In July 2018, Xu Bing was invited to participate in the 7th Echigo-Tsumari Art Field. His artwork presented there “Background Story” became the 3rd best-received artwork at the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field 2018. The original painting was inspired by a famous Japanese ink painting of Saint Sesshū (1420-1506).
Having been shown in many exhibitions both in China and abroad, “Background Story” is Xu Bing’s most important series since 2004, and have become iconic to Xu Bing’s artworks in the time period since then. Though shown in many exhibitions globally, the artworks were deconstructed after the exhibitions ended, therefore, much of the audience were not able to see these works in their original state.
By placing dried plants, hemp strings, paper, woven bags and other discarded materials behind semi-transparent sheets of glass, Xu Bing “duplicates” ancient Chinese landscape paintings. When looked at from the front, the artwork appears to be misty, distant and conveys all that’s iconic in ancient Chinese landscape paintings, which creates a contrast to the chaotic debris that’s piled behind the glass.
Since “Book From the Sky”, Xu Bing has been known for his artworks associated with language and written words. However, “Background Story” departs from being purely language-orientated and have borrowed from the “ready-made” concept from Western art history. Xu Bing had been interested in the “ready-made” much earlier, it is evident in his work “Wu Street” from 1993, where he used a painting he found lying by a dumpster on 5th Street in East Village, New York as material and medium for his artwork. His further experiments from “Background Story” to “Pheonix” of 2007, to “Travelling to the Utopian Village” of 2013, provided another narrative through which to explore Xu Bing’s artworks.
Rather than perceiving the formation of “Background Story” as a mimicking through the means of optics or other 3-dimensional effects by using pigments and paints, it is the re-arranging of the light rays that has structured this artwork. The images of nature that we see in the artwork are created by the physical structure and the lighting in unison. Such “painting by light” is not best suited for Western art where its fundaments are expressions through color and light-to-dark, but it can be perfectly suited for ancient Chinese painting where abstraction plays the central role. Xu Bing said “it is not absolute detail that “Background Story” is trying to mimic, but rather, it is the energy and feel that’s unique to Chinese paintings that I pursue using these materials in parallel expressions.”
Translated and re-edited an excerpt from article “Xu Bing and his ‘Background Story’ ” by Artron.net, 2015.10.
* Special thanks to Sohar Nonoru and Ikeda Kyouiti.