UCCA: As you move through this room, you’ll next see the print Five Series of Repetitions. This piece represents a crucial turning point, linking his early works to the more experimental art that came after.
Xu Bing: In the mid-eighties, I began to question my past work. This began when I went to see the “North Korean Art Exhibition” at the National Art Museum of China. Most of the works depicted smiling North Korean workers, farmers, and soldiers surrounding Kim Il-Sung. This exhibition was an opportunity. It was like looking in a mirror: it reflected all the dead-end parts of the artistic tradition I was working in. I decided to break free and create a new kind of art. At the time, people in mainland China had a very limited understanding of modern art. One day, I saw Andy Warhol’s series of repeated black-and-white silkscreens in World Art magazine. That was when I became interested in this idea of “repetition.” For the next few years, I began exploring “repetition,” making it the topic of my master’s thesis.
UCCA: It occurred to the artist that the serial nature of printmaking gave it a “contemporary” quality, similar to communications technology, advertising, and the internet. All these media transmit information by “reprinting” the same content, so to speak. In Five Series of Repetitions, he makes visible each step of the printmaking process, playfully exploring the many potentials of this craft. It also anticipates his later artwork Book from the Sky in its technique and concept.
The film projected here documents the making of Ghosts Pounding the Wall. In the next room, you will see this monumental installation in its entirety, along with another film depicting its reception in the United States. Ghosts Pounding the Wall was the last artwork that Xu Bing began before emigrating to America.
Xu Bing: The city felt stifling, and people were criticizing Book from the Sky. I knew I was going to move soon, and I had no idea when I would come back. I decided to realize an old ambition of mine—to make a rubbing of a giant natural object. At the time I had this idea, that any textured object could be transferred onto a two-dimensional plane and made into a print. People have called this the largest print in the world.
I was young then. My ambition was big, so the things I made were big.
In July, I took Book from the Sky, Ghosts Pounding the Wall, and two scrolls from Five Series of Repetitions with me to the US. I basically spent the following ten or so years making and exhibiting artworks in different parts of the world.