Xu Bing is an artist I have been admiring for years. I would even say he was one of the people who inspired me to face the four-year battle of writing a Ph.D.
I am captured by his Square Word Calligraphy, his Book from the Ground, his Phoenix and of course his jaw-dropping Book from the Sky. When I got the opportunity to go to Shenyang to study Chinese for a couple of months it crossed my mind that a visit to his studio would be a good idea.
We had arranged with Xu Bing to meet at 13h30 on a Saturday. When we arrived after a twelve-hour journey on the night train we were told that he was out with a friend for lunch but that we could wait in his studio, as he probably would be gone for quite a while. To be in Xu Bing’s workspace was no punishment at all. We got the chance to peruse some books on his work that were displayed on a long table, ready for consultation. I felt like a VIP just “hanging out” there: seeing the stuff he was working on, being able to get up close and personal with the 3D printed model of his famous work the Phoenix… Just the fact of being there, in Xu Bing’s studio, was thrilling.
When eventually he arrived we sat down in an area with some chairs and a sofa, probably especially arranged for the many interviewers who make the pilgrimage to his studio. We chatted for about an hour but he seemed rather tired; like coming down with a cold. I asked some questions and he would politely answer them, yet there was no further elaboration. The interview was done in Chinese, although quite a few English words would pop up every now and then. I asked Xu Bing why his English seemed so poor for somebody who had lived in the States for 18 years. He laughed and answered that English, with its simple alphabet, was just not much of a challenge for him. Chinese on the other hand is fascinating and that is why he continues to explore it. Yet for an artist so obsessed with language and communication it seemed so paradoxical.
I then asked why he returned to China: It is known that Xu Bing accepted the prestigious position of president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing yet, according to him, this was not the reason for leaving New York. He told me that the Big Apple just did not inspire him anymore and that he had the feeling of having seen it all. Coming back to China gave him the energy he needed. Yet again I sensed fatigue while speaking with Xu Bing. Saying that New York no longer provided him with the inspiration he needed confirmed my suspicion that he had just become quite tired of it all. No interest in English, no longer inspired by life in New York, and somewhat fed up with people like me raising questions for yet another interview. But in order not to lose mianzi, to lose face as they say in China, he politely invites us to come to his studio and patiently answers our questions.
I have no regrets about having met with Xu Bing and will remember the encounter forever, but not for the reasons I had imagined. I did not find out anything about this artist that is not already generally known, but here arose a valuable lesson: some artists just want to be left alone. What they need is space to “do their thing” and to follow their own dreams without the interference of enthusiasts like me. After the interview I headed to a small place just around the corner from Xu Bing’s studio where they specialize in sandwiches filled with roasted donkey meat. To be honest, it tasted rather bland, and at the end of the day it made me feel rather like an ass myself.