Reviewed: It Begins with Metamorphosis: Xu Bing

By Serene Fu 

The It Begins with Metamorphosis solo exhibition at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center’s Chantal Miller Gallery showcases the work of internationally acclaimed artist Xu Bing (b. Chongqing, China, 1955). US-based for nearly two decades (1990-2008) and now back in Beijing, Xu’s critique of the Chinese political establishment and wider society - often through appropriation and transformation of Chinese classics - brims with "Chineseness" but also speaks a universal language. Making use of calligraphy, silkworms, tobacco leaves, debris and other objects to allude to the transformative power of materiality, Xu challenges social values whilst questioning memory, history and destiny.

Xu Bing, The Character of Characters, 2012
Animated film installation
16 min. 45 sec

Upon entering the gallery, the first work to be encountered is the animated film installation The Character of Characters (2012), a sketch of contemporary China referencing a 13th century Yuan Dynasty ink painting. Art educator-cum-historian, Xu expounds on the maneuverability of the pictographic nature of Chinese characters. One key message is that under the regime of Chairman Mao Zedong, Chinese characters were simplified as part of a governmental strategy to communicate with illiterate peasants. The animation ends with a powerful brushstroke depicting a scene of chaotic traffic at a Beijing crossroad. As such, it reflects upon China’s relatively new-found love of cars and rampant consumerism.

Following on, amongst the works forming part of the Tobacco Project, the two archived in a glass cabinet are the most touching. Redbook (2000), a representation of the Communist ideology "bible" from the days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), is a box of "Zhonghua" brand cigarettes printed with quotes by Chairman Mao. The work is satirical of the era in that officials were rewarded with tobacco vouchers in exchange for their devotion to the leader, clearly alluding to their preference of cigarettes over Mao’s ideology.

Left:  Xu Bing, Calendar Book, 2000
“American Spirit” brand cigarette boxes,
facsimiles of artist’s father’s medical records,
plastic desk calendar frame, double cigarette
18.4 x 20 x 7.9cm
Right:  Xu Bing, Redbook, 2000
“Zhonghua” brand cigarettes rubber-stamped with various English text from Quotations by Chairman Mao (Little Red Book), original metal case
9 x 10cm

Shifting from historical memories to personal woes, Xu’s sober academic style is reflected in Calendar Book (2000), where he pays homage to his late father who died of lung cancer. By laying out his father’s medical records, Xu is suggesting that the hazard of smoking to health is extensive. In a nation such as China, where smoking is widespread, the piece is particularly poignant.

Xu Bing, Silkworm Book, 2014
Silkworm, silk and book
Dimensions variable

Another key piece is Silkworm Book (2014), which features the transformation of a book as live silkworms spin a protective silk cocoon around it. On the one hand, the piece alludes to China’s rich and long history of silk production, and on the other, to Xu’s feeling of cultural displacement during his initial years in America. The work can also be viewed as challenging written histories and emblematic of the lies and deceptions that weave around history.

Xu Bing, installation view Background Story, 2014
Natural debris, glass panel and lightbox
H295 x W150 x D60cm

Xu Bing, reverse view of Background Story, 2014
Natural debris, glass panel and lightbox
H295 x W150 x D60cm

Background Story (2014), the only commissioned work in the show, is placed at the rear of the gallery. As with other works from this series, the original piece and Xu’s re-working are placed side by side. Modelled on a 19th century landscape painting from a local museum collection, Xu’s new landscape looks traditional and idyllic from one side yet the reverse side reveals a darker kind of beauty; dry leaves, discarded plastic bags and other forms of rubbish cast shadows onto the lightbox. Whilst inventively making the ordinary and discarded heroic, the work ponders on consumerism, the need to recycle and the importance of land regeneration.

Xu Bing, installation view Book from the Ground, 2014
Mixed media
Dimensions variable

Xu Bing, detail Book from the Ground, 2014
Mixed media
Dimensions variable

Viewers might also be thrilled to find themselves before Book from the Ground (2003 – 2014). One of Xu’s best-known projects, originally spurred by instructional graphics on chewing gum packaging, it conceives a simple and universal language. The on-site piece reconstructs Xu’s New York studio where loads of everyday signs and materials come together. Similar to "emoji" smileys common today, this language reveals Xu’s foresight and can be experienced using the translation software on set.  

Xu Bing, Square Word Calligraphy (2014)
Ink on paper
L290 x W178cm

There are also a couple of works placed in the
centre's welcoming hall, far the gallery itself. Square Word Calligraphy (2014) vividly captures miscommunication. Text translated into English from a Taoist fable about a small fish’s dream to become a large bird is made completely  incomprehensible as letters from the English alphabet merge with Chinese characters. In this regard, a sense of futility is juxtaposed with an endeavour to break down human barriers through the creation of a universal language. 

Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
4 Sound-activated toy birds, brass and copper birdcages composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel

In conversation with this piece, Bird Language (2003) features artificial birds in calligraphy-like cages. Visitors should not forget to clap when standing close to the work, as this will result in the birds chirping in response, as though proving that the animal world is always ready to resonate.

A timely show that is easy to follow, It Begins with Metamorphosis offers a rare opportunity to catch up with Xu’s remarkable works from the past two decades. Given nations’ common challenges to do with modernity and globalisation, Xu’s immersive walk through Chinese history is as relevant to China as it is to the wider world.  The works therefore enable viewers to contemplate change in its many forms.