Tobacco Project

When 10 Sep 2011 - 4 Dec 2011
Where Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
200 N. Boulevard
Richmond, VA 23220
United States
Enquiry 804 340 1400

Xu Bing, Redbook, 2000. Courtesy of the artist and Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

September 10  – December 04 2011

Press Release:

Xu Bing uses tobacco—as a material and a subject—to explore a wide range of issues, from global trade and exploitation to the ironies of advertising a potentially harmful substance. As a print- and bookmaker, he is especially fascinated by the visual culture of packaging and marketing tobacco. When Duke University invited Xu Bing to be the artist in residence in 2000, he was drawn into the history of the Duke family, which led to his first Tobacco Project. He followed that with a second Tobacco Project in Shanghai in 2004. He sees the Virginia Tobacco Project as the third in a trilogy.

Xu Bing’s interest in “tobacco culture” extends to the historical impact of China’s large-scale exportation of tobacco products from the United States beginning in the late 19th century. For the Durham exhibition, he made a gigantic book of tobacco leaves that was gradually devoured by beetles during the course of the exhibition. For Traveling Down the River, he constructed a thirty-feet-long cigarette laid over a reproduction of a hand-scroll of the celebrated classical Chinese painting Along the River during the Qingming Festival. As the cigarette burned, it left scorch marks on the image, inscribing time as a serpentine scar and the journey as a residue of ash. An installation created in an abandoned tobacco plant near Duke included a recorded voice reading the medical records of Xu Bing’s father, who died of lung cancer, conveying a personal connection to tobacco and death. In exploring the complex connections between people and tobacco, the project ultimately concerns fundamental issues of human culture and of tobacco as a medium of social exchange.

The VMFA exhibition consists of selected works from these exhibitions combined with new works inspired by the time Xu Bing spent in Virginia. His first visits to the Commonwealth included a tour of the Philip Morris manufacturing center in Richmond—one of the largest cigarette production facility in the world—and trips to the Southside region of Virginia to see an historic tobacco warehouse and several family-owned tobacco farms. He also did research at the Virginia Historical Society and the Valentine Richmond History Center.

Xu Bing recently concluded a two-week residency in Richmond, during which time he worked on several large pieces, some entirely new and some recreations of past pieces that no longer exist or cannot travel. The new pieces include a three hundred-pound solid block of compressed tobacco embossed with the text “light as smoke”; a book of fifty historic tobacco slogans redesigned and printed on cigarette paper to form a bound volume of poetry; wooden boxes stamped with the logo “Puff Choice” and made to hold “double cigarettes”—two cigarettes joined to a double-length filter. Refabrications of earlier pieces include a colossal book made of tobacco leaves, resembling the Duke book described above, but with new text; a recreation of Traveling Down the River, including a forty-one-feet long version of the scroll and an equally long cigarette that will burn down its length; and a large arrangement of dried branches called Match Flower, with each of the hundreds of tips coated in red match phosphorous. Working with former graduate students from Virginia Commonwealth University’s highly regarded School of the Arts, he also created the template for a large installation piece that forms the climax of the exhibition: a tiger-skin-pattern rug made from over half a million cigarettes standing on end, with either filter or tip up to make an alternating pattern of orange and white.

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