Xu Bing

conceptual artist

China / US

„His use of text, language and books has impacted the dialogue of the print and art worlds in significant ways“. So reads the statement when ‚The Southern Graphics Council‘ (SGCI), the largest print organization in North America, awarded Xu Bing their ‚lifetime achievement award‘. „Working in a wide range of media, Xu creates installations that question the idea of communicating meaning through language, demonstrating how both meaning and written words can be easily manipulated“ (Wikipedia). The „intellectual by nature and poet at heart“ (‚Bloomberg TV‘) is one of the most important Chinese artists of his generation.

Xu Bing

conceptual artist

China / US

Xu Bing
Xu Bing | © Russell Panczeko

Born in 1955 in Beijing, Xu Bing was relocated to the countryside in 1975 for two years as part of Mao Zedong’s „re-eduction“ policy. „The cultural and linguistic reforms enacted by the Communist Party in China under Mao’s leadership“ (Wikipedia) reflect on Xu Bing’s early art. Therefore the trained printmaker who had received his master’s degree in Fine Arts 1987 came under scrutiny from the government and got „harsh criticism for what was perceived as a critique of the Chinese leadership... Due to the political pressure and artistic restrictions of the post-Tiananmen period in China, Xu Bing moved to the United States in 1990) and resided there.“

‚Book from the Sky‘ is the work that „won“, so blantonmuseum.org, „Xu Bing international recognition“ and is regarded as one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century Chinese art. It was first displayed in Beijing in 1988. When presented at ‚The Metropolitan Museum of Art‘ between December 2013 and April 2014 the eponymous „installation of hand-printed books and ceiling and wall scrolls printed from wood letterpress type; ink on paper“ was described on its homepage as follows: „The books contain four thousand invented characters that cannot be decoded, raising fundamental questions about the Chinese identity and its relationship to the written word. The artist believes that writing is the “essence of culture.”

„In the early 1990s, Xu began to develop a system for writing English called ‚Square Word Calligraphy‘, which organizes the letters of each English word into structures that resemble Chinese characters“, notes metmuseum.org in tune with the exhibition in 2006/2007. „One consequence of his project is that non-Chinese speakers can understand how Chinese characters are similarly composed of discrete phonetic and lexigraphic components. In the process of deciphering Xu’s text, viewers break down cultural barriers. ‚Square Word Calligraphy‘ helps demystify the Chinese written language, making the pleasures of calligraphy available to a wider audience.“

Another representative example of his creations: The „Background Story“-series (started in 2004) reveals completely different „pictures“ on the front as well as on the back. That shows the viewer that everything is not always as it seems first.

„From 2008 onwards Xu Bing set aside his post-Maoist reactionary art and invested in other topics.“... In this context „his art medium has evolved over the years, morphing from one style to the next: print-making and wood-block carving, installation art, live installation art, metalwork and sculpture, landscaping, and even virtual and digital mediums.“ (Wikipedia)

His work has been shown in some of the world’s most prestigious museums like the ‚Museum of Modern Art‘ and ‚The Guggenheim Museum‘ (New York), ‚The British Museum‘ and ‚Victoria and Albert Museum‘ (London), ‚Museum of Contemporary Art Australia‘ (Sydney), ‚National Gallery of Canada‘ (Ottawa), ‚National Gallery‘ (Prague), the 45th, 51st and 56th ‚Biennale‘ (Venice) as well as the ‚Biennale of Johnnesburg‘. Furthermore it has appeared in many Art History textbooks.

Early on Xu Bing was honoured by ‚The MacArthur Foundation‘ for „his capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy“. He promotes cultural understandings through his artwork generally – sometimes even in a surprising context too: The owners of world-famous wine estate ‚The Château Mouton Rothschild‘ commissioned the label for the 2018 vintage from Xu Bing. In this coalescence of cultures the label’s artwork features the two words „Mouton Rothschild“ in his special fake ‚Square Word Calligraphy‘ writing!

Xu Bing currently lives and works in New York (where he was appointed as an A.D. White Professor-at-large by Cornell University) and Beijing (as professor and director of the Academic Committee at the „Central Academy of Fine Arts“).


