When Xu Bing was born in Sichuan province in 1955, the British American Tobacco Corporation, a monopoly controlled by the Duke family, had just folded up its Chinese ventures. In the years between 1902 and 1948 the company had not only introduced the very notion of cigarettes to China, but sold more than 80 billion of them, and reaped a profit of $380 million in the process. James A. Thomas, for whom the handsomely Orientalist “Chinese reading room” in Lilly Library is named, worked directly under the Duke patriarchs, running BAT’s operations in China between 1905 and 1922. Duke University Press published Thomas’s autobiography, A Pioneer Tobacco Merchant in the Orient, in 1928.
Seventy-two years have passed, and as the folks at Duke Press shudder to think that one of their titles might have actually included the word “Orient”, a renowned Chinese artist prepares to take on the complex web of leaves and money that binds his father’s lung cancer death to the majestic spires of Duke Chapel. Xu Bing (Xu is pronounced “shoo”), now in residence in a small house near the Center for Documentary Studies, is hurriedly readying his Tobacco Project, a series of site-specific installations that will open Nov. 2 on Duke’s campus and at Duke Homestead in Durham. At 45, his shaggy haircut, round horn-rim glasses, white-soled sneakers, and unassuming smile give him the demeanor of an earnest undergraduate. And his short, crisp sentences–in English or Chinese–never end quite as one expects.
Xu Bing rose to prominence in the wake of A Book from the Sky, a massive installation he prepared for the now-infamous China/Avant-Garde show at Beijing’s national gallery in February of 1989. Trained as a traditional calli-grapher and wood-block printer, he combined elements of existing Chinese characters to create nearly 4,000 nonsensical Chinese characters of his own. Meticulously printed onto books and flowing scrolls, the nonsense writing filled an entire room. Something–either in the absurdity of his clash between Herculean labor and utter meaninglessness, or in the gravity of his indictment of the civilization-defining Chinese language–got the censors upset. The Beijing show, widely recognized as the artistic culmination of China’s 1980s-era intellectual ferment, was closed just three months before the Tian’anmen student movement began.
Bing came to the States in 1991, setting up shop first in Manhattan, and later in Brooklyn, where he now resides with his all-but-wife Cai Jin and their three-month-old daughter Xu Siyi. During his early years in the United States, Xu Bing’s work turned toward questions of cultural influence. One installation/performance piece he orchestrated, entitled A Case Study in Transference, involved two pigs–the female painted with nonsense-Chinese, the male with nonsense-English–screwing frantically in a pen littered with books. Another involved black pigs, wearing masks and labeled as pandas, living in a bamboo-filled enclosure at the Jack Tilton Gallery in SoHo. But what most people know Xu Bing for is his New English Calligraphy, or “square words,” in which English words are rendered to look, at first glance, like Chinese characters. Initially inscrutable to English-speaking viewers, the square words are a witty yet hopeful linguistic commentary on how China comes to function in Western minds as the absolute other. Xu Bing’s efforts have won him great acclaim, most recently in the form of a massive fellowship from the MacArthur foundation in 1999.
Tobacco Project actually comprises two site-specific installations. One will be in the foyer of Perkins Library on Duke University’s West Campus; the other is in front of the packhouse at the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum. The Perkins installation starts with a massive tobacco book, in which leaves of the plant are emblazoned with tobacco-related prose culled from historical sources in the library. Larval tobacco beetles, traditionally the bane of tobacco farmers, will be planted in the leaves. The beetles will hatch in the book, and through the two-month course of the exhibition, eat it into a shadow of its former self. For Xu Bing, “It’s like watching a cigarette burning into ashes.” Literally the “deconstruction” of a text, this trope sets the stage for the linguistic art objects that sit behind it.
The Perkins foyer is normally used for didactic exhibits about university history or identity politics. These exhibits generally contain brittle photographs, rare books and yellowed magazines. Without fail, their titles include a colon. Xu Bing plans to play on his viewers’ likely surprise at the takeover of the foyer for a less traditional show. The glass display cases will hold what he describes in Chinese as “all sorts, all kinds of books,” made entirely of tobacco products. Rolling papers, matchbooks, packing materials and prepackaged tin cigarette cases bearing iconic images of Tian’anmen or the Great Wall will combine to form miniature printed fugues on the Dukes and Durham and tobacco, some in English, others in Chinese. As the cases get closer to the library entrance, their contents fade into historical documents on the British-American Tobacco Company and its turn-of-the-century Chinese forays. As an artist, Xu Bing says he likes “to blur the line between art and facts.”
