25 October, 2005

ghosts pounding the wall

In Xu Bing’s Ghosts Pounding the Wall, 1992, the artist and a crew of assistants made ink impressions of the Great Wall on rice paper by using a technique traditionally used in the reproduction of fine calligraphy. The impressions form a large scroll, which ends in a tomb-like pile of dirt mourning the historical icon. The work is both monumental and funereal, while conveying intellectual skepticism and ambivalence towards the traditional memory presented in the Great Wall.


Xu Bing

Xu Bing was already a famous artist in China with 'A Book from the Sky'. This is an Art project he worked on for years. Cutting thousands of ineligible characters in wood blocks and printing them in the old Chinese way. This work was exhibited in Beijing in February 1989 and got at first very positive reviews.

Xu Bing and the Great Wall

In May 1989 he was working on a new project. This is named 'Ghosts Pounding the Wall'. He spends twenty-five days in Jinshanling to make a rubbing of a part of the Great Wall. For this project he and his co-workers used 300 bottles of ink and 1300 sheets of rice-paper and tissue-paper. Special outfits were designed beforehand to wear during the work. During the time he worked on the Wall, photographs, videotapes and sound tapes were made. The result of all this enormous effort was 1000 square meters of rubbings.


A rubbing is a typical Chinese technique of making an imprint. A piece of paper is put on a surface and than rubbed with a ink pad. So the hollows are white and the rest is black. In this way you get a negative imprint of the surface.


The local people consider this stretch of the Great Wall more or less part of their home, 'the side wall' as they call it. From that perspective they named the artist and his friends working on the rubbings 'paperhangers'. At first the locals never asked themselves what the use would be, and later on as local people were hired and worked with the artist nobody cared about the usefulness of this wallpapering.

Printing and its possibilities as the main theme for Xu Bing's work

Xu Bing was at that time a teacher of the Beijing Academy of Fine Arts and was specialised in graphic techniques. In an interview he explains his motives saying that he spends a lot of time thinking about the process of printing, considering al possible materials and ways of reproduction, and maybe most important to him the meaning behind al this. He tried all forms of printing. He remembered the many different shaped rocks in his home province that to him was the most impressive form of natures imprint. That vision gave him the idea to make use of the traces left by history and nature on the Great Wall, making it into a giant reproduction of former times.

Action printing and nonsense

To use his own words about this Great Wall project; the action is just as important as the result of the work. You can use almost anything with an uneven surface to make a rubbing. Bringing something as magnificent as the Great Wall from outside to inside gives people a very strong visual and emotional impulse. This is shocking for people and is the stronghold of Art. At the same time through the motion of the physical work, he wants to create an action art manifestation, saying that Art is the process that should solve peoples problems during any transition period. He is looking for a way to go through this transformation by putting in a tremendous physical effort and creating a result that is 'nonsense'.

Beijing New Wave or Chinese Avant Garde

Xu Bing is part of the Beijing New Wave. In Europe and America most people know this generation of Chinese artist under the name China Avant Garde because of the exhibition by that name in the early nineties. As I already told you after the exhibition of 'A Book from the Sky' in March 1989 he was praised for his renewals. Then after three months that is after the June fourth events in Beijing the same work was condemned for being 'nonsense' art or nonsensical art. 'Ghosts pounding the Wall' is another nonsensical work and the scale of this work of Art is overwhelming, just as overwhelming as the original structure the project it was based on; The Great Wall. The rubbings are mounted in the Chinese way and have never been shown in China.

In the West his work is open to all sorts of interpretation. I found someone saying that the word ghosts is a political statement because the word was used during the cultural revolution for counter-revolutionaries, which was a very bad thing to be at that time. The Western art-critic Britta Ericson places 'Ghosts pounding the Wall' in a heavy connection to the student uprising. Xu Bing and his work moving to the West, she says, altered the works meaning in ways Xu could not predict.

I have to put forward some historical facts about this. The first rubbing Xu made of the Wall was already done in 1987, and it is also obvious this had nothing to do with the 1989 events. The 1987 rubbing was by no means as big as this project, but the idea was already formed. I think the concept of the work was at that stage primarily concerned with the extremes of the printing process. In 1990 Xu Bing moved to America and in interviews he tends more and more to stretch the political meaning of his work. He also says that the intention of the Wall to keep strangers out is just as nonsensical as his own project.

Also in 1990 in China the art-critic Yin Jinan criticises 'Ghosts pounding the Wall', saying that because of the scale and the waste of manpower and the nonsensical meaning this is a work of art that can stir violent uprising. By saying this he underlines the political meaning of 'Ghosts pounding the Wall'. I think it is impossible to say if the political meaning was intended beforehand or that the political situation sort of took over after the work was made. The fact remains that in the early nineties both in the West as in China the work carried a political meaning next to its nonsensical meaning.
I even suspect another layer in Yin Jinan's writing. Although he writes critical about 'Ghosts pounding the Wall' he descibes the project beautifully. So if you filter out the critical part you end up with the best discription of it available in China.

And what happened to Xu Bing after making the 'Ghosts pounding the Wall'?

Xu Bing went to America in 1990 and became one of the representatives of the Beijing New Wave. He felt no longer free to work the way he wanted in his own country. The North Dakota Museum of Art installed the 'Ghosts pounding the Wall' in the summer of 1993 on a permanent base. Xu Bing is still working on Art projects which al have to do with the printing process. Sense or nonsense are present in all the works he did since. As far as the Great Wall is concerned it seems to me, it is not only keeping foreigners out but also some of China's own people.


Source: Traditions on the Move
Seminar of the Advanced Master's Programme University of Leiden JUNE 28-29 1999 Research School CNWS

by Lucien van Valen

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