Interview April 2022

Extraordinary explorations: everything is not always as it seems first!


“Intuition is the key to everything “, said internationally acclaimed filmmaker David Lynch („Twin Peaks). „I think you could have an intellectual ability, but if you can sharpen your intuition, which they say is emotion and intellect joining together, then a knowingness occurs. “What sparks intuition for you, is it temporary or can it be engaged anytime?

I believe no one is able to explain what intuition is all about since it belongs to physiological phenomenon of human. The history from microorganisms to single cells and the development from ancient humans to humans of nowadays have lasted so long, while the history of human biotechnology seems too short. Existence is infinite, and our knowledge of the world, of human beings, especially of our thinking, is really too superficial and too limiting. Intuition is an instinct which occurs anytime and anywhere since any small action in life depends on intuition.

How does intuition present itself – being a gut feeling or a suspicious impression?

There are a million ways and occasions where intuitions will appear.

Do you visualise something spontaneously in your mind’s eye - maybe in dreams?

Of course, I will spontaneously come up with some ideas or pictures in my mind. But as I look back, they are always related to the environment and trivia around me at the time, such as a certain scent, a glimpse of light, or even some texture you have touched or a phrase you have heard. But all those mentioned above are undoubtedly related to the things you have been paying attention to in your mind recently, and the things you are contemplating about. Those issues you are paying attention also have connection with your own personality, where and when you’ve grown up, as well as your ability to evaluate the civilization of today. I used to spend three months waking up to meticulously record my dreams, but I couldn't do that for any longer. Because what I have experienced in my dreams begins to become even more realistic than the reality. If that experience keeps going, I could not stand it. Some of the thoughts that appear in my dream are actually related to the environment and conditions mentioned above, but they are just a few turns away from my thoughts of the daytime.

Will any ideas be written down immediately and archived?

It is my habit to scribble down my thoughts that are valuable to me at the moment, but not necessarily immediately. As I understand it, if it is truly a valuable idea, it will not be forgotten even after a while. And it doesn’t matter if it is written down or not. Especially as a professor of art, I try to explain the source of inspiration to my students as clearly as possible. The source of inspiration is almost everyone's concern. This is especially true for artists and art students. So I used to have a period of time when I made a detailed record of the environment when my inspiration showed up or what kind of circumstances led me to get the inspiration. The result turns out to me: a brief duration of an idea where inspiration arises actually need a few pages to write it down. At that moment, various points of my thoughts are extremely sensitive and active, and all the information stored away to the reserves related to this theme will be dusted off at the same time, including what you want to show off or cover up through this creation, will be exposed. Like a quick revision of a game of chess, every single step is replayed.

What if there is a deadline, but no intuition? Does the first fuel the latter maybe?

The worst and most unsettling time is when deadline is approaching and yet no good ideas have come along, or the idea is still far away from satisfactory. However, it's true that deadline sometimes fuels up the inspiration, forcing your mind into a tense mode to tap into the greatest potential in your mental storage.

Are great ideas based on intuition or by almost endless trials and errors that result in constant developments up until the final result?

According to my own experience, a great artwork generally comes from the strike-up of the sudden inspiration (in fact, these seemingly out-of-nowhere inspirations are sustained by long-term preparations which even the artist himself does not realize). And certain kind of works which are finally accomplished through repeated trial and error, modification, and adjustment could happen in science. But in art creating, those won’t guarantee a great result. In such a situation, it is possible that the core ideas of inspiration and art are still neither in place, nor strong enough, or I shall say not worth all the efforts yet. Upon relying on continuous attempts to supplement the lack of idea, the trial and error will inevitably turn out to be ineffective. It can only solve such problems as the completeness of the surface of the work, the process of how to make the art as well as the uniqueness of the materials as seen by the audience.

World-famous guitarist Carlos Santana said to me, when the “sky” opens and sends you a brainwave one has to grab that special spiritual moment for realising it before the clouds darken all again. What do you think about that?