He is also preparing to silkscreen the foyer floor with tobacco-related advertisements and articles, using its interlocking marble blocks to subtly mimic the layout of a newspaper page. Like that on the tobacco book, the writing on the floor will deteriorate as the show progresses. Another case will contain a machine of his own design, in which the history of tobacco in Durham–typed meticulously onto a several-hundred-foot length of rolling paper–can be viewed by turning a handle that moves the paper from reel to reel. Since his earliest visits to Durham, Xu Bing has “really loved the old-fashioned tobacco machines. They are very beautiful, very pleasing aesthetically.” This is his attempt to re-create them.
Finally, he will include a replica of a five-meter-long scroll by Zhang Yanyuan, a painter of the Qing Dynasty (1368-1644). The frequently reproduced scroll depicts crowds of deal-making townspeople through the course of a single “day” that actually spans the four seasons. According to Xu Bing, the famous scroll is said in China, “to show the earliest roots of capitalism among the people.” Prior to the opening, Xu Bing plans to burn a massive length of cigarette that will run across the scroll, and to keep a meticulous record, scribbling numbers and Chinese characters on the scroll, of the burning’s progress. “It’s like cigarettes exist outside of time for people, like they don’t realize, or don’t want to realize, how long it takes them to burn. I thought it would be funny to record that,” he says.
The second installation, in front of the packhouse at the Duke Homestead, takes a more personal turn–one of the first in the artist’s large body of work. Neon signs on an outdoor patch of ground will announce “Tobacco Project” in square words, and machine-produced smoke will fill the space throughout the two-hour long evening opening on Nov. 2. Projected on the packhouse wall will be his father’s medical records, which narrate a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with lung cancer. One slide will bear an unchanging bureaucratic profile of Xu Bing’s father, with English translations superimposed over Chinese answers to the government health questionnaire. Another set of slides, which contain his hospital charts, will change periodically, depicting his father’s worsening condition. An English voiceover will read a translation of the Chinese documents.
As in most of his other art, Xu Bing tries in Tobacco Project to involve the viewer directly in the process of meaning-making. “There’s a problem with the system right now: There’s a huge gate between the people and contemporary art. I want to do something that’s not like the standard ‘perfect’ works of contemporary art. I want to find a space for the viewer, and bring that back to Western art,” he notes. In the New English Calligraphy classrooms, which he has been known to set up temporarily in museums around the world, this has meant actually instructing visitors in how to write the pseudo-Chinese script. In his most recent show, “Helsinki/Himalayas,” it meant placing a donation box for Nepal at the center of his main installation. In this show, Xu Bing will convert the Perkins after-hours book-drop–situated in the middle of the library’s outdoor smoking area–into a depository for questionnaires to be filled out by smokers. “This is what I mean,” he says, “by ‘Art for the People,’” formerly a mainstay of Maoist ideological one-liners. Appropriately, Xu Bing’s “Art for the People” banner, which bears that slogan in his New English Calligraphy, will hang from the library tower for the duration of the show. The banner was commissioned by, and originally hung outside, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This show’s distinct connection with a history that is at once fiercely local and intensely global distinguishes it from his other work, Xu Bing says. He understands the connections among tobacco, China and the richness of Duke as direct and undeniable. He looks at Duke’s luscious grounds as somehow paid for by Chinese cigarette buyers at the turn of the century. He sees tobacco as a commodity that works well for discussing heavy questions of cross-cultural influence between East and West, and he finds it ironic that American tobacco companies, a century later, are looking again to China as a place to sell cigarettes without the legal entanglements of the United States. And yet, throughout all this, Xu Bing stays curiously aloof of anti-smoking dogma and politics. Having come of age during the Cultural Revolution, Bing is no stranger to propaganda. Hilariously, he manages to incorporate some propagandistic materials from the “Boys and Girls Anti-Cigarette League” into his projections at the Duke Homestead.
But what gets to him more than history, or the notion of tobacco as a site for cultural exchange, is the way humanity’s relationship with this strange substance mimics bigger emotions. “There’s a really special relationship between tobacco and human beings, and it looks to me a lot like love,” says Bing, who smokes “for fun sometimes” though he “never buys cigarettes.”
“People hate tobacco, they know it’s bad for them, but they need it anyway,” he explains. “It gives you a really good feeling, and it makes you forget your loneliness. A cigarette isn’t just a thing, it’s a philosophy.”