On Xu Bing’s Travelling To the Wonderland

By Yuanyuan Tang

A few weeks ago, instead of going to the weekly HAMS meeting, I went to artist Xu Bing’s talk held by the Department of Art. Renowned for playing with language in his works, Xu Bing not only illustrates the immortal essence of language, but also projects the cultural issues in China by representing language in such playful manner.

In the talk, Xu Bing introduced his recent works, which includes the animation The Character of Characters, the multi-media work Book from the Ground, and the latest installation Phoenix in New York City, etc. Among all of these fantastic works, his installation Travelling To the Wonderland in Victoria and Albert Museum impressed me the most.

Situated at the courtyard of John Madejski Garden in V&A Museum, the work Travelling To the Wonderland was an artificial pool with rockery surrounding. Taking the fact that the pool was enclosed by classical European architecture, and outside the architecture was the vibrant and modern city of London, Xu Bing thought that to bring Eastern elements and fuse them into this work would be a good idea. Combining the “geometrical style” of European architecture with Chinese garden – the natural, pleasant and soothing – together, the installation achieved “the internationality of work” as Xu Bing expected.

Therefore, Xu Bing designed the pool like a scroll of classical Chinese landscape painting, and added rockery composed of rocks from different areas of China to give it diversity. According to him, each trait of different rocks represented a distinctive “character of Chinese calligraphy”. Even though there was no visible word could be read from this work, it still had “rich cultural background”.

For the presentation of objects on this installation, Xu Bing attempted to find a balanced effect between the 2D look and the 3D one, more likely to be of “two and half dimension”. Thus, the objects surrounding the pool, including the rockery, and artificial villages, islands, animals all made from ceramics, looked like half-animation and half-real. The interesting and innovative media he combined delivered a dreamy-like feeling to viewers when “they participated into this work”, and made the fantasy of “travelling to the wonderland” possible.

Also noticeably, “the ceramics villages” featured in this work actually had reference of a Chinese classic The Peach Blossom Spring about a fisherman’s chance discovery of a utopia where people lead an ideal existence in harmony for centuries. Bringing such a theme into this work, Xu Bing said that it was his way to not only “question the harmony in Chinese society today”, but “bring political and social consciousness” to the public. The nostalgia of a utopia was truly an artist’s uprising to nowadays’ universal value.

Finally, when I asked Xu Bing about his inspiration in creation, he insisted that the “forces pushing him” were always external. “They come from outside the field of art”, and the work for him, an artist, is to “translate the reality into concrete forms of art”.

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