Xu Bing is a Chinese-born artist, most well-known for his printmaking and large-scale installation art pieces, as well as his involvement with the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where he served as vice president of the organization. Many of Xu Bing’s pieces utilize the written word, language, and text to encourage the audience to rethink cultural norms and assumptions.
Early Career – Socialist Realism, Woodcuts, and Installation Pieces
Born in 1955, Xu Bing primarily grew up in Beijing. From 1975 to 1977, he was relocated to the countryside as a part of Mao Zedong’s re-education policy – a period of time that would heavily influence Bing’s art throughout his lifetime. Upon his return to Beijing in 1977, Bing attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts where he enrolled in printmaking. In subsequent years, he taught and received his M.A. from the Central Academy of Fine Arts as well.
During his student years, Xu Bing focused on Socialist Realism, a style of art that highlights communist values. Post-graduation, Bing moved away from Socialist Realism and explored simple yet bold woodcuts as seen in Shattered Jade and Bustling Village on the Water, before moving on to large-scale installation works. Tianshu (Book From the Sky) was one of his first pieces that would aim to confuse the viewer with written texts that were not real Chinese characters – a deconstruction of language and a challenge to the viewer about cultural assumptions. The piece came under government scrutiny after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which led Bing to eventually leave China for the United States in 1991.
Life in New York City
Bing moved to New York City for the political and artistic freedom that he didn’t have in China. His thought-provoking work had gained considerable fame with Western audiences, and by 1991, Bing was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship for his contribution to society through printmaking and calligraphy. Pieces completed during his New York period include Square World Calligraphy and Background Story, both of which play with Chinese characters in the Western world.
In 2003, his success continued as he was granted the 14th Fukuoka Asian Culture Award. In 2004, he won the first-ever Artes Mundi Prize in Wales, and by 2006, he was honored with the lifetime achievement award from the Southern Graphics Council for his use of text and language within art.
Bing’s Return to China and International Credentials
Bing returned to China in 2007, and in 2008, he became vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. He currently spends his time both in Beijing and New York, where he is a professor and director of the Academic Committee at CAFA and is an A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.
Bing’s work has been shown at galleries and museums around the world, including but not limited to the Museum of Modern Art, the British Museum, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, and the National Gallery of Canada. He has most notably participated in the 45th, 51st, and 56th Venice Biennales, the Biennale of Sydney, and the Johannesburg Biennale. Additionally, Bing’s artwork has been published in various art history books including Art Past, Art Present and Art Through the Ages: A Global History.