“I am interested in an examination of inherently human issues and weaknesses through an exploration of the extensive, entangled relationship that exists between human beings and tobacco. .. Taken together, human weakness and the meaning of tobacco form a kind of awkward relationship, a relationship that reveals the innate quality of self-professed helplessness.” – Xu Bing
A couple of weeks ago I went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond to see Xu Bing: Tobacco Project, which explores the production and culture of tobacco. The VMFA show is the third part of a trilogy that began with Xu’s residency at Duke University in 2000 followed by a 2004 show in Shanghai. It is fitting that the final piece of the trilogy is in Richmond as Virginia is tobacco’s ground zero. Leading up to the show, Xu toured Philip Morris in Richmond—one of the largest cigarette production facilities in the world—and visited a tobacco warehouse and several family-owned tobacco farms in Southside Virginia.
It was in researching the Duke family that Xu zeroed in on tobacco, which has figured largely in Chinese culture since the 19th century and holds particular resonance for him as his father died from smoking-related lung cancer. As with most anything when you begin to scratch the surface, you discover a whole world opening up, and Xu’s explorations into tobacco expanded to include its history, production and marketing.
The VMFA show is an iron fist in a velvet glove, quiet and serene, yet packing a punch. There is beauty and inventiveness, humor and awe. The first thing you notice as you approach the show is the smell. Sweet and heady tobacco reaches out to you from several rooms away. It’s a powerful metaphor for tobacco’s insidious pull. I loved Traveling Down the River, which features an eye-popping 30’ long cigarette laid atop a reproduction of the great 11th century Chinese scroll Along the River during the Qingming Festival. The painting is considered the Mona Lisa of China. So to besmirch it in this way, with ash and burn marks is akin to blasphemy. An accompanying text likens Xu’s piece to Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., which features Mona Lisa sporting a graffiti moustache and goatee.
Backbone, a collaboration between Xu Bing and René Balcer, is a book presenting historical tobacco logos printed onto oversized pieces of cigarette paper. Here they are exhibited unbound, individually framed and hung en masse on the wall. The names are so delightful (Black Satin, Custard Pie, Queen of Ophir, Pure Cream, Dew Drop)—quaint, innocent, puffed up, evocative—they inspired Balcer to create a free-verse blues piece. A recording performed by Captain Luke and Big Ron Hunter is available by calling a number provided by the museum on your cell phone. Xu is known as a print- and bookmaker and he has a field day with the fine paper, interesting logos and distinctive cigarette tins and boxes, inscribing texts on cigarettes, presenting uncut and thus unsmokable cigarettes in custom made containers, joining well-known corporate names to cigarettes, and the like, marrying words, images and materials in ingenious ways.
Xu was in Richmond in advance of the show for a two-week residency. He worked on several large pieces, some new; some recreations of past site-specific works assisted by graduate students from Virginia Commonwealth University’s highly regarded School of the Arts. Included among these is the star of the show: 1st Class (pictured above), a giant tiger-skin “rug” made from 550,000 1st Class discount cigarettes. The cigarettes are arranged with alternating filter and tip facing up to create the distinctive orange and white tiger pattern. The effect is astounding. The piece just stops you in your tracks. It’s a thing of beauty, but it is also a thing of beauty made from such mundane and easily identifiable things that are completely and utterly transformed. As if all this wasn't enough, when you walk by it, the white changes to brown as the tobacco becomes visible, creating a whole other effect. Simply extraordinary.
Though I am happy to embrace the piece on visual merits alone, when I think about why Xu chose a tiger skin, I guess I look at it as the subjugation of the once fierce and proud Chinese/Asian people through cigarettes. Specifically choosing a discount brand of cigarettes with a phony, highfalutin name to make the piece, underscores the treachery.
Unfortunately, the catalog accompanying the show doesn’t have a good image of 1st Class. (I do understand this is because the catalog had to go into production in advance of the recreation of the piece in order to be ready for the show.) The image supplied is the Shanghai iteration of the piece, Honor and Splendor; it’s unfortunately bisected by the room’s columns, detracting mightily from its explosive effect. I did like the cigarette filter paper used as end pages though. It made me wonder about the origin of that distinctive orange, flecked appearance. Turns out in the old days premium cigarettes had cork tips that didn’t stick to your lip like plain paper ones.