AAH-194 Visual Culture in Communist China

A Union College Art History Course, Spring 2023

Author: Walter Kraus

Western Influence on Chinese Arts & Culture: Walter Kraus on Xu Bing

Xu Bing is a modern artist who specializes in full room-scale installations, as well as art books. He created a sort of script he calls ‘Square Word Calligraphy’ that allows Latin letters to be used in traditional Chinese character form, like the font of the title of his official website:

This exhibition will mainly feature “1st Class” a massive model tiger skin rug made from stacked and arranged ‘1st Class’ brand cigarettes, the cheapest brand available in China. I will also showcase Xu Bing’s “Poem Stone Chairs” that form an ancient poem called “Reflections While Reading” by Zhu Xi (Southern Song Dynasty). “A small square pond, an uncovered mirror where sunlight and clouds linger and leave. I asked how it stays so clear. It said spring water keeps flowing in.” He writes this poem in his square calligraphy format. In my exhibit, people can sit on the poem stones that would surround the tiger skin rug. Including other works as well, my exhibit will explore Xu Bing’s recognition of Western culture influencing the arts and culture of modern China. The exhibit will mainly focus on the Tobacco Project and Xu Bing’s exploration of humanity’s relationship with tobacco and addiction, but it will also give context to his artistic prowess by highlighting some of his “Square Word Calligraphy” works.

Xu Bing’s Official Website

This link will take you directly to Xu Bing’s Tobacco Project III: Richmond, and this one will take you to his biography page. Explore around on his website to find a lot of thought-provoking artwork including massive installations. Almost every artwork on his website has a short description of the piece, if not the dimensions and materials used, providing insights into why it was made. His biography is highly informative as well, as it tells of his upbringing and art education, as well as some of the reasons why he makes art.



Xu Bing: “1st Class”, 2011

In a line of works titled “Tobacco Project” Xu Bing symbolized humanity’s relationship with tobacco across art works including a book of tobacco slogans printed on tobacco leaves. This specific installation is a mock- tiger rug made of over half a million ‘1st Class’ brand cigarettes, carpet, and adhesive, and Xu Bing named it accordingly “1st Class”. 40 feet long and 15 feet wide, “1st Class’ is a larger than life tiger skin symbolizing “human prowess: it confirms our superiority by transforming one of nature’s fiercest predators into a lifeless skin beneath our feet.” (Ravenal, 2011) The oversized quality of the skin is no coincidence, as Xu Bing aims to invoke a slightly remorseful self-reflection. The size also doubles as a way to make one artwork into two: a massive collection of cigarettes and separately  an oversized tiger rug, and the oversized tiger could additionally signify an especially dangerous or threatening animal. As a tiger rug is associated with “luxury, status, and domination” Xu Bing forces the viewer to think about the correlation between these traits and humanity’s relationship with smoking cigarettes. Ravenal writes “The beauty of the tiger-skin pattern, its allusions to the dangerous thrill of the hunt, and the uncanny allure of the massive display of cigarettes ironically glamorize the addictive pull and risks of smoking.” (Ravenal, 2011) The monochromaticity of the tiger is clearly not made to look realistic, but it is rather an artistic decision to switch the oranges and blacks of normal tiger skin to white and orange (with orange stripes over a white background, keeping the color scheme as that of the cigarettes). However, from other viewpoints some of the tiger skin looks like a darker brown color, and this is because from standing on the other side you can see down the end of the cigarette, creating a darker sort of stippled look. This may emulate two different views of or opinions on cigarettes; those who enjoy them for the taste and/or feeling, and those who are suffering from addiction or physical health problems manifested from smoking.

1st Class (rear view, detail)

Xu Bing

Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, in 1955 and grew up in Beijing. He went to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1977, and went on to join the faculty and earned a master’s degree at the same school after completing his printmaking studies. In 1990 he was invited to the US as an honorary artist, and in 2007 he went back to China and was appointed multiple leadership roles at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, including supervisor of doctoral students, professor, and Vice President. Xu Bing creates all kinds of art from printmaking to large-scale room installations with an emphasis on using unique materials. Below is (the best close-up I could find of) a tiger rug made of cigarettes turned in two different directions, symbolizing humanities’ tendencies to fall into bad smoking habits. The ‘rug’ is made from over 500,000 individual cigarettes and weights more than 440lbs. Xu Bing has won numerous awards celebrating not only his artistic originality but also his transcendence of cultural boundaries, “bridging the divide between East and West and expressing his thoughts and realities in a visual language.” (quoted from the bio on his website)

– Walter K.

Walter Kraus

My name is Walter and I’m from West Hartford, Connecticut. I am a sophomore Visual Arts major, and I’m in Real & Recorded Time right now but I most recently finished sculpture, which I really enjoyed because I made a wooden model sword. I hope to pursue photography, but I also really enjoy digital art and graphic design. I’m on the swim team and I’m very passionate about it, but I’m in the offseason right now. I like watching TV and playing video games as well, partly because they’re fun but partly because of my love for digital art. I’m interested in the history of visual arts around the world, so I thought I could expand my knowledge (and satisfy my Art History requirements) by taking this class.

I took this photo at Columbia Lake in Connecticut.

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