous two were mounted in Durham, North Carolina, and Shanghai in 2000 and 2004, respectively) in which the Beijing-based artist traced the global dissemination and commodified afterlives of the ubiquitous tobacco plant—from seed and soil to packaging and commercial ephemera—and the relations forged between China and the US around this nicotine-laced cash crop. In the project’s most recent iteration, Xu highlighted the enduring reputation of Virginia as the seat of premium tobacco production despite the depressed economic realities of tobacco farming in the region. Indeed, even though China is currently the world’s leading tobacco grower, Chinese cigarette companies often market their homegrown products with labels reading “Virginia Tobacco” (a common nickname for the variety known as “bright leaf”) to exploit the romantic allure of this commodity as a genuinely American crop. Xu tells a cautionary tale, inasmuch as tobacco was, of course, once a powerful engine of economic development for Virginia, and is now thought to be one in twenty-first-century China.

The centerpiece and most impressive monument of this show, 1st Class, 2011, a tiger-carpet colossus consisting of approximately 450,000 1st Class brand cigarettes, announced its presence initially through the pungent aroma of cured tobacco, but the visual spectacle that confronted viewers as they entered the gallery was no less stimulating. Laid out by alternating filter and tobacco ends, the unpackaged cigarettes had been painstakingly arranged to simulate a room-size tiger-skin rug; to circum-ambulate the sculpture was to see it as a swirling topographical map of rippling colors and forms. In the adjoining gallery space, Xu’s usual linguistic preoccupations were also taken up, as in Tobacco Book, 2000/2011, a fragile, densely layered tome made from pressed tobacco leaves, rubber-stamped with passages from one of the earliest written accounts of colonial Virginia. In other works, movement seemed to be code for transformation, as evident in Traveling Down the River, 2000/2011, a piece in which a partially burned, prodigiously long cigarette lay across the length of a reproduction of Zhang Zeduan’s hand-scroll painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival—an iconic, early-twelfth-century chronicle of Song dynasty social stratification and migration frequently dubbed China’s Mona Lisa. Whether subversive, reverent, or some combination of the two, Xu’s gesture could best be understood substitutionally, as the rewriting of human activity with the path of a burning cigarette, thereby replacing the anthropocentric activity in the painting with motion embedded in a specific material—a discrete object that embodies the destructive transformation peculiar to a plant whose ultimate fate is to disappear into thin air.

In another work, Light as Smoke, 2011, this intended life cycle is reversed; contrary to its title, it stands as an innocuous 440-pound block of compressed tobacco rather than a pernicious, barely visible vapor. Across the room, the deeply personal Calendar Book, 2000, offered a hybrid object that fuses the medical records of the artist’s late father to flattened cigarette packs, wedding the deadly effects of tobacco consumption to the substance’s anodyne commercial packaging. Equal parts historian and semiotician, Xu has identified tobacco as a harbinger of the global, and deployed the crop and its by-products as a means of highlighting the wandering and shifting backdrops for language more generally—manifesting the precarity of language on, next to, and with regard to the plant itself. By allowing it to both inhabit and transcend boundaries of a linguistic/historical tradition, Xu makes tobacco a token of governmental dissimulation (the words of George W. Bush and Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book both figured in the exhibition), anchoring the official utterance to a materially specific support that is constantly threatening to go up in smoke.

Colin Lang