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Internationally Renowned Chinese Artist Xu Bing Creates Site-Specific Installation at the British Museum
Xu Bing, “Background Story 7”, 2011, various materials and natural debris attached to frosted acrylic panel. Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum.

LONDON.- Internationally renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing is to create a new bespoke art installation specially commissioned for the British Museum. Background Story 7 is part of his ongoing series of museum installations and consists of a dramatic large-scale shadow and light box giving the illusion of a traditional Chinese landscape. The exhibition is on display from May 12th through July 10th, 2011.

This new work is made in direct response to a Chinese mountain landscape hanging scroll by Wang Shimin dating to 1654 which is a part of the British Museum’s collection. The contemporary and antique works are exhibited together in Room 3 following the time-honoured Chinese practice of entering into “dialogue” with a past model by creating a new artistic work.

Xu Bing has been creating installations for Background Story since 2004 at the invitation of various museums in China and abroad, the last being shown at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in 2010. The six previous works in the series have been in a horizontal format as responses to traditional handscrolls, but at the British Museum he works for the first time in a vertical format to correspond to the traditional Chinese hanging scroll. This change of format presenst new challenges and significantly alters the impact of the work.

Background Story 7 is nearly 5 metres tall and consists of a light box made with a wooden frame and a panel of frosted acrylic that is lit from behind. Xu Bing uses unexpected and found materials such as hemp fibres, dry plants, corn husks, crumpled paper and debris sourced from sites across London, and places them on to the back of the acrylic. His deft work creates imagery that when seen from the front looks like the brush strokes of a Chinese painting and represents landscape elements such as mountains, water and buildings, in this case echoing Wang Shimin’s hanging scroll. However the illusion is shattered when the viewer sees the seemingly chaotic scattering of debris at the back of the work. The work is created on site by Xu Bing and his studio assistants and will be completely dismantled afterwards. The installation is filmed for the first time to allow viewers to share the inside story of this artistic creation in a daily time-lapse segment on the British Museum website.

Xu Bing’s work explores the relationship and tension between art and illusion. Xu intentionally challenges the relationship between the image and medium. Unlike the traditional Chinese painter who creates a simple illusion by committing a landscape scene to paper in a realistic manner, Xu extends the artist’s remit. He creates a work that reads as a landscape painting, but is neither a landscape nor a painting and uses three-dimensional materials to imitate two-dimensional brushstrokes. Each of Xu’s unique installations pushes the viewer to confront the limitations of the way we habitually process and respond to what we see.

The British Museum already houses several of Xu Bing’s works in the collection, including a boxed set of the volumes entitled Book from the Sky, Xu Bing’s career-launching masterwork which established his pathway of thought, reverberations of which can be seen in Background Story. In these hand-printed volumes he confronted viewers with his self-invented system of signs that so decisively resemble Chinese characters that viewers struggled to understand why they were unable to read the words. Here at the British Museum Xu Bing now extends this mind game to the pictorial realm.

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