At 5pm on a Sunday afternoon, the staff in the café at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) are making the clattering noise that is a universal shorthand for "we want to go home". The place is empty, but for me and my translator, Linda. And we are sitting it out. We are here to meet Xu Bing, the Academy’s vice-president and one of the global stars of Chinese contemporary art. His recent collection of landscape works, "Landscape Landscript", was the first major exhibition ever devoted to a contemporary artist by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He is currently in discussions with the Victorian & Albert Museum in London to create an installation, again on the theme of landscape, to accompany its Masterpieces of Chinese Painting exhibition this autumn.
Xu arrives so quietly that we are taken by surprise. He is slight, almost boyish; dressed in stylish monochrome, with a Beethoven shock of dark hair and round, horn-rimmed spectacles. He is 58, but looks much younger. We order glasses of water, which arrive hot (disconcerting, but customary in China), and set about the multi-layered business of communication. Xu lived in America from 1990 to 2008, but prefers to speak Chinese when discussing his work.
He is an expressive speaker, answering questions at length with a formidable intensity that lightens, endearingly, into occasional giggles. But having a translator does lend the dialogue a certain opacity. Meaning is notoriously fragile, even between two people from the same culture. Add a second language, a third person and a complex subject, spike the mixture with the courteous Chinese habit of answering a direct question with a graceful circumlocution, and you have a conversation over which the cloud of unknowing casts a drifting shadow.
Xu’s work and his personal experience are, in any case, deeply marked by ambiguity. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when nuance was politically suspect and saying what you really thought could be fatal. The complex and sometimes absurd relationship between language and meaning has been a central preoccupation of his art, which is full of teasing paradox—playful but austere, subversive but rooted in the classical traditions of China and the West.
Xu was born in 1955, the third of five children. His father was head of the history department at Beijing University, where his mother also worked. The family has an ancient lineage: a distant ancestor, Xu Luo, was a courtier to the ninth-century Emperor Wenzong, and held the sonorous title of Grand Master of Splendid Happiness Bearing the Golden Pocket with Purple Trimming.
Xu started drawing at kindergarten and was still very young when he decided that he wanted to become an artist and study at cafa. His was a comfortable, upper-middle-class existence, and it may have seemed as though nothing could disturb it. Then, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution began, and its epicentre was Beijing University. It was, Xu says, with characteristic understatement, "a very difficult environment". His father was publicly humiliated, sacked from his job and imprisoned.
But the Cultural Revolution was driven by slogans and posters, and Xu’s bourgeois talent for calligraphy and typography was the saving of him. He threw himself into propaganda projects and in return was allowed to continue his education. Recently he rediscovered a watercolour dating from 1974, the year he graduated from high school. Clearly influenced by 19th-century realism, but with a distinctive, elegiac reticence, it depicts the family home after heavy snowfall, with a yearning bleakness that recalls the lost realms of Alain-Fournier or A.E. Housman.
Xu’s dreams of studying at the Academy seemed blasted. Instead he was sent with four other high-school graduates to work with peasant families in a remote village north of Beijing. It was a hard life—working in the fields by day, drawing his surroundings in the evenings—but its elemental simplicity made it a kind of liberation. "I really enjoyed the countryside," he says. "[The people] didn’t care about your background as long as you were respectful to them."
In 1976, after Mao died, there was a change in the cultural climate, and in Xu’s fortunes. The art schools reopened, and in 1977 he was accepted on the printmaking course at CAFA. Beijing in the 1980s was a place of artistic ferment. "Western culture was a big influence. Everyone was reading Western thinkers, and I wanted to like the same things as my contemporaries, so I tried too. But I think I was particularly rooted as a Chinese person—the Western way of thinking wasn’t very suitable for me. I was much more attached to traditional Chinese philosophy: you don’t have to read it page by page and follow an argument as you do in Western philosophy. You can pick up a book and read a few lines…" He mimes dipping into a text.
He was far more excited by Robert Rauschenberg’s 1985 exhibition at the National Art Museum in Beijing. "I was very moved by what I saw. I saw a piece in a magazine about Andy Warhol’s silkscreen images of Jackie Kennedy and that made a big impression on me, too: it gave me lots of ideas about printmaking and repetition."
