Traditions on the Move

Seminar of the Advanced Master's Programme University of Leiden JUNE 28-29 1999 Research School CNWS  


Lucien van Valen 


The Great Wall of China is one of the greatest structures build by mankind in ancient times. It was build with the intention to keep strangers out of China. This Wall however was not stretching from one end of the country to the other, as people tend to think, but consisted of many shorter walls that originated in the Walled cities in the early history of China. Rulers kept adding new sections to it during the ages till it finally reached its greatest lengths in the seventeenth century. Although this huge construction was the inspirational source for many stories inside as well as outside China, it seems to bring forth only few visual works of Art. This stirred my interest in two contemporary works based on the Great Wall. In this presentation I will compare the two works of art, one is Chinese and the other is European and both are made in China. 

The Great Wall 

Here you see the Great Wall as people know it all over the world. A gigantic brick Wall with battlements and towers. This is the section people visit when they are in China, the section that is largely renovated in the last twenty years or so, partly financed by foreign capital. It is only a small stretch of the Wall that looks like this as I will show you in the next series of slides.  

The Lovers 

On March 30, 1988 two European artists started out on a walk along the Wall. Each starting on one side with the intention of meeting each other halfway. Marina Abramovic and Ulay have been working together for more than a decade on art performances in a series called Relations. In the performances they explore the relation between them in many different ways. The idea of the Great Wall walk has been born somewhere in the early eighties and they have already been working on it since 1981. It took a lot of time to find the funding and endless talks with the Chinese to get permission for the walk.  

Marina from the East and Ulay from the West 

Marina Abramovic starts her walk at Shanhaiguan at the coast of the Yellow sea. This part of the Wall is called the dragon's head, and she is walking from East to West. Ulay starts in the Gobi desert walking towards the East. A citation from Ulays diary:" North is death. Desert expands. The horizon curves. Matches the eyeball. South there is life. A little. Fewer people than other places, here. The earth is yellow. Huang tu. North is black. South is red. West is white. East, blue. From here. The centre. Yellow. The centre where I am. Yellow thus."  

The purpose 

It will take them almost 3 month to complete the journey and to meet each other at Er Lang Shan. Afterwards they want to show the results of this performance or action art as you might call it in an exhibition. A video and photographs are made, diaries are kept and so on. In their diaries are sometimes bits and pieces of the stories they pick up along the way which are used to explain their own feelings. Often during this endless walk both experience feelings of loneliness or being overwhelmed by the greatness of the scenery.  


Especially Marina Abramovic is under the influence of the legendary tales about the energy running along this spine of a dragon, or a river representing the milky way, and connections she sees with acupuncture. Both Marina Abramovic and Ulay expressed great admiration for this strange and inspiring environment. As they where looking for a new way of expressing their own relationship, at the same time they tried to find all the things that, as they say, are gone or lost in the western culture. To put it in Ulay's words they were looking for contact with Mother Earth.  


In reality things are never that simple in China, all the time they were accompanied by officials. During most of the walk instead of camping in the wild Ulay was put in hotels by the local officials. Sometimes driving for hours to get to the hotel and back the next morning. Marina Abramovic on the other end of the Wall managed to keep closer to the Wall most of the time. Originally the plan was to walk for a year but due to Chinese involvement they ended up walking for only three months. They were not allowed by the Chinese government to walk along the whole Wall, parts were skipped because of military installations or other things the Chinese did not want any foreigners to see. The project started with the title 'The Lovers' and at the point where the two would meet a wedding was planned. This wedding should put a crown on the series of performances called Relations. The theme they have been working on for a decade. Finally they met on June 27, 1988 at Er Lang Shan in Shenmu in the province Shaanxi.  

In China

In the same period Chinese artists are concerned with completely different things. For instance the 1989 exhibition showing paintings of nudes in the Beijing Museum of Fine Arts. This was for the first time since the early years of this century anything so European was shown in China. All of these paintings where female nudes, except one, one brave male artist Guang Jun painted himself in the nude. Interesting as that may be, I am not going to show you that, but I want to go back to the Great Wall ones more.  

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.  

the Lovers

Lets go back to the 'the Lovers' for a minute and see what has happened to them. In my eyes you can call 'the Lovers' a New Age project. This concept of looking for things all over the world and using the beliefs of other cultures as you please. In the summer of 1989 I saw the exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The thing that impressed me most was the installation made by Marina Abramovic, green dragon, this bed of bronze with a head-rest of crystal to visualise the energy stream she encountered in China. When I saw it it was empty, and I still regret not getting on it to feel if it really generated the energy Marina Abramovic said it would. Anyway the walk on the Wall did not have the expected ending. Instead of getting married on the Great Wall of China Marina Abramovic and Ulay separated. They each went their own way and the exhibition of 'the Lovers' was the last project they worked on together.  

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.  

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