I very much agree with Carlos Santana. But for every single human being, the part of the soul, or the sensible mind, we do not know how much it accounts for. We also do not know how intricate their relationship with the objectively existing natural world is. As a matter of fact, everyone will have his or her a moment of divine help. Chinese culture emphasizes the unity of man and nature. It is only by pursuing the harmony between the physical and mental rhythm of human and that of nature, rather than competing with nature, will works with divine assistance be created. Oriental art has four levels of competence: capability, high-quality, exquisite level, and divine, among which “divine” is the highest standard. Therefore, the masters of oriental culture and Chinese painting know by heart how to cooperate with nature when creating art. They not only make use of the power of nature but also leave room for nature to play its part. The Chinese ink painting, for example, is not considered finished in a single stroke. Instead, the artist would expect the ink and water to travel freely among the gaps of the rice paper so that the final result shall appear after waiting for the water to dry. The most magical final touch is completed by nature instead of the hand of the artist.

Does every idea exist immaterially already and just has to be put into effect, i.e. is creativity in its profound purpose basically about transferring dreams into reality?

So to speak, it just depends on whether you have the preparation and the opportunity to encounter it. Or whether you have the capability to discover and recognize its value and make it work. Certainly, as an artist, you have to find a unique artistic expression ultimately in order to express these great inspirations, ideas and philosophies. I always believe that is part of the artist’s job. If you are not able to complete this part of the work, you may simply be a good thinker or philosopher, but not a good artist. Art history will not pay attention to you since Art History is about art rather than other disciplines. Personally, the original motivation (deep purpose) of art creation stems from solving an ultimate problem of living as a man. That is, how to be able to spend all the time? It can be the same problem that everyone else must face. A valuable art project shall be the one that nobody has done or made the experimented before. Then all my energy will be motivated and later invested in it to find out whether the final result differs from the original idea envisaged by me. When a project comes to an end, you will be brought back to the original state of boredom. You must kick off a brand-new, unknown project that can mobilize your life energy more and better. As a matter of fact, the creation process of an artist is balancing between the two states, back and forth.


What inspires you and how do you stimulate this special form of imaginativeness?

What inspires my imagination is not the art system's existing style, genre, knowledge of art history, etc., but the lively and constantly changing creativity of the social scenes, which are multiple times greater than the creative energy of the art system itself.

Do calm and relaxation prove the most suitable or does pressure fire up creativity?

For me, both can inspire creativity.

How do you separate the good from the bad and which ideas are worthwhile to be explored further or whether one idea has the potential of being outstanding really?

In daily life, many inspirations or ideas turn up from time to time. Many of them are very exciting as they appear. When I wake up the next morning, some ideas seem too silly. On the other hand, there are plenty of ideas that you wake up the next day find them still very intriguing. Two days later, one week later, or even after a whole month or year or many years, you did not get to bring them into reality. However, every time I think at it, it still excites me and can even offer me more thoughts and inspirations. That's when I decide that this is an idea worth executing. Plenty of my ideas are not necessarily implemented immediately. Once I start to do it, I will be very serious and go all out. Consequently, my idea keeps growing and improving, which will sometimes last for a couple of years to come.

What key characteristic does an idea need to be viable i.e. does it have to appeal to you personally or promise commercial potential/fulfil certain needs?

As far as I am concerned, there are several conditions for an idea to be worth the efforts. First of all, it must say something no one has ever said before. Secondly, it has to be something worth saying. Thirdly, it must benefit the society. Fourthly, I will have to find the appropriate expression for it with my language of “art” and to say it really well. It has a certain degree of difficulty, even to the point of believing that only oneself or few people are capable of handling it. If the project does not have such characteristics mentioned above, you will end up wasting yourself.

Does inspiration for you reveal itself in a kind of clear and complete vision so that you just have to capture the fantasy in a way that’s authentic to your creativity?

For me, the emergence of inspiration is basically presented in a clear and complete form. If I start to implement that idea, it is basically to do some refined work to bring it closer to its perfection. Undoubtedly, in such process, new ideas will be added as well.

Do you sometimes revisit old(er) ideas (especially in tough times of need)?

Occasionally I would look back at my past idea logs and wonder why I have had such thoughts at that time. Most of the time I feel that these thoughts have nothing to do with me or are just so strange. They are not so useful to advance my thinking at the present.

How long do you ponder an idea before creatively working on it?

