Xu Bing: Tobacco Project explores the production and culture of tobacco as seen through the eyes of one of China’s most innovative contemporary artists. The exhibition combines important pieces from the artist’s earlier projects at Duke University in North Carolina and the Shanghai Gallery of Art in China with new work inspired by visits to tobacco farms, warehouses, and cigarette factories in Virginia. It spans 12 years of Xu Bing’s work and surveys one of his most ambitious undertakings. Tobacco Project will be on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from September 10th through December 4th, 2011.
As is reported by Artdaily.org, “Virginia’s long history with tobacco makes Tobacco Project a particularly relevant exhibition,” Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Director Alex Nyerges said. “Xu Bing is one of China’s most recognized and celebrated contemporary artists, and we are pleased to feature this noted artist’s work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.” VMFA Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, John Ravenal, said: “Xu Bing brings his usual wit and insight to his work with tobacco, as well as his sense of craft and showmanship. Viewers will see exquisite books of poetry printed on cigarette paper and matchbooks, and a forty-foot tiger-skin rug made of half a million cigarettes. The exhibition will be a stunning and thought-provoking display of Xu Bing’s innovative art.”
Xu Bing uses tobacco—as a material and a subject—to explore a wide range of issues, from global trade and exploitation to the ironies of advertising a potentially harmful substance. As a print- and bookmaker, he is especially fascinated by the visual culture of packaging and marketing tobacco. When Duke University invited Xu Bing to be the artist in residence in 2000, he was drawn into the history of the Duke family, which led to his first Tobacco Project. He followed that with a second Tobacco Project in Shanghai in 2004. He sees the Virginia Tobacco Project as the third in a trilogy.
Xu Bing’s interest in “tobacco culture” extends to the historical impact of China’s large-scale exportation of tobacco products from the United States beginning in the late 19th century. For the Durham exhibition, he made a gigantic book of tobacco leaves that was gradually devoured by beetles during the course of the exhibition. For Traveling Down the River, he constructed a thirty-feet-long cigarette laid over a reproduction of a hand-scroll of the celebrated classical Chinese painting Along the River during the Qingming Festival. As the cigarette burned, it left scorch marks on the image, inscribing time as a serpentine scar and the journey as a residue of ash. An installation created in an abandoned tobacco plant near Duke included a recorded voice reading the medical records of Xu Bing’s father, who died of lung cancer, conveying a personal connection to tobacco and death. In exploring the complex connections between people and tobacco, the project ultimately concerns fundamental issues of human culture and of tobacco as a medium of social exchange.
The VMFA exhibition consists of selected works from these exhibitions combined with new works inspired by the time Xu Bing spent in Virginia. His first visits to the Commonwealth included a tour of the Philip Morris manufacturing center in Richmond—one of the largest cigarette production facility in the world—and trips to the Southside region of Virginia to see an historic tobacco warehouse and several family-owned tobacco farms. He also did research at the Virginia Historical Society and the Valentine Richmond History Center.
Xu Bing recently concluded a two-week residency in Richmond, during which time he worked on several large pieces, some entirely new and some recreations of past pieces that no longer exist or cannot travel. The new pieces include a three hundred-pound solid block of compressed tobacco embossed with the text “light as smoke”; a book of fifty historic tobacco slogans redesigned and printed on cigarette paper to form a bound volume of poetry; wooden boxes stamped with the logo “Puff Choice” and made to hold “double cigarettes”—two cigarettes joined to a double-length filter. Refabrications of earlier pieces include a colossal book made of tobacco leaves, resembling the Duke book described above, but with new text; a recreation of Traveling Down the River, including a forty-one-feet long version of the scroll and an equally long cigarette that will burn down its length; and a large arrangement of dried branches called Match Flower, with each of the hundreds of tips coated in red match phosphorous. Working with former graduate students from Virginia Commonwealth University’s highly regarded School of the Arts, he also created the template for a large installation piece that forms the climax of the exhibition: a tiger-skin-pattern rug made from over half a million cigarettes standing on end, with either filter or tip up to make an alternating pattern of orange and white.
Xu Bing: Tobacco Project is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and curated by John B. Ravenal, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. The exhibition will travel to the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, opening in January 2012. Given Xu Bing’s international stature and the interest among scholars and students in his work, VMFA plans to organize a weekend symposium featuring lectures, panels, and roundtable discussions with top scholars in the field. All participants have given verbal confirmation.
Courtesty of the artist and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.