Next week, preeminent printmaker Xu Bing will take a break from the installing his upcoming Smithsonian exhibition to speak at Portland's Crossing Boundaries: East-West Symposium in Print Art. "The first time I saw one of his major installations was The Book from the Sky," says Stuart Horodner, who curates the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's current exhibition, Xu Bing: Prints and Books. "It featured 80-foot hanging scrolls from the ceiling and hundreds of books on the floor, all produced using a 4,000-character alphabet that was nonsensical. I was overwhelmed by its authority, power, and the diligence it would take to make a piece like that." With artifacts from past installations displayed under glass and prints hanging neatly on the wall, PICA's exposition isn't meant to awe. "It's hard to say that you get a complete sense of his installations," Horodner explains. "But, you get a taste of what he does."
And what does he do? Xu is contemporary art's jester magician, presenting ideas about culture and language laced with wry humor and sly trickery. He masters any technology he uses, even the traditional and antiquated, and pushes its limits to make prints that grab attention and disrupt expectations. Xu, according to Horodner, explores the "failure of systems."
Since enrolling in Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts in the 1970s, Xu has made a deep impression on the international art world. In China, he taught printmaking and was a prominent member of the avant-garde in the '80s. After the Tiannamen Square uprising, he moved to the U.S. and opened an exhibition in that heartland of Asian culture, Wisconsin. "Obviously, his life changed a great deal when he moved," says art historian Dr. Britta Erickson, who wrote the Wisconsin exhibition's catalog and has continued to follow Xu's career. "Over the years his art has gone from having a certain pessimism about people communicating in a meaningful way to presenting an optimism--that there's a joy to communicating."
At the PICA exhibition, his installation New English Calligraphy is represented by a series of prints where boxy characters form a block of what appears to be Chinese calligraphy. Under closer inspection, though, the language reveals itself to be English. "When people realize they can read it, it's like a little space gets cleared in their brain," says Erickson. "It's delightful and funny. It's a generous type of art. He presents his audience with something that will lighten their mood but also deepen their understanding about what culture is and what makes intercultural communication so worthwhile."
Interestingly, though, Xu doesn't feel culture divides the printmaking world. "Chinese printmaking used to be political and socialist," the artist told WW. "Since China opened the door, there's been a new wave coming in, but just the surface changed to modern. Actually, I feel American students aren't really contemporary, either. I've been to Europe, and I feel their printmaking circles are very similar. The art form has different colors, abstract shapes, special paper. But the conceptual part isn't very contemporary."
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art
219 NW 12th Ave., 242-1419. Closes Oct. 20.
Xu Bing delivers the print symposium's keynote address at PICA at 5 pm Saturday, Oct. 13.
More from Dr. Erickson can be found at www.asiasource.org/experts .