Essay: Parallel Project: Xu Bing and the art of motor-cycle maintenance

I am interested in the work of Xu Bing as a printmaker who has developed into a multi media installation artist, and whose work relates to Eastern and Western culture and Chinese and English languages, yet transcends both cultures, both languages, and creates an enigmatic silence, “The neigh of a wooden horse” (Liu, in Tsao and Ames 2011)

I’m particularly interested in how his work can be interpreted in three ways: intellectually, in the post-structuralist tradition; ideologically, in the context of the post-Tiananmen Chinese diaspora; and most interestingly, spiritually, in the context of Zen Buddhism. For the latter, I will focus particularly on process in his work, how process can mirror and even constitute meaning, and ultimately form a concept which becomes a revelation, or enlightenment. Specifically, I will quote from critiques which argue that Xu’s work manifest thought processes that place it firmly within the Zen tradition, while questioning whether that limits its accessibility or relevance.

The first artwork I’d like to discuss is “Five series of repetitions” from 1987, a woodcut series which takes the process of cutting a reduction print from a wood block and transforms this process of repetition and reduction into a powerful concept, by subverting the woodblock tradition. In this artwork, the process becomes the form, as the last of the series is empty, devoid of content.

Starting with the uncut woodblock, Xu Bing mirrors the process of cultivating the land, simple mark-making representing plants and ponds, and boundaries between fields, but as the series progresses, the plants start to disappear, and gradually all the marks are gone, leaving a white sheet. Rather than using the “reduction” print process to create layers, and depth, this shows the process of development, then loss, as a sequential narrative that could be an allegory of civilisation, or life itself. This piece of work, following the opening up of artistic expression in China, shows Xu developing the woodcut, which he had mastered and previously used in ways that served the doctrinaire purposes of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, as conceptual art, while still referencing the rural ways of life he had come to appreciate during his forced re-education through Mao Zedong’s “rustication” programme. There’s irony here that Xu  was now intellectualising the woodcut, in Communist ideological terms an acceptable, non-elitist form of art,  designed for mass production, that he had been forced to study. Patricia Berger (2000: 88-89) also sees in the work an allusion to a Zen narrative of a herdboy taming an ox, an analogy for taming the mind, which ends with both subject (herdboy) and object (ox) disappearing, signifying transcendence and unity of opposites, being and non-being. Thus, in this early work, Xu intellectualises and conceptualises process, and develops the artistic form of the cycle in ways that allude to dematerialisation and spiritual awakening in the Zen tradition.

Xu Bing experienced a period in Chinese history when culture and language were being reconstituted, forced to fit an ideology: traditional scholarship came under brutal attack, written characters were reformed. Like his peers, he had no formal education, and books were burnt. These processes would have supported the neutralisation of thought anyway, even without the onslaught of propaganda. Xu survived the taint of being a member of the bourgeoisie by being skilled in the art of calligraphy and illustrative woodcut. He became well known for his skill in writing “Big Character” propagandist posters, which denounced people as traitors. He reports (Erickson, B. 2001: 17) that he became like a “Buddhist copiers of old” who “did not need to understand the meaning of each sutra that they copied… to gain entrance into the next world.” One can see here the roots of the defamiliarisation of language, the severance from meaning, in this case surely stemming from a real need to dissociate from meanings which were ideologically distasteful and personally toxic (Xu recalls seeing his own father’s name in such a poster). At the same time, there is a sense of pleasure in the physical form of it, the enjoyment of the relationships of parts to the whole, the appreciation of its power, the resilience of literary tradition- all of which would eventually be conceptualised in works such as “Book from the Sky”. One can also sense in it the dedication to quality, to immersion in the process as a mechanic, the non-intellectual, as a means of gaining “entrance to the next world”, a reference to  the discipline of Zen meditation, and the elimination of logical thinking.

Erickson notes that Book from the Sky is “as difficult to interpret as the famous Chan (Zen) texts”, and that “you must use Chan methods to gain understanding” (Ibid: 17-18). Its title, “Book from the Sky” is a direct translation of “Tianshu”, a Zen scripture, denoting an unintelligible text sent from heaven. In this context, Xu’s own comment that “Any explanation of Book from the Sky is superfluous because the work itself says nothing,” (Ibid:18) points to the paradoxical nature of the work, and its ultimate achievement of a deep spiritual silence and rejection of analysis in the tradition of western enlightenment based on reason.

