Beijing’s UCCA held a triumphant inauguration of its newly restored and expanded Great Hall this past weekend with the opening of “Thought and Method,” a major retrospective of printmaker and installation artist Xu Bing.
First and most overwhelmingly, “Thought and Method” is notable for its display of Xu’s technical virtuosity across a staggering range of media. The materials and processes employed in the exhibition range from the very old (woodblock prints and books made with hand-carved moveable type), to the bluntly contemporary (see Xu’s 2017 film Dragonfly Eyes, composed of CCTV surveillance footage or another recent project for which he forayed into emoji design), to the simply bizarre (one piece involves a number of live silkworms gestating in a dismantled VCR).
Xu Bing’s expansive approach to traditional Chinese art is exemplified by a piece from the artist’s “Background Story” series (2004–ongoing). When viewed from one side of a backlit plane of glass the work appears as a massive landscape composed with masterly precision. Viewed from the other side, the work looks more like an indiscriminately swept up collection of everyday debris: plastic, paper, sticks, and twine.
“Background Story” hints at complex connections between industrial globalization and environmental degradation, a theme made explicit in other segments of the exhibition. A section showcasing his ongoing “Tobacco Project” includes a floor sculpture made up of more than 660,000 Fu Gui-brand cigarettes. The sculpture throws off a pungent odor that hangs over nearby, related works, like Xu’s series of quotations from Daoist philosophy and Mao’s Little Red Book, which he painstakingly writes onto American Spirit cigarettes by hand. An adjacent display charts the progress of the ongoing “Xu Bing Forest Project,” an educational initiative launched in 2005, through which Xu works with schoolchildren in Kenya to promote ecological awareness and develop a system for promoting the circulation of work by underprivileged artists in the international art market. A living tree sits at the center of the display, sipping chlorophyll through tubes that puncture its bark.
Despite such diversity of form, the show’s center holds because it stays faithful to a core interest that has propelled Xu throughout his career: an infatuation with the centrality of the written word to culture. For The Character of Characters (2012), viewers are invited to watch a short animation in which Chinese characters assume the form of everything from interlocking organs to industrial machinery to army battalions on the march, richly demonstrating the marriage of form and function in Chinese writing. The show’s centerpiece is Book from the Sky (1987–1991), an early work of Xu’s completed over the course of five years, comprised of characters invented and hand-carved by the artist across thousands of moveable type blocks. The piece is made up of ceiling-draped and wall-mounted scrolls surrounding piled sheaves of text, arranged with an appropriately religious grandiosity in UCCA’s nave, exactly where it did for UCCA’s first-ever show in 2007. Its simultaneous levity and weight touches on what makes “Thought and Method” so impressive throughout: The text is so dense that it’s legible to no one, and therefore its composition is equally accessible to all.
The show functions not only as a comprehensive survey for a living master, but also as a symbol of rebirth for UCCA itself; it’s the first to take advantage of the full length of the Great Hall, following the removal of a wall that had partitioned off a portion of the space to hold events. This initial renovation effort, completed in the month since Sarah Morris’s spring survey closed, comes after several transitional years for UCCA; the institution’s founders, Guy and Myriam Ullens announced that they wished to sell the institution in June 2016, but a group of private investors only stepped in last fall to save the museum. It’s the first step in a full-scale renovation that will be completed in early 2019 and will, among other things, see the Nave transformed into an expanded entrance hall that will include seating, lockers, a cafe, and a terraced, open auditorium for public programs.
“Thought and Method” represents a full-circle turn not only for UCCA, but also for its director Philip Tinari, who is the co-curator of “Thought and Method”with Feng Boyi and first met Xu Bing in 2000 while an undergraduate at Duke University. “He is the reason I became obsessed with Chinese contemporary art,” Tinari tells me.
“It’s something very special to do a retrospective for an artist at the height of their powers, in their native city,” Tinari says. “It’s exactly the kind of show UCCA excels at—it puts a Chinese artist into a global context. And it’s only possible now that our position and our future are secure.”