Background Story

UCCA: In front of you is a landscape behind a translucent glass screen, lit from within. It is Xu Bing’s rendition of Song Dynasty painter Guo Xi’s Flat Trees, Level Distance, which depicts a pastoral, late-autumn scene. As you continue to the right, you will see another key work, Where Does the Dust Itself Collect? The thin layer of dust that covers the ground was collected by Xu Bing in Lower Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Xu Bing: Dust contains an infinite amount of content. It exists in the most fundamental, inert material state. It cannot become anything else. How could the World Trade Center be reduced to dust in an instant? Returning to this primitive state implicates many political, ideological, and religious conflicts. But sometimes I wonder whether there is another, overriding reason: once an object becomes the focal point of so much manmade, material energy, it is destroyed by its own energy. Or in other words, this energy is used until it transforms into a self-destructive force. Catastrophes like these are often the result of a loss of balance between competing interests and political bodies. But a deeper loss of balance is humanity’s transgression against nature. The 9/11 attacks were an essential warning to the human race, and I hope this artwork can make people realize this.

UCCA: After the artwork was first exhibited, it drew both praise and controversy. Many reviews were focused on the 9/11 attack itself. Museums got in touch to ask if they could buy some of the dust. To the artist, the piece doesn’t really explore 9/11 per se, but rather the relationship between materials and a spiritual realm.

As American author Andrew Solomon once noted, “In the last decade’s interminable and fruitless debate about a ‘freedom tower’ and a monument to 9/11, no one thought to note that the monument was already there: it was the dust itself.”

When you are done looking at this work, please continue walking behind Background Story. Do you now see the trick to this work? The landscape painting is actually an assortment of cardboard, branches, and other odd materials. Xu Bing began the “Background Story” series in 2004. He made this edition especially for this exhibition. Like a magician, the artist only lets you in on the secret after charming you with the spectacle.

Xu Bing: When an object comes into direct contact with the back of the frosted glass, the front side will reveal a clear image of the object. When they are separated, the view from the front is blurred, much like the way depth is rendered in traditional Chinese landscape paintings. The artwork depends on these controlled spatial relationships. This is a painting of light: the image is not the result of the manipulation of ink, but of light itself.