Travels in California, part 6: Xu Bing at LACMA

brush xu bing

We had limited time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) so our visit was short but very sweet – in particular, this show by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing (b. 1955), which was the first thing we saw. I covered the Xu Bing show at the Ashmolean in 2013, so it was fascinating to spend more time in front of his work and to see it in a different presentation.

As before, there was a strong emphasis on the written word and actions related to it – writing, printing, calligraphy. For instance, a series of very striking images based on the hand holding the brush, in two sets of woodblock prints, Holding the Brush and Softening the Brush.

But where the Ashmolean focused on works on paper, LACMA offers a more diverse body of work. There is a piece from his Silkwork Book series, for which he raised live silkworms and made them spin silk over books instead of into cocoons. The book in question is a model book of calligraphy by famous scholar Yan Zhengqing (709-785).

The installation Backbone, taking up most of one wall, builds a text from words found in 19th century tobacco stencils, printed on cigarette paper. In an interesting collaboration, the words were used by René Balcer to create a free-verse blues poem, honouring the African American women who worked in the tobacco industry. You listen to one while viewing the other.

Perhaps the most spell-binding work here is The Character of Characters, an animation that portrays the evolution and simplification of Chinese characters, explored in tandem with social and political developments in China itself.

This brings to an end my series of posts on the fabulous Asian art that I saw in California.  If you are interested, do take a look at my earlier posts on three exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco - Seduction, The Printer's Eye, and Tradition on Fire.  There are also my before and after posts on the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco, and my post on surprise Korean ceramics where I least expected to see them.

The Language of Xu Bing
LACMA, Los Angeles, CA
20 December 2014 to 26 July 2015

You can view part of the animation on YouTube.

Above: Xu Bing, detail from Holding the Brush, 1996. Woodblock print. The Carolyn Hsu & René Balcer Collection. Image at