NEW YORK—As vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, conceptual Chinese artist Xu Bing is the patrician dean of China’s art world. His work is incisive and thought-driven; iconic works like “Book From the Sky” and “The Living Word” play aesthetic games with the pictograms of the Chinese language. Yet, as he explains, Xu’s background is anything but Ivory Tower. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and in 1975 was sent to the countryside to work as a farmer.
Xu recalls that his desire to create art endured through that difficult time. After the Cultural Revolution, the artist was one of the first students to reenter China’s growing art education system, and became part of CAFA’s printmaking staff upon graduation. He moved to New York in 1992, rooming with Ai Weiwei in an East Village basement before taking up residence in Williamsburg, where he currently has a home and studio converted from an old bakery. The cavernous stone oven left over from the building’s previous use forms a sunken pit that he has taken over as an office.
On the occasion of his “Tobacco Project” exhibition at the Aldrich Museum, ARTINFO sat down with Xu Bing to discuss how he became an artist despite political challenges, the inspiration he took from New York’s tumultuous art scene, and his latest projects.