Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1987–91, mixed media. Installation view, 2018. Photo: Sun Shi.

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1987–91, mixed media. Installation view, 2018. Photo: Sun Shi.

Xu Bing

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1987–91, mixed media. Installation view, 2018. Photo: Sun Shi.

AUDIENCES IN THE US might know Xu Bing best for his A Case Study of Transference, a video documenting a 1994 performance featuring two pigs copulating that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York pulled from last year’s exhibition “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World” amid protests from animal-rights activists. In the video, the penetrating hog is stamped with nonsense words made up from the Latin alphabet, the recipient with Chinese characters. Metaphors are rarely so pungent, or effective.

But in his native country, that work is a mere footnote to a rich career spanning more than four decades and including an extraordinary output of prints, drawings, animations, films, and massive installations. This was evident in “Xu Bing: Thought and Method,” the artist’s largest retrospective to date, which opened in July at the capacious Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

Curators Philip Tinari and Feng Boyi brought together more than sixty works, ranging from Brilliant Mountain Flowers Magazine, 1975–77, an early mimeographed periodical made for the rural village where he spent a few years as an educated youth from Beijing, to Dragonfly Eyes, 2017, a feature-length film he edited together from ten thousand hours of surveillance videos found in the cloud. The curators also managed to include achievements such as Ghosts Pounding the Wall, 1990–91, which involves towering rubbings made from the Great Wall of China, and towering rubbings made from the Great Wall of China, and English Calligraphy in Square Script, 1994–2018 (also translated as Square Word Calligraphy), for which Xu invented a script whose symbols resemble Chinese characters but are composed of English letters. The one glaring omission, owing to spatial constraints, was his Phoenix, 2008–13, a pair of birds made from scavenged construction materials that each measure approximately one hundred feet long and together weigh twelve tons. Even the Ullens has its limits.

Xu Bing, Background Story—Old Trees, Level Distance, 2018, mixed media. Installation view. From the series “Background Story,” 2004–. Photo: Sun Shi.

The title “Thought and Method” may sound pedantic for an oeuvre that engages so bluntly with scale and excess, but it does the important work of downplaying Xu’s hyperbole and emphasizing his intellectual approach and ambitions. Consider Five Series of Repetitions, which he completed in the late 1980s, at the end of his training as a print artist at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. The piece consists of a series of prints recording Xu’s reduction of the surface of a single woodblock; the initial carvings were made to fade gradually, systematically. Xu’s copious notes from the time suggest that he rigorously analyzed his chosen medium, highlighting printmaking’s vast potential for conceptualizing the multiple through repetition and serialization, as he continued to do in his later installations.

The multiple finds its most deft expression in Xu’s large multimedia assemblages and invented systems of script. Dominating the exhibition space was Xu’s widely known work Book from the Sky, 1987–91, whose reams of woodblock-printed scrolls occupied the Ullens’s newly renovated nave. Three of the longest segments, each measuring more than one hundred feet, were suspended from the ceiling in graceful arcs above scores of neatly bound volumes that ran across the floor. Visitors unfamiliar with Chinese writing might have been overwhelmed by the sheer weight of written words, but for the fluent it was particularly vexing: Although the text resembles Chinese script, nearly all four thousand characters were in fact invented by the artist. It’s a jolting revelation: The educated viewer becomes a bewildered illiterate.

Xu Bing, Square Word Calligraphy (detail), 1994–2018, ink on paper, six panels, each 74 × 39".

Such are the transformative powers of Xu’s multimedia experiments, which are always executed with disciplined craftsmanship. The tension between sensory stimulation and intellectual rigor is one of the works’ strongest animating forces, leading to a sequence of revelations about the place of “truth” in moments of suspended sensory certainties. “Background Story,” 2004–, exemplifies his playful but obsessive exploration of the techne of illusion. Each installation in the series employs optical tricks to mimic classical Chinese painting. What at first appears to be a replica of a beautiful Song dynasty landscape mounted on a pane of frosted glass turns out, on closer inspection, to be merely an assemblage of silhouettes of everyday debris—plastic, hemp, sticks, crumpled paper, twine—illuminated from the recto side. Every detail—the exquisite lines, the broad ink washes, the brushstrokes—is masterfully rendered in media other than ink and brush. All that remains of the Chinese literati paintings are ghostly traces; the truth becomes the simulation of truth. Xu’s elaborate staging of presences and absences suggests an ambivalence toward the great tradition. Despite the grandeur of his majestic multimedia multiples, his sharpest critiques emerge from these simple gestures that plant seeds of doubt and reap expansive insights.

Lydia H. Liu is the Wun Tsun Tam Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.