This review first appeared in artUS and is posted here with permission from the publisher.
British Museum, London
May 12–July 10, 2011
Background Story in 60 Seconds: Front View courtesy of the British Museum.
Enter the British Museum, turn right, and there, against the deep blue background of the gallery walls, is a freestanding, sixteen-foot-high screen supporting a Chinese landscape. The image of steeply receding mountains, forest, and river is clearly a monochrome pen-and-ink drawing, a monumental hanging scroll. Or is it? The surface is backlit, so the landscape seems painted not on the side facing you, but on the reverse of the translucent screen. Or is it? On the left is a smaller hanging scroll. The landscape is similar. A label tells you that the scholar-artist Wang Shimin painted it in 1654. Why has Xu Bing reproduced it?
Venture round the back and discover the artifice. The light-box, open at the rear, is edged with fluorescent tubes. A jumble of branches, leaves, twigs, and teased hemp fiber is stuck to the screen with Scotch tape. Similar, locally gathered material, together with stubs of colored chalk and rolls of tape, litters the inside of the bottom of the light-box. Return to the front and disbelievingly correlate the shriveled vegetation stuck to the screen with the exquisite image on the front. Xu has recreated Wang’s landscape not in ink, but with the shadows cast by vegetable fragments stuck to the back of frosted acrylic. Where twigs and leaves stand out slightly from the surface, the shadows lose depth, darkness, and clarity. Their penumbrae imitate the delicate wash of diluted ink. The illusion is intense. Xu has created a contemporary trompe l’oeil that examines the conditions of representation in the Chinese tradition, yet participates fully in contemporary Western self-reflectivity.
This is a work of multiple resonances. What are Wang’s ink and paper but products derived from the vegetable world, like Xu’s, only more thoroughly processed and refined? Not before you enter the zone of direct light behind the screen are you literally enlightened. In front of it, you occupy the Chinese equivalent of Plato’s Cave, viewing the illusion of a shadow world that you take to be a real painted representation; yet behind it you see that this apparent reality comprises shriveled remnants of actuality.
Background Story 7 is the latest in Xu’s series of scroll recreations using light-and-shadow boxes, his first in vertical format. The project enacts a peculiarly Chinese procedure of imitation, emulation, and conversation with older art. In his 1654 hanging scroll landscape, Wang Shimin had imitated, emulated, and conversed with scroll paintings by Huang Gongwang, his predecessor by three hundred years. Vice-president of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, Xu is a government official, as was Wang over three hundred years previously. As such, Xu is surely aware that the detritus of reality only finds its representational perfection in the contrivance of shadows to maintain illusions. In Background Story 7, as in earlier works in this series executed in China, Korea, Germany, and the USA, Xu exposes the illusion of perfection to be the skillfully improvised manipulation of messy reality. As in art, thus in life.
Ivan Gaskell teaches history at Harvard University, using tangible things as historical sources.