Xu Bing creates site-specific installation at the British Museum

12 May – 10 July 2011
Room 3, The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Admission free

Internationally renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing is to create a new bespoke art installation specially commissioned for the British Museum. Background Story 7 is part of his ongoing series of museum installations and will consist of a dramatic large-scale shadow and light box giving the illusion of a traditional Chinese landscape.

This new work is made in direct response to a Chinese mountain landscape hanging scroll by Wang Shimin dating to 1654 which is a part of the British Museum’s collection. The contemporary and antique works will be exhibited together in Room 3 following the time-honoured Chinese practice of entering into “dialogue” with a past model by creating a new artistic work.

Xu Bing has been creating installations for Background Story since 2004 at the invitation of various museums in China and abroad, the last being shown at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York in 2010. The six previous works in the series have been in a horizontal format as responses to traditional handscrolls, but at the British Museum he will work for the first time in a vertical format to correspond to the traditional Chinese hanging scroll. This change of format will present new challenges and significantly alter the impact of the work.

Background Story 7 will be nearly 5 metres tall and will consist of a light box made with a wooden frame and a panel of frosted acrylic that is lit from behind. Xu Bing will use unexpected and found materials such as hemp fibres, dry plants, corn husks, crumpled paper and debris sourced from sites across London, and will place them on to the back of the acrylic. His deft work creates imagery that when seen from the front looks like the brush strokes of a Chinese painting and represents landscape elements such as mountains