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
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
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.