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Xu Bing in "Beijing"

A pioneering Chinese contemporary artist, Xu Bing creates mixed-media installations that subvert viewers’ ways of thinking about language, cultural tradition, and the lessons of our past while pointing to the possibilities of our future. Shown at work in his Beijing studio, Xu constructs one of his Background Story installations, in which he places twigs, newspaper, and scraps of plastic behind frosted glass to create the illusion of a Song Dynasty landscape painting. Installed so that viewers can see both the beautiful landscape from the front of the glass and the means of its making from the back, Xu’s work asks viewers to reconcile their initial assumptions with what they actually see. A skilled calligrapher, Xu discusses his most famous works, Book from the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy, in which he creates what appear to be Chinese written characters from either meaningless text or English words. For his newest video work, the artist constructs a narrative film entirely from acquired surveillance-camera footage. Xu shares how the cultural and personal disruptions that are so common to Chinese people of his generation have inspired his work, explaining, “As an artist, you ask yourself: Can you channel your life experience through your artwork using whatever is unique to you, to create a new artistic language?”

More information and credits


Executive Producer: Tina Kukielski. Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Directors: Bryan Chang and Vicky Du. Producer: Vicky Du. Editor: Bryan Chang. Director of Photography: Bryan Chang.

Production Services: Meerkat Media. Assistant Curator: Danielle Brock. Field Producers: Yifan Wen and Qianying Zhao. Design & Animation: Momentist, Inc. Composer: Joel Pickard. Advising Producer: Ian Forster: Additional Art21 Staff: Lauren Barnett, Lolita Fierro, Joe Fusaro, Meghan Garven, Jonathan Munar, and Emma Nordin. Narration: Okema T. Moore.

Additional Photography: Robert Cauble, Vicky Du, Andrew Kemp, Christoph Lerch, Riani Singgih, Yifan Wen, and Yang Bo. Assistant Camera: Ogey Samhadi, Charlie Stoddart, and Yifan Wen. Location Sound: Rayell Abad, Long Lv, Sean Millar, Shi Qian, and Zhou Yang.

Digital Intermediate: Cut + Measure. Post-Production Producer: Alex Laviola. Colorist: Jerome Thélia. Post-Production Sound Services: Konsonant Post. Re-Recording Mixer & Sound Editor: Gisela Fullà-Silvestre. Online & Conform: David Gauff. Additional Animation: Andy Cahill. Assistant Editors: Jasmine Canon, Jonah Greenstein, Tianyao Ma, and Mengchen Zhang. Translation: Xiaoyu Song, Yixin Tong, and Mengchen Zhang. Descriptive Video Information: Captionmax.

Artwork Courtesy: Guan Xiao, Liu Xiaodong, Song Dong, Xu Bing, Yin Xiuzhen, Chambers Fine Art, Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Lisson Gallery, and Pace Gallery. Archival Materials: Dabarti CGI, HEC Media, Pond 5, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gord Webster, Yang Bo, Hung-i Yao, and Yitiao. Additional Music: APM Music.

Public Relations: Cultural Counsel. Station Relations: De Shields Associates, Inc. Legal Counsel: Barbara T. Hoffman, Esq. Interns: Kristie Chua, Shane Daly, Malique Daniels, Grace Doyle , Eda Li, Daniela Mayer, Jason Mendoza, Nikhil Oza, Anika Rahman, Ana Sanz, Sara Schwartz, Victoria Xu, and Sadie Yanckello.

Special Thanks: The Art21 Board of Trustees, Asia Art Archive in America, Marco Betelli, Emma Bright, CAFA Art Museum, Xinglu Chen, Mengna Da, Atika Dewi, Peter Doroshenko, Alejandro Flores, Robie Flores, Melissa Saenz Gordon, Nina Hidayat, Esther Knuth, Alessandra Lacorazza, Jia Li, Li Liang, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Christophe Mao, Museum MACAN, Qu Shanpu, Tom Schmerber, Chloe Shi, Nicolas Smirnoff, Song Errui, Jeffrey Sterrenberg, Tianyi Sun, Today Art Museum, Paula Tsai, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Venice Biennale, Andrea Vesentini, Wang Zhongyao, Xiaoyu Weng, Wu Hung, Wu Yue, Xia Wenbin, Jane Xiao, and Yi Zhou.

Major underwriting for Season 10 of Art in the Twenty-First Century is provided by PBS, National Endowment for the Arts, Lambent Foundation, The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Toby Devan Lewis, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Henri Lambert, Nion McEvoy & Leslie Berriman, and Sakana Foundation.

Series Creators: Susan Dowling and Susan Sollins.

©2020 Art21, Inc.

Closed captionsAvailable in English, German, Romanian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian

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Xu Bing

Xu Bing was born in 1955 in Chongqing, China, and grew up in Beijing. Fascinated with visual and written languages, Xu builds mixed-media installations that simultaneously evoke and subvert centuries-old Chinese cultural traditions, such as calligraphy, wood-block printing, and landscape painting scrolls. The artist asks viewers to consider how our cultural backgrounds, especially those shaped by language, fundamentally color our worldviews.

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Amid Beijing’s dizzying economic, urban, and cultural transformation, five artists respond to the region’s relentless evolution with urgency and ambition, all the while contending with many centuries of Chinese cultural traditions.

Season 10 Educators' Guide

Educators’ Guides provide information about selected artists and themes, questions for classroom discussions, and hands-on activities that provide students with a fundamental understanding of creative and critical thinking processes.