- Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections ed. by Hsingyuan Tsao and Roger T. Ames
Xu Bing ranks among the most recognized contemporary Chinese artists in the world today. His lifelong interest in word and image paired with his experiences as part of the Chinese diaspora have made him the subject of numerous publications dedicated to exploring culture and communication. With Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art, editors Hsingyuan Tsao and Roger T. Ames bring a welcome addition to this corpus. Compiling seven essays from scholars of art history and philosophy, this volume [End Page 446] in the SUNY series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture offers a remarkable range of approaches for thinking about not only Xu Bing's work but also contemporary art and culture at large.
In their introduction, the editors foreground the question "How Chinese is contemporary Chinese art?" Reminiscent of 1990s debates over hierarchies in the global art world, this raising of East-West power dynamics initially prompts knee-jerk reactions against the polemic of cultural purity. However, with its refreshing breadth of methodologies, the volume offers a range of productive modes for thinking about differences within uneven global power relations.
Leading with Hsingyuan Tsao's essay, the book frames the question of Chineseness within two larger problems: how contemporary Chinese art has been received globally and how signs of traditional Chinese culture have been interpreted within these works. Tsao traces the differences in Xu Bing's adoption of Western art ideas before and after his move to New York in 1989. While she sees his latter work as intercultural, she argues that Xu, like other celebrated diaspora artists, has "been accepted in the West as a part of difference, not as a part of influence" (p. 28). The possibility of countering this imbalance takes a regional turn with Kazuko KamedaMadar's essay, in which she maps out the historical transmission of Chinese scripts and Confucian and Daoist cosmologies into Korea and Japan. By tracing the shared parent language in Xu's 2000 interactive installation Shen Wai Shen, she argues that this emphasis could be the basis for a "sociopolitical reconciliation" for an East Asian alliance, which could be drafted to counter Euro-American power. The final essay by Jerome Silbergeld offers an interesting counterpoint to these assertions of place-based classifications as he reads Xu Bing's works as "neither East nor West" and instead locates the artist alongside painters and filmmakers who produce work that "creates and operates in a world of its own" (p. 195).
Seen all together, the authors' distinct positions interrogate and model the challenges of defining cultural identity. Positioning Richard Vinograd's essay alongside Hsingyuan Tsao's, for example, allows for instructive approaches to context and category. While Vinograd also considers Chinese artists' strategies for "re-engagement with the international art world" (p. 97), he focuses on the artistic preoccupation with language and the natural world. Mining "nature" for its numerous associations, from land art to bio-art and strategies of camouflage, Vinograd examines how language is often denied legibility and familiarity in these seemingly "natural" mediums and contexts. Even while he acknowledges the deep cultural practices that run through diaspora artists' works, the author studies Xu Bing alongside artists working inside China with similar tactics, such as Qiu Zhijie, Huang Yan, and Song Dong. His exploration of the various facets of nature offers a fruitful theme for thinking through Xu's work that doesn't rely on such an explicit inside/outside approach.
While noting the problems of contemporary interpretations of Xu Bing's work, each author also grapples with an even more fundamental question when approaching text and image: where does meaning come from? Roger T. Ames, for example, expounds on distinctions between Anglo-European and Chinese concepts of creation [End Page 447] that continue to hold over to today, which in turn may account for differences in how audiences...