02/02/2012 10:29 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Xu Bing on His Plans to Light a Giant Cigarette at the Aldrich Museum, Even Though He Doesn't Smoke

At the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, Chinese artist Xu Bing is showing some highly addictive work. His installation, called "Tobacco Project," uses the eponymous poisonous leaf as its muse and medium, turning the material into maps, books, and printed poems that confront the omnipresent ills of a nicotine-dependent culture.


Xu Bing printing on a tobacco leaf, 2000 / Photo courtesy of Duke University

At the exhibition's opening on January 29, Xu lit a 42-foot-long cigarette for his piece "Traveling Down the River." The sculpture slowly burned on top of a replica of a famous Chinese scroll painting by Song dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan, commenting on the relentless spread of smoking across China: studies have shown that the country has the largest number of smoking-related deaths in the world, yet two thirds of Chinese people think smoking does little or no harm to their health.

In this Q&A, BLOUIN ARTINFO asked Xu Bing what made him choose tobacco as a medium, and what cigarettes mean to him. He also explained his own personal history with tobacco.

Could you please describe your exhibition at the Aldrich museum for us?

Except for taking "tobacco" as their organizing theme, the works in "Tobacco Project" share no stylistic considerations or connections. Some of the works are as small and as refined as jewelry; some are huge and overtake the entire exhibition space. The semantic meaning of the project is produced in the counterpoint and questioning that takes place between the various works. In this sense, the project's vague uncertainty, the ambiguity of the materials, is transformed into a kind of clear and vigorous language, which in turn becomes the artistic language of the project.

"Tobacco Project" began with an interest in the aroma of tobacco and the way it is made. The result is something enormous and growing, located between history and sociology, or, one could say, an activity employing artistic means to explore sociological issues.

Why did you choose cigarettes as the dominant medium for the show?

In 1999 I visited Duke University to give a lecture. When I entered Durham I was immediately aware of the scent of tobacco in the air. Friends explained to me that the Duke family was built on a tobacco fortune, and thus Durham had come to be called "Tobacco City." Moreover, because the Duke University School of Medicine excelled in treating cancer, Durham has also come to be known as the "City of Medicine." A multifaceted connection exists there between tobacco and cultural history.

I have a habit of visiting local factories wherever I go. The "intelligent" machines that I find are often far more akin to art than actual contemporary work. When I visited a cigarette factory, I was drawn to the refinement of the materials. I decided to limit myself to these materials to create a series of works related to tobacco.

Since the initial show at Duke, I went on to expand the show to the Shanghai Gallery of Art in 2004 -- there is a deep historical connection between Shanghai and Durham as a result of the tobacco trade that flourished at the beginning of the 20th century -- and then to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond in 2011, where collectors Carolyn Hsu-Balcer -- whose family has a long-standing connection to tobacco -- and her husband, René Balcer, encouraged me to pursue the history of tobacco in Richmond. The Aldrich contemporary art museum in Ridgefield will be the project's only venue in the New York area.

Your work often deals with appropriation, adopting symbols and warping or destabilizing their meanings. How have you confronted the innate symbolism of cigarettes?

I am interested in an examination of inherently human issues and weaknesses through an exploration of the entangled relationship that exists between man and tobacco. Historically speaking, our human connection to tobacco is at times distant and at times close.

In some eras, tobacco was seen as something good: men and women young and old all took part in the use of tobacco. It could be said that today we have reached the summit of man's rejection of tobacco. The design of a single pack of cigarettes engages in the contradictory behavior of simultaneously promoting its sale and its rejection. Everyone knows that tobacco is harmful, but we are inseparable, caught in an entanglement that resembles the relationship between lovers: getting too close is no good, but neither is being too distant. Taken together, human weakness and the meaning of tobacco form this kind of awkward relationship.

When I treat tobacco as a material and come into close contact with it, I realize that it should not be the object of further subjective judgment. It has already taken on the burden of too much social significance. I don't want my work to function as little more than a contribution to the body of tobacco-related propaganda. There is no reason for me to spend my energy saying something that everyone already knows. By viewing tobacco as something neutral, by returning to its innate qualities, I am simply engaging the material in a discussion, in an exchange. If the material is approached with a sense of moral or ethical judgment, then its true aspect will never be visible.

The exhibition also includes a time-based work: the 42-foot-long cigarette, which you are about to light. Is this a piece of performance art?

It is an installation work. It does require the actions of lighting and extinguishing the cigarette, but not in any ceremonious way.

The work on view at the Aldrich shows an obsession with cigarettes and tobacco culture. Do you smoke?

I don't. In fact, when I was "sent down" to the countryside in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution, I was a little overzealous, competing with the other "educated youth" in two categories. One: we competed over who wouldn't smoke. Before we sent off, we had all pledged not to smoke in the village. Among the more than 100 male educated youth in the commune, I was the only one who didn't take a single puff for the entire two years of our stay. I said I wasn't going to smoke, so I didn't smoke. There wasn't much to it. Two: we competed over who could stay there the longest between visits home. I would wait for a national or city level exhibition before I returned to Beijing, so I was frequently the only educated youth left at our post. There is a kind of satisfaction I get from this kind of self-restraint.

Xu Bing's "Tobacco Project" opens at the Aldrich museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut on Sunday, January 29, and runs through June 10.

Slideshow: See Xu Bing's Tobacco Art


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