In Western intellectual terms, the Book of the Sky can by seen as an iconic work of structuralism, a rich text-book illustration for the separation of sign and signifier (de Saussure, F. 1916).  It can be related to post-structuralist thought, asking us to reflect on the way language, culture and tradition represent, reproduce and legitimise our understanding, making us see our readings of texts as unstable, in a state of constant evolution, with no fixed “true” meaning. It can stand as a critique of the tradition of logocentrism, “the word made flesh”, arguably the central project of Western enlightenment philosophy, by problematising the “word” as  “nothing but an empty pictograph that has lost its sound.” (Bei Dao, quoted in Tsao and Ames, 2011) and postulating that signs have no empirical grounding in reality, that “there is no outside the text” (Derrida, 1976: 158).

Was this a conscious rejection of Western enlightenment thought along deconstructionist lines, an attack on the process of intellectualisation?  Xu’s own words (Note 1) seem to deny this. The western art establishment, on the other hand(Note 2), has tended to see the work as representative of an alien culture for the purpose of stressing political ideological readings. Western interpretations of “Book from the Sky” usually start with references to the Cultural Revolution, to the cheapening of language in propaganda, to the destruction of culture, and the death of meaning. The work also speaks of the time before the revolution, being highly reverential of traditional Chinese literature and book arts, which the Cultural Revolution was not. “Book from the Sky” was the result of research and relearning of techniques that had been lost,  and painstaking repetitive work in carving characters to recreate the process for creating important works of Chinese literature. As a paean to tradition, a work of dedication to healing ruptures with the past, could it be anything other than a critique of the present? The privileging of form over meaning, the demonstration of the power of literacy, the silencing of culture and history, could this be other than a sharp denunciation of Communist Party politics? The Chinese establishment did turn on Xu Bing, but, ironically, accused him of being overly intellectual, of failing in the Socialist enterprise of making art “for the people”.

Supporters in China claimed it was an example of a Chinese artist finding his way to make art that was independent of Western traditions.   Kuan Hung Chen (Tsao and Ames, 2011) argues for a religious interpretation of the work,  bringing out both its seriousness and playfulness as part of Chinese cosmology, in which wordplay and paradox feature highly. He justifies the religious aspect by relating to the feelings of awe visitors experience, which he explains as an encounter with the void.  April Liu (Tsao and Ames, 2011) claims that Xu Bing’s work is inspired by Zen Buddhist philosophy “at the level of process and experimentation” and she locates Book from the Sky firmly within Zen thinking.

Zen scriptures generally convey a distrust of language as a means of transmitting wisdom, seeing language as a way of trapping the mind in habits of thinking. Particularly resisted is the formulation of binary or dualistic language, of distinctions between subject and object, and separation of mind and body: these words are characterised as “dead words”.  “The real origins of truth cannot be found in a literal, logical answer but instead must be searched for in the living word” (Xu Bing, Artist Statement quoted in Liu, Tsao and Ames, 2011)) The teachings of Zen masters often involve absurdity and paradox, which the student should ponder to reach comprehension, “seeing” rather than “knowing” the answer. “Living words” are those that do not categorise, or predicate, or mediate experience. in short, they do not “tell”. They are often playful and paradoxical, such as “the neigh of the wooden horse”. They are also often tautological, resisting definition or paraphrase. Liu points out the difference between Chinese and European linguistic structure, that the duality of subject vs object is hardwired into most European languages, whereas it does not exist in Chinese and other related languages, again emphasising the Chinese cultural origins of Xu’s thought.  Liu argues that Book from the Sky is a collection of such “living” words.

Roger T. Ames (Tsao and Ames, 2011) makes the case for a multivalent reading of the work, as an experiment with language and an “invitation to search for meaning”.  He relates the evolution of Chinese script- basically picture forms- as having a close connection to understanding the world and its processes of change,  claiming that according to classical scriptures, “the phenomenological world in classical China is an endless flow” and words and images are “triggers” rather than repositories of meaning.  He quotes Zhuangzi (Note 3) “The reason for words is to capture meaning, but having captured the meaning, you forget the words,” suggesting the abstract nature of language and how it can accommodate fluidity.

I think it is this level of abstraction that makes Xu Bing’s works transcend cultural origins. They work because they question language and culture, and they “show” rather than “tell”.  When I watched his video “The Character of Characters”  at the “Metamorphosis” exhibition (Note 4) two years ago, a stop motion film using the Chinese character for “one” to illustrate the evolution of the civilisation and culture, the interplay of image and language was so well done and the story-telling so clear, that although I know I was most likely missing some clever wordplay, there was such richness in the images that everything was clear and accessible, amusing, enlightening, and ultimately satisfying.  Like a lot of his work, there was circularity, beginnings and endings meeting. The whole exhibition was bookended, literally, with reference to book arts and words- starting with a mulberry tree which grew and withered from start to finish of the show, to the book with silkworms wriggling on its pages and become random “characters” then spinning their cocoons and destroying the words, and the substrate, while creating another new set of threads, the show enacted the process of flux and change, creation and recreation. The visual signs transcended any cultural or linguistic differences. Included in the show was a mock up of Xu’s studio during his work on Book from the Ground, a project aimed at creating a universal pictorial language. These “living words” aim to go beyond cultural boundaries as a new kind of “hypertext” based on our global connectedness.

