4 hours in London…Ai Weiwei and Xu Bing

I’m sitting here typing…typing to distract myself as I’m currently in recovery from numerous hospital tests including a pretty intrusive renal operation that’s making me walk like a cowboy. I’m hoping someone will buy me some chaps for my birthday tomorrow so at least I look the part. Got to make light of the situation right? Somehow. It’s rather uncomfortable, quite awkward and a little bit soul destroying. I’ve put my impending 28th birthday (and “Rachel”) on a hiatus for a while (what a great word, hi-a-tus…)…so whilst I’m trying to forget about that and really can’t do that much (other than nap, watch terrible daytime TV and meander through the world wide web), I thought I’d fill you in on the very last-minute happenings of last Saturday.
Contemporary Chinese artist, academic, and vice president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Beijing, Xu Bing, was in London last week for the installation and opening of his show ‘Background Story 7’ at the British Museum.  He is my third PhD supervisor and, to date, we have only had one tutorial, which took place at CAFA last Autumn. Knowing he’d be in the UK, I tried to contact him before his visit to see if we could arrange a meeting. After some very last-minute to-ing and fro-ing via email and on the phone with his NYC Studio Director Jesse the day before Xu was to leave the UK to return to China , at a very Chinese pace and style (it honestly felt like I was back in China), we managed to confirm a meeting for 9am on Saturday morning at the British Museum. Perfect, although I was a little stressed out. So I got the 6.30am train to London on the same day as the FA Cup Final, where the carriages were packed full of lager-ed up Stoke City football supporters. Luckily I’d got a cheap ticket in first class, so I had some peace and quiet. I got into Euston just after 8am, grabbed what seemed like a pint of peppermint tea and walked to the British Museum to find queues of people waiting to go in. For some reason I always forget about the tourist popularity of places like this and assume they won’t be as busy. Xu arrived just after 9am with one of his Chinese assistants and another student that he had arranged to see…a multi-meeting as ever. I got used to this when in China. Time is not always devoted to just your meeting. As he hadn’t had breakfast and none of the museum cafes were open, we had to go to the Starbucks across the road where he told me I had one hour of his time. Another peppermint tea, this time accompanied by a bran muffin and we were ready…but where on earth to begin? As we barely stay in fluid contact due to language and communication issues, it is very hard to know where to start and what to talk about as regards my research. I decided to discuss the possible different models of translation – cultural, political and commercial, and my current thoughts/planning about the curatorial practice/evaluation in practice facet to my research. He made some good recommendations about what I should consider when curating a show in Beijing, especially as regards the message I am trying to say…amongst other things. I didn’t write any notes as I audio recorded the meeting. I just hope the terrible cafe jazz wasn’t too loud that it muffled out our conversation. We will see. So I’ll have to fill you in with more information on a later date.
After our meeting, we all headed over to see Xu’s latest manifestation of ‘Background Story’, this time number ‘7’, at the British Museum. He needed to document and photograph the show before he departed for the airport and China. It made me smile as visitors to the museum saw the out of date photograph of Xu Bing on the wall, at the same time realising the real artist was also in the space…as they went back and forth looking at the photograph of Xu Bing and the real Xu Bing, I would nod to them acknowledging yes, it is who you think it is. People never know what to do in these situations…some would say their thoughts, others would just smile at Xu expected some sort of response as he looked at them vaguely.

‘Background Story 7’ (as shown above and below) is a direct response to a hanging scroll of a Chinese landscape by Wang Shimin dating to 1654 and is specially commissioned for the British Museum. ‘Background Story’ was started in 2004, taking place in various institutions in China and abroad. The six previous works in the series have been in a horizontal format as responses to traditional handscrolls, but at the British Museum he has worked for the first time in a vertical format to correspond to the traditional Chinese hanging scroll. Here, Xu’s interpretation shows the use of materials such as hemp fibres, dry plants, corn husks, crumpled paper and debris sourced from sites across London, placed on a backlit screen. Seen from the front, the work looks uncannily like the Wang Shimin scroll with the brush-like strokes of a Chinese painting, but as you step behind the artwork, the illusion is shattered as you see how the process and image is constructed. Xu directly explores the relationship and tension between art and illusion and intentionally challenges the relationship between the original image and medium of Chinese painting and calligraphy…”Unlike the traditional Chinese painter who creates a simple illusion by committing a landscape scene to paper in a realistic manner, Xu extends the artist’s remit. He creates a work that reads as a landscape painting, but is neither a landscape nor a painting and uses three-dimensional materials to imitate two-dimensional brushstrokes. Each of Xu’s unique installations pushes the viewer to confront the limitations of the way we habitually process and respond to what we see.” As you can see below, the scroll is placed on the left hand wall within the space as a point of reference. Xu’s re-representation of this historic piece, looks into the time-honoured Chinese practice of entering into “dialogue” with a past model or artwork, to create new contemporary work.
There is a real sense of temporality in the work as it was made and can be deconstructed very quickly, therefore only existing for the duration of the show at the British Museum. To me, this directly references the fast-pace and rate of change in China and it’s economy. In addition, it made me question whether the work not only examines how we view our periphery landscape and the traditional craft of Chinese painting, but also how we now view China in a contemporary and global context…so is ‘Background Story 7’ a metaphor for how we view China today? Do we only reference China against it’s past and history? Can we look behind China’s veneer and see the reality within? Or is the “reality” fabricated (as such like in the artwork), constructed by others so we only see what we are shown? Not the truth. I did ask Xu about these notions and he disregarded them immediately, saying the work purely spoke of ideas of art and illusion…of different ways of seeing and public engagement with traditional Chinese craft. I don’t agree though, and I wondered whether Xu just didn’t want to engage in these types of conversation. Political points of view never came into discussion, and were very quickly avoided or skimmed over in broader contexts. Very interesting considering his show opened in the same time frame as Ai Weiwei’s new exhibitions at Somerset House and the Lisson Gallery.

