Background Story 7 is the latest in the series of installations by Xu Bing, the internationally renowned Chinese artist. Consisted of a dramatic large-scale shadow and light box, it is a direct response to a hanging scroll of a Chinese landscape by Wang Shimin dating to 1654 and is specially commissioned for the British Museum. From May 12th through July 10th, 2011, this contemporary and antique works will be exhibited together in Room3 following the time-honoured Chinese practice of entering into “dialogue” with a past model by creating a new artistic work.
As high as nearly 5 metres, Xu Bing’s artwork will be made using materials such as hemp fibres, dry plants, corn husks, crumpled paper and debris sourced from sites across London, placed on a backlit screen with a wooden frame and panels of tempered glass that are lit from behind. Seen from the front, the work looks like the brush strokes of a Chinese painting and represents landscape elements such as mountains, water and buildings, but step behind and the illusion is shattered as audience finds out the seemingly chaotic scattering of debris behind. The installation will be created on site by Xu Bing and will only exist for the duration of the display. Also it will be filmed for the first time to allow viewers to share the secrets behind this artistic creation in a daily time-lapse segment on the British Museum website.
Xu Bing has been creating installations for Background Story since 2004 at the invitation of various museums in China and abroad, the last being shown at the Museum of Art and Design in New York in 2010. The six previous works in the series have been in a horizontal format as responses to traditional hand scrolls, but at the British Museum he will work for the first time in a vertical format to correspond to the traditional Chinese hanging scroll. This change of format will present new challenges and significantly alter the impact of the work.
Unlike the traditional Chinese painter who creates a simple illusion by committing a landscape scene to paper in a realistic manner, Xu’s work explores the relationship and tension between art and illusion while intentionally challenging the relationship between the image and medium. He creates a work that reads as a landscape painting, but is neither a landscape nor a painting and uses three-dimensional materials to imitate two-dimensional brushstrokes. Each of Xu’s unique installations pushes the viewer to confront the limitations of the way we habitually process and respond to what we see.
The British Museum already houses several of Xu Bing’s works in the collection, including a boxed set of the volumes entitled Book from the Sky, Xu Bing’s career-launching masterwork which established his pathway of thought, reverberations of which can be seen in Background Story. In these hand-printed volumes he confronted viewers with his self-invented system of signs that so decisively resemble Chinese characters that viewers struggled to understand why they were unable to read the words. At the British Museum, Xu Bing now extends this mind game to the pictorial realm.
View the Chinese version of this article here