Some ideas will be carried out sooner while others will be pondered and digested for months, years, or even decades.

Do you check what colleagues/competitors are up to/your role models contrive(d)?

I don’t specifically check what my peers are doing, but I only get some understanding through viewing their exhibition.


Which time/place/environment suits your creative work process the best?

The environment that inspires me the most is neither in my living space or studio, nor the places I plan to go. It's somewhere in the middle of nowhere. For example, like being delayed at an airport or hotel due to the transfer failure. What delighted me was that it seemed as if God had gifted me an extra space for my mind and body.

Which path do you take from theory/idea to creation i.e. how do you start?

My creative path is hardly possibly tractable. Generally speaking, it is not based on any subjects or theories to take the lead. The interpretation of the works is gained in the process of hands-on production. Then the theories and ideas can be continuously polished and crystalized. Some of the theoretical understanding of my own works only arises after the works were handed over to the society. In the process of people get more and more interested in my works and exchange their ideas and perspectives with me, I gradually acquire more knowledge of various disciplines.

What does your average creative day look like (early bird or night worker)?

I belong to that type of artists whose art, thinking, creation and living are completely mixed together, and I can't stand such lifestyle as going to the studio at eight to start my professional life and go home eight hours later to start my personal life. Since to work as an art is to work with my ideas and thoughts, I do not have to put myself in a specific work environment as a requisition to my working and thinking. When I was young, I was a night owl; as I grew older, my brain worked better in the mornings. Coffee slowly wakes up my brain. After that, the efficient period of my day begins.

How important are self-doubt and criticism (by others) during such a process?

Self-doubt and criticism are both important. I have found that whenever a project is truly groundbreaking and experimental, there is often self-doubt in the process of its execution. Just because of its experimental nature and its state that it has not been proven, there will occur moments of self-doubt. The core idea of a high-quality work is often so simple that sometimes the project feels so "simple" that you don't even know what you're doing. Plus, criticism can provide me with an introspective. I am very used to working in a field while reflecting on the shortcomings and blind spots of this particular field. The same like we work in the contemporary art world, we must be aware of the possible overall misunderstandings of contemporary art as a subject.

Is it better to be creative on your own, only trust your own instincts, or in a team?

In building up the essential and core creative concepts, one must exert one's own creativity. Sometimes it all depends on how far your thinking power can advance. At this point, it seems that you can only rely on yourself. If you can't advance, no one else shall be blamed except for yourself. However, in the process of implementation, in some details, as well as applying techniques and procedures, etc., I like to work in group setting. Everyone has their own wisdom and expertise. It is such a joy to work as a team and to brainstorm together.

Does age/life experience help with creativity or is a younger mind more creative, ‘cos it’s fresh and untouched by experience? What about social/cultural heritage?

My experience is that I am more creative right now than I was younger. I know better than ever what true creativity is and where it comes from. But young people are not constrained by over-intellectualization about new things. Especially their thoughts, they will represent the future. In this sense, they certainly have the kind of creativity or sensitivity that older people don't have anymore. However, both the elderly and the young have their own limitations. It is possible that they can develop their unique creativity by understanding how to make good use of their own limitations. Social and cultural heritage certainly contribute to creativity. Society is the original source of creativity for sure.

What is your personal approach/motivation/concern regarding creative activity?

My personal approach to creativity is to stay as far away from the contemporary art system as possible. When everybody is pursuing creativity, they ended up getting extruded on that narrow path and lost their ways towards creativity. My motivation is to spend my time without wasting any. Occasionally my concern would be whether this pursuit of creativity is drifting away from the original purpose of making art.

If you’d make a pie-chart: what is your satisfaction based upon - a) self-realisation/ personal compliance, b) artistic recognition or c) commercial success & fame?

a) 40%,b) 40%,c) 20%

How does a creative find his/her own style/possibly unique way of expression?

The key is not to take art too seriously. Never think about art from the perspectives of art history. Or try to put art into different categories, styles or schools.

Is craftmanship important or should creatives be able to work 100% unloaded?

