Magazine article Art Monthly

Xu Bing: Landscape Landscript

Magazine article Art Monthly

Xu Bing: Landscape Landscript

Article excerpt

Ashmolean Museum Oxford 28 February to 19 May

The spirit of protest and rebelliousness that I associate with Xu Bing's inversions of language conventions is not at first apparent in this show. In one of his earlier works, for example, two encrypted, copulating pigs referred to his experience of re-education in a rural area during Mao's Cultural Revolution and amusingly conjured images of Animal Farm, but alas this work does not grace the galleries at the Ashmolean. But, gradually, one sees that language is central to this show.

A traditional Chinese scholar/bureaucrat trained in the art and connoisseurship of calligraphy, Xu writes and paints his culture, racked by the knowledge of its modern history. The show opens subtly with sketchbooks and drawings that tell the story of the life and art education of the artist. The viewer follows Xu's works almost as though the artist were a pilgrim traversing the Chinese landscapes and, despite the understated quality of these little sketches, a sense of the cultural distance travelled becomes clear.

Friendship Hotel, Beijing, 1970, is a small sketch with spikey calligraphic silver birch trees; the hotel in the distance was one of the few connections to the outside world in 1970. Here officials from the Chinese government met with international visitors around the time of the so-called ping-pong diplomacy with the US. The view quietly encapsulates what Xu has described as his thirst for culture. The context and backdrop of the violent use of language and calligraphy during the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, intensifies the quietude of this little drawing. Likewise, Farm Buildings, Shouliang Gou Village, 1974, depicts the village where Xu was re-educated from 1974 to 1977. The imagery from these drawings and prints - patterned terraced fields, enclosures, a suckling pig, thatched barns and evidence of human activities and labour - is drawn out in later work.

Influenced by Andy Warhol's serial works, Family Plots, 1988, is one work from a repeating series of woodblock prints which consider the implications of mechanical reproduction. The title refers to a 1950s policy of allowing families to have their own vegetable gardens within a commune. The patterns of plants and fields composed of calligraphic units are similar to blocks of type forms arranged by a compositor. This work has again been serialised into an 11-print scroll, 'Series of Repetitions: Ziliudi', 1987, where the block is gradually carved away. …

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