The ideas of circularity,  flux, the investigation and distrust of language, intercultural and inter textual links, and, most importantly, the spirituality that I see in Xu’s work are also highly present in the poem The Four Quartets by TS Eliot, which has been the inspiration for a series of prints I’ve been working on in one of my final projects. This poem, one that I read, and studied, as an undergraduate, and which has echoed ever since, has been taken as a statement of the poet’s conversion to Anglicanism. However, on rereading it, I now find that it is far more akin to Zen thinking, and since Eliot was a student of Eastern religions, I am surprised that this reading was not given more prominence earlier. These two influences have greatly inspired my thinking and artistic practice.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

TS Eliot, The Four Quartets

Little Gidding V ll. 26-29



Xu, B. (1987) Five Series of Repetitions.

Books and Publications

Berger, P. (2000) “Pun Intended: A response to Stanley Abe, ‘Reading the Sky’.” Cross-Cultural Readings of Chineseness. Wen-hsin Yeh, ed. Berkeley: Institute of East
Asian Studies, University of California. pp. 80-100.

de Saussure, F. Course in General Linguistics. Eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. (1983)  La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.

Derrida, J. (1976) ‘The exorbitant question of method’. Of Grammatology.  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. pp. 157-164.

Erickson, B.  (2001) The Art of Xu Bing: Words without Meaning, Meaning without Words. Electronic Book. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler: Asian Art and Culture.

Gao, M. (2003) Xu Bing. Taipei: Eslite Corporation.

Morley, S. (2003) Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art. London: Thames and Hudson.

Ricks, C. and McCue J. (Eds.) (2015) The Poems of T.S.Eliot. London. Faber and Faber.

Tsao H. and Ames, R. T. (Eds.) (2011) Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections.  New York: State University of New York Press.

Pilrig, R.  (1975)  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Electronic Book 2004 edition. London: Vintage Books.


  1. People said that they found it interesting to have Xu Bing and Derrida “installed” in the same space. I remember saying to Derrida: “Although so many people have used your theories to interpret Book from the Sky, I had never read any of your books at the time I was working on it. If I had read them, maybe I wouldn’t have bothered to continue. It would have been clear that there was no point in making anything ever again.” Accessed 18/09/2016 22.29

2. For example, Morley, S. (2003) Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art puts Xu Bing in his “Creolization” chapter.

The artists of the post-Tiananmen Chinese diaspora, such as Xu Bing, Ai Wei Wei and Gu Wenda, had developed their art in China in the relatively open environment of the 1980s, but soon found themselves in conflict with authorities. Tsao and Ames (2011) critique the tendency of the Western art establishment to see these artists as representatives of an alien culture, in order to interpret their work as criticism of China.  They see this essentially as self-serving, criticism of repression in China being, in turn, flattering to Western democracy.

3. Zhuangzi or Chuang-tzu is an ancient Chinese document (476-221 BC) setting out Daoist philosophy.

“I am often speechless when confronted with Zhuangzhi’s thinking: that everything I could say would be superfluous. The notion of the “unity of the self and the material world” will always push one’s thinking into this place of ambiguity. ” Xu Bing, catalogue notes, “It Begins with Metamorphosis”.


8 May 2014 – 31 August 2014

“Curated by Yeewan Koon, It Begins with Metamorphosis: Xu Bing is the first major solo exhibition in Hong Kong featuring some of the latest works by this renowned artist. It will highlight how metamorphosis marks the beginnings of the process of ideas and methods, and provides a focused look at Xu Bing’s art. Often using unexpected materials including tobacco leaves, debris, and silkworms, Xu Bing mediates on the transformative power of materiality as he challenges societal values, and explores the shape of memories, histories, and destinies.” (Extract from exhibition  catalogue.)

The Character of Characters (2012) Animated film installation. 16 minutes 45 sec. Commissioned by the Asian Art Museum of San Fransisco for the 2012 exhibition “out of character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy” with support from The Robert H. N. Ho Foundation.


Author: chrisocaprintingblog

Studying visual arts part-time with the Open College of the Arts

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