Craftsmanship is truly important to any artist. There is a difference between a literary man and a wild one. Well-trained and skillful people are more sensitive to materials, have a stronger ability to control the "degree" of one’s conducting, and have more demanding standards for the result. As contemporary art has entered the present chapter where it relies more on mixed materials, I see it necessary for part of the work to be handed over to professionals from other specialized areas. It's like to make a play or a movie, each department contributes its own expertise to the completion of a single work.

Can routine, experience and professionalism make up for lack of creativity?

No, it cannot.

If problems occur during the creativity or one’s stuck, how can that be solved?

It depends on what went wrong and why it got stuck. The real problem is this: the project has already started, but a solid concept has not been established or captured. So don't continue anymore. Another kind of problem or reason for getting stuck is from the technical level. Just go and find a solution to tackle it, it would be fine.

Are a never give up attitude and persistently hanging on necessities for creatives?

It’s a must.

Which is better in the development process: speed and – if that’s possible - force creativity i.e. grasp the magic of the moment, or a slow, ripening process when it comes to implementation and elaboration?

For me, the essential idea where an artwork is built up and accomplished from is formed in a swift flash of time. Once it is determined and I decided to execute it, then it really needs a slow and step-by-step process to get it closer to its final perfection.

„Creativity is the ability to reorganise known factors so that they become novel and fresh. “Do you agree with British rock-manager Tony Stratton-Smith?

Of course.

Should a creative always remain true to him-/herself including taking risks & going against the flow or must one, for reasons of (commercial) survival, make concessions to the demands of the market, the wishes of clients and the audience’s expectations?

It requires staying true to yourself, including taking risks and swimming against the current.

How is innovation still possible if one has established a distinctive style?

For me at least, it's not about whether to maintain that “distinctive” style. It is to stay "distinctive" unless you don't want to progress any further. Due to the changing scenes in the world, the artist needs to face his or her own attitude towards real issues. If you want to say what you want to say, say it properly, and make it to the point. You must find a new way of expression. The methods used by masters from the past, including the same expression methods that you have used before cannot be used anymore. The world and yourself have both moved on and cannot stay any longer the world and yourself from the past.

Is it good to be ahead of one’s time even one hazards not being understood at all?

To be a truly futuristic and ahead of one’s time is certainly good.

When does the time come to end the creative process, to be content and set the final result free - or is it work-in-progress with an endless possibility of improvement?

Of course, I believe that continuous deepening and progressing can bring infinite possibilities for improvement. Sometimes the difference between high-quality works and mediocre works is only a little bit.

In case of failure or - worse - a creativity crisis how do you get out of such a hole?

The purpose of creating art is to bring the audience to new places. So I do not see a line between failure and success in art. Even if the artwork is not published, it would still be able to bring some new inspiration or reward to oneself. Every so-called failure will improve one’s ability to get over the mess. As for me, I will just keep on working.

Did you ever deliver something that you considered mediocre, but was successful?

I don't think mediocre works will be presented by me even when they have been finished.


Why are some people successful and others not - despite the same talents?

First of all, the definition of success is different. In addition, the understanding of talent is also different. Do emotional intelligence, management ability and physical strengths all considered to be the talents mentioned in the question? Talent is only one of the conditions. As an old Chinese saying goes, “Good timing, geographical convenience and good human relations, all are indispensable.”

Should/can one resist the temptation to recycle a ‘formula’ one’s successful with?

You must resist the constraints imposed on yourself by the formula from the past successes. Since the social context and you as a person have changed, the formula for success from the past may not necessarily apply anymore at present.

Is it desirable to create the ultimate/timeless work, but doesn’t “top of the ladder” bring up the question of “what’s next?” i.e. isn’t such a personal peak “the end”?

To create an ultimate, timeless work is certainly worth pursuing. Great artists can be considered to have reached the top of their personal ladders only after they have passed away.


The source of creativity comes from the lively social scene. What an artist does for a living is actually constructing a "closed loop" of artworks which only belong to him. Each work complements and supports each other; the old work can be a comment on the new work, while the new work serves as a rediscovery of the old work. I often remind myself that as the times change, this "closed loop" will always expose gaps. Thus more efficient "materials" need to be found to fill that gap. As such, my artistic creation turns out to be a matter of continuous growth.

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