Xu Bing: Landscape Landscript, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford – review

In 1999, trekking in the Himalayas, the Chinese artist Xu Bing explained a particular sense of resonance: “Sitting on top of a mountain, facing another mountain, I sketched a mountain. In China, painting and writing a mountain is the same thing.”

Xu filled his Himalayan journals with landscapes composed of Chinese characters, exploiting the pictographic origins of the script and returning it to its organic setting. Born in 1955, as a child Xu had performed daily calligraphic exercises under the instruction of his father, a historian at Beijing University, mastering both brush and language, and becoming rooted in this traditional Chinese symbiosis of painting, calligraphy and poetry.

The Ashmolean Museum’s Landscape/Landscript exhibition traces Xu’s visual-linguistic imagination, as it flowed from the pages of his Himalayan sketchbooks into his series of Landscripts, vast natural worlds populated with Chinese characters. Composed on Nepalese paper, Xu’s vistas form mountains built by the Chinese character for “stone”, expanses of “grass” characters and rivers of semantic meaning, created in the tactile contours and monochrome wash of traditional Chinese landscape painting.

The violent, traumatic extremes that language reached during the Cultural Revolution, so utterly divorced from all meaning, form a thread that runs through Xu Bing’s artistic life. As a teenager Xu learnt of the arrest of his father from one of the handwritten character posters denouncing reactionary intellectuals. While his father was paraded through the streets in disgrace, Xu found a kind of solace in print catalogues, woodcutting tools and French printing ink. In 1974 Xu was sent to the remote farming commune of Huapen, labouring in the fields as part of the Cultural Revolution’s educated youth policy. Landscape/Landscript collects the immersive pieces he made there, documenting this formative time spent in the mountainous northwest where, each evening after work, Xu would take wrapping paper from the production brigade’s store and draw the landscape and life around his village.

Even with the end of the Cultural Revolution, rural imagery followed Xu in his emergent work during the late 1970s while at the Central Academy of Fine Arts’ printmaking department. The Ashmolean pulls together his Shattered Jade woodcuts, quietly conversant with socialist realism, folk traditions and memories of Huapen. But Xu was on the verge of making his break with orthodoxy and reaching for contemporaneity. At a time of intellectual ferment, Xu found himself exhausted by the feverish heights reached by the reform period’s cultural consumption. In his McKenzie lecture in Oxford earlier this year, Xu described his disorientation: “My generation has a strange relationship with books. We became very thirsty when the Cultural Revolution ended. I was able to read all sorts of books, but then I felt lost after taking in so many things.” In the summer of 1986, Xu removed himself to the northwest of China. “Mountain Rhythm” is the product of his etchings made at the Longyang Gorge in Qinghai Province. Xu engraved the landscape en plein air on copper plates which had been waxed in Beijing. Using a portable printmaking set, Xu scratched through the wax with a needle, adding acid later in the evening.

Landscape/Landscript follows Xu’s concentrated contemplations on the printmaking process. The Repetition Series of 1987 narrates the textural life of a printing block, carved and printed in 11 sequential stages to reveal its untouched, black space in the first print, an emergent patchwork landscape by the middle print and then gradually cut away to a final, almost blank reduction. Spread across a gallery wall, the “Ziliudi Scroll” from Xu’s Repetition Series details plots of land, with their crop patterns arranged in evocation of printed text.

Xu’s new meditative approach culminated in his maximalist 1988 project, Tianshu, in which he invented and handcarved 4,000 meaningless Chinese characters, displaying them as draped scrolls hanging in the air, wall panels and books spread across the floor. His expressive qualities increasingly found common ground with China’s new wave artists, part of the wider mid-1980s political movement that reached its tragic conclusion in the Tiananmen demonstrations. Caught up in the ensuing critical backlash against the avant-garde, in 1990 Xu left for the US, where western life pushed his work into further realms.

Standing at the heart of Landscape/Landscript, the Suzhou Landscripts lithographs, nearly a decade in the making, draw on a lifelong obsession with nature and language, as well as personal encounters with Chinese and western traditions. Taking 17th-century idyllic ink paintings of the Ming and Qing dynasties from the Suzhou Museum’s collection of hanging scrolls, Xu renders them in radiant fashion, layered in red characters that act as reminders of the ancient pictorial forms that appear on oracle bones. But the Suzhou Landscripts are also adorned with Xu’s square word calligraphy, a system of “masked words” he designed back in 1994 which places Roman script within the idioms of Chinese calligraphy. Challenging the assumptions of linguistic signification, the Suzhou Landscripts straddle the boundaries of different language systems. “My characters are like a computer virus, ruining our brain mechanisms,” Xu playfully observed in his Oxford lecture.

The closing act of Xu’s Ashmolean collection, the “Mustard Seed Garden Scroll”, picks away at the illusory effects of the artistic landscape tradition. Xu takes as his cue China’s venerable tradition of copying as pedagogy, as exemplified in the 17th-century Mustard Seed Garden Manual, an anthology codifying brushwork conventions. Such prescriptions for creating the motifs of landscape within the Chinese tradition have an almost linguistic structural quality. Xu rearranges images from the Manual, carving them into pearwood blocks and reinstating them in print as a new composition.

Landscape/Landscript is a cerebral submersion in nature, as well as a vivid set of reflections on the power and treachery of words. Xu’s Landscripts teach us another way of seeing the world, where language flows over the landscape, becoming a feature of the natural world itself.

Until May 19, www.ashmolean.org

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