For a time, it seemed possible that the avant-garde might co-exist with the mainstream. Xu became a teacher at CAFA, and his work was included in official exhibitions, including the 1988 Paris-Pekin show for which he made his first trip to Europe. He was on the way to becoming part of the art establishment. At the same time, he was part of the ’85 New Wave, a nation-wide movement of young Chinese artists whose work was provocative and experimental. But he felt uneasy about the perennial Chinese enchantment with Western art.
"The original purpose of the New Wave was to liberate art, by trying to copy Western art. But after a few years, they realised that if you only imitate other people’s work, you can’t move forward. So then people started to realise that you have to find inspiration from your own culture. I was very eager to be part of the new cultural discussions, but somehow they didn’t meet my expectations. We seemed to get lost in our own opinions. We were reading and absorbing too much, and we got confused."
Xu’s unease found expression in a "grand-scale nonsense": an installation entitled "Book from the Sky" (1987-91). He devised an imaginary alphabet of fake Chinese characters, hand-cut type blocks and used them to print scrolls, newspapers and traditional thread-bound books which were draped from the ceiling, hung on the walls and piled on the floor of an exhibition space to create a kind of cavern of nonsensical language. Shown at the China/Avant-Garde in Beijing in 1989, the first national exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, its austere beauty caught the public mood. The critics began to write about an emergent "Xu Bing phenomenon".
Then the cultural weather changed again. Four months after China/Avant-Garde came the Tiananmen Square protests. While Xu Bing’s students were making agitprop art, including a 30ft statue of the Goddess of Democracy, his father was dying of lung cancer. As these personal and political crises unfolded, the mood turned against the avant-garde.
In 1990—"by choice, not necessity"—Xu Bing joined the exodus of Chinese artists leaving for America, and took over the New York studio of his fellow expatriate Ai Weiwei. (He deflects questions about Ai Weiwei’s arrest and continuing difficulties with the Chinese authorities: "I have to live here".) In 1991 he had his first major American exhibition. The timing was lucky, he says: the Western interest in post-Tiananmen China created an appetite for the work of Chinese contemporary artists. "Book from the Sky", and its offspring "Square Word Calligraphy", a fusion of Chinese and English writing systems, in which English words are compressed to look as though written in Chinese characters, both caught the American imagination. In 1999 a scarlet banner reading "Art for the People" in square word calligraphy fluttered outside the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2001 it travelled to Britain, for the V&A’s "Give and Take" exhibition.
Lately Xu has begun to explore ways of expressing meaning that bypass language altogether. "Book from the Ground" (2007) is a novel in symbolic form, which uses icons and pictographs collected from aircraft safety manuals, road signs, sweet wrappers and emoticons to tell the story of a day in the life of a beleaguered city dweller. Incomprehensible at first, it swiftly resolves itself into a narrative that anyone, whatever their native language, can understand. "For genuine creativity", Xu believes, "you have to look outside the art box—to the internet, environmental concepts, talent shows like ‘Super Girl’. These things are really cool and creative." (My translator, who is in her 20s, later picks up on his view of "Super Girl". "So not cool," she says.)
To be an expatriate artist is to experience a profound shift in identity. For Xu Bing, to be invited to return to Beijing in 2008 was like a trip back through the looking-glass. "The two invitations were like mirrors—a similar experience, but in reverse." Arriving back in China, he says, "I had to do the same things that I did when I went to the US—readjust, change back to becoming Chinese again in this new country." The greatest reward of his Western experience, he feels now, was that he became "more sensitive to Chinese culture, and more appreciative of it".
Intensely driven himself, he says that the most important lesson he tries to pass on to his CAFA students is that self-discipline matters as much as creativity. But when I ask what direction he thinks his own future career might take, he suddenly breaks into English: "You can’t make plans," he says, with the vehemence of someone whom life has taught that the fruits of talent, inspiration, hard work and success can all vanish in an instant. "What happens next is up to fate."