UCCA: As you enter the Great Hall, you’ll see a group of artworks Xu Bing produced in the Beijing countryside and at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied. In 1974, having grown up on the campus of Peking University, Xu Bing followed a national policy and moved to one of the poorest areas on the outskirts of Beijing to work on a farming commune.
Xu Bing: At the time, there was a saying: young intellectuals needed the countryside, and the countryside needed them.” One had to come up with clever ways to use one’s knowledge. I could write and illustrate blackboard bulletins, and these bulletins grew over time into a mimeographed magazine, Brilliant Mountain Flowers. This was the result of bringing local farmers and the sent-down youth together to do artistic things. I was the art editor, in charge of the graphic design and engraving stencils out of wax paper. Although I didn’t edit the content, I was very interested in fonts. There were eight issues in total, and the first issue was sent to an exhibition celebrating the results of the Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius movement. The magazine is now seen as an early work of mine. It’s not in a museum to criticize Lin Biao and Confucius, but because of its intricate, beautiful craftsmanship.
UCCA: As a child, Xu Bing dreamt of studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. After the university entrance exams were reinstated in 1977, he was admitted to the academy’s printmaking department after a few false starts. The academy resumed its practice of teaching figure drawing with plaster figures and live models, launching a new era in Chinese art education. Xu Bing dedicated himself to sketching and copying plaster figures. Yet he retained a love of the countryside, as seen in his woodcut series Shattered Jade.
Xu Bing: After learning the fundamentals of woodcutting, I carved more than a hundred prints that were small enough to fit inside the palm of your hand. I tried all the Chinese and Western cutting techniques that I was exposed to. I never thought that these exercises would become the earliest works of mine to influence the art world. These are plain and sincere works. Looking back, I’m struck by their innocence. Perhaps people liked them because they were looking for some sort of real sentiment after going through the Cultural Revolution. The artworks were different from Scar Art; instead of accusing the past, they cherished the ordinary joys of our previous lives. They made such a deep impression on the art community that later, many people asked: how could Xu Bing also make Book from the Sky?
Today, these old artworks are really a bit basic. They can’t compare with those of woodblock printing students now, in technique or in concept. But the good thing about them is their earnestness. They reflect the efforts of a person at a particular stage in his life. Recently, art institutions around the world have expressed interest in my early prints. I think they’re trying to find the origins of and context for my later work.