Xu Bing’s Larger Than Life Landscapes

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Xu Bing is one of China’s most critically acclaimed contemporary artists. His current exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, ‘Landscape Landscript’, is the first exhibition devoted to his fascinating landscapes collection.

Previous works by Bing include ‘Book from the Sky’ and ‘Where Does The Dust Collect Itself?’. For the former, 4000 Chinese characters were created, hand carved into wood blocks and subsequently printed onto hanging ceiling scrolls, whilst the latter installation was compiled using dust that Bing collected from the World Trade Centre following 9/11. What is undoubtedly interesting about Bing’s artworks is that not only do they help bridge the gap between ancient Chinese and modern Chinese art, they also transcend the barriers that exist between Eastern and Western cultures.

The exhibition is divided into three rooms, showing various pieces dating from 1974 to 1989. Upon entry, one is met with a quaint selection of Bing’s earlier pencil and crayon drawings that warmly depict the rural Chinese countryside. Primitive villages and pastures are drawn with an intimate touch, the small scale used in the drawings encouraging one to peer more closely at each minute detail.  Several of these drawings use highly simplistic lines, enhanced with minimalistic spots of colour,  lending them a cartoon-like, playful quality. One is reminded of Paul Klee’s abstract drawings composed of simple forms outlined using sparse linework.

It is evident that Bing’s landscapes show heavy influences from Jean-François Millet. Like Millet, Bing wanted to convey the peace that is palpable in rural China, and through careful observations of nature, he was able to capture the rawness of countryside life.

One of the highlights of the exhibition are the displays of large etchings and woodprints; several of these woodland pieces show likeness to David Hockney’s paintings in their organised uniformity. However, many of Bing’s woodprints aptly use asymmetry to create jarring, patterned landscapes, resulting in an unrestrained meshwork of lines, dots, varying in size and shape. This dynamism often injects a sense of liveliness to the scenes depicted which contrasts to the stillness infused in the pencil drawings. Even though Bing does not use oil paints, some of the etchings are evocative of Van Gogh’s bold and brash linework.

The most dominant pieces in the exhibition are the shan shui (山水): traditional Chinese landscape scroll paintings, in which Bing incorporates Chinese characters that have been morphed into shapes of mountains, stones and rivers. It is almost as if Bing is creating a language puzzle for the viewer, making us connect with the image as well as the Chinese text scattered amongst his artworks. Such pictorial works question the idea of communication through hidden words, forcing us to question how words can be manipulated to create new forms and ideologies.

Some say a picture is worth a thousand words. Bing’s art exceeds that number for certain. If you want to catch a glimpse of the beautiful Chinese countryside, this intimate exhibition is not to be missed.

‘Landscape Landscript’ is on at the Ashmolean Museum from 29 February – 19 May 2013.

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