Xu Bing, currently a Cornell A. D. White Professor-at-Large based in Beijing and New York, has been reinterpreting the art of landscapes over the course of his long career. As a printmaker in the 1980s, his Five Series of Repetitions documented the process of creating a landscape by pulling prints at numerous intervals of carving a woodblock, from the first emergence of the image to its full completion and beyond, until the image was obliterated. In his 2001 Reading Landscape installation, three-dimensional Chinese characters representing elements of a landscape—such as grass, trees, rocks, and water—turned a gallery into an immersive landscape formed from words. His ongoing Landscript series comingles Chinese painting and calligraphy based on their common origins in shared methods of wielding brush and ink.
His Background Story series (2004–present) re-creates centuries-old ink paintings of mountains through the manipulation of light and shadow on a translucent surface. For this exhibition he has made a new work based on a Ming dynasty landscape painting by Yang Xun from the Johnson Museum’s collection. The concept of fang (creative imitation) has a long history in China: through copying the works of the past an artist learns to master the brushwork, and only upon this foundation could one’s individual style develop. In the presentation of Background Story, Xu Bing invites visitors to not only contemplate his version of the earlier painting, but to openly examine the creative process and see how he layers unusual materials in three dimensions to paint an image not with brush and ink, but with air and light.
While the traces of ink resulting from the performative actions of painting and calligraphy are, in Chinese tradition, thought to reveal the artist’s mind and moral character, grounded in reverence for nature, the approach Xu Bing takes for his Background Story combines natural tree branches and leaves with recycled man-made materials such as torn paper, plastic bags and bubble wrap to convey modern society’s destructive disregard for the natural world. According to the artist, they form a picture of our contemporary landscape and communicate a warning about the broken balance between humans and the environment.
This exhibition was curated by Ellen Avril, chief curator and the Judith H. Stoikov Curator of Asian Art at the Johnson Museum, as part of the campus-wide 2022 Cornell Biennial. It has been cosponsored by the A. D. White Professor-at-Large Program and supported at the Johnson Museum by the Lee C. Lee Endowment for East Asian Art, the Mary Hyde Field Endowment, the Harriet Ames Charitable Trust, and a generous gift from Younghee Kim-Wait.