This is a section of the original scroll by Wang Shimin…and a peek behind the illusion…

…and this is the corresponding section from the backlit lightbox…incredibly similar, which made me think it must have been an arduous task to get it perfect. A very clever and now longstanding concept.

This exhibition did make me wonder as to whether contemporary Chinese art is now more about personal engagement and less about political confrontation…actually I mean will Chinese art ever be free of political confrontation? And I ask this just as I am  about to speak of the new Ai Weiwei exhibition at Somerset House. It is a strange dichotomy within Chinese art at the the moment, especially in the West anyway…I’m unsure as to whether it will ever be resolved. Straight after my meeting with Xu Bing, I walked down to the Strand to quickly see the Ai Weiwei ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads’ outside Somerset House, where these works were a stark contrast to what I had just seen at the British Museum. The courtyard installation comprises 12 bronze animal heads, re-creations of the traditional Chinese zodiac sculptures which once surrounded the fountain of Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat in Beijing. They are flawlessly created and have quite an impact on you as you stand beneath each creature…it almost makes you feel childlike, in a wonderland, but at the same time threatened by an unknown power. It was clear that visitors to the sculptures were all fully aware of Ai Weiwei’s situation and I could see them deep in conversation.

Prior to the opening of the show in London, and a month into the detention of Ai Weiwei by Chinese authorities, the ‘Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads’ project was also opened at the Grand Army Plaza in New York. Alexandra Munroe, the Guggenheim Museum’s curator of Asian art and my previous colleague and manager during my NYC days ( I heart NYC), provides her view on the project, Ai’s concept of “social sculpture,” and the arrest and disappearance of this artist, in this short video ‘On Ai Weiwei’, from New Art TV. The Guggenheim Museum has spearheaded a petition effort to free Ai Weiwei, which you can still sign here and add to the over 137,000 names. Do it today! Also, The Guardian’s online video Ai Weiwei: ‘One of the most daring artists today’ let’s you hear further contemporary perspectives by artists and exhibitors on the status of Ai Weiwei in the global domain, and his growing importance in China and the West. So many articles are written about Ai Weiwei on a daily basis, it is often hard to keep up with the new perspectives and theories that surround his detention. This week, there was one huge development…Ai Weiwei’s wife was allowed to visit him at an undisclosed location. Like many others out there, I believe this might just be a small turning point in the situation, giving us all a little more hope. I need hope at the moment. I escaped London by 12.30pm that day, and it was an intense 4 hours…all I could think about was whether seeing these exhibitions did make me engage and see things different…see China differently…

“Does simply bearing witness change everything?”


  1. Extremely Informative as usual. You certainly packed ‘One Hell of a Lot’ into your 4 hours, my girl. Hope you are getting better and feeling well.

  2. Hi there! Thank you for that post. Brilliant just brilliant.

    I am actually curating a project in London for Ai Weiwei’s capture-awareness and release. It is called The Chinese Art Project, http://wp.me/p1yUbw-15, and I am looking to do an exhibition using art as a symbol of unique interpretation and freedom of expression. Hopefully I’ll have 25 peices of art to exhibit from 5 unique artists. You’d be so welcome to come! I guess it’s about pulling together and standing for our rights. Especially in an age of social media power. I’ve put a project video plan up here http://www.youtube.com/ChineseWhisperProj it would be great if you could find an outlet to let readers know.

    Many thanks! Keep up the good work.
    Mr Taurus.

    p.s. i’m on twitter: ChineseTwhisper
    p.p.s. I’ve added your blog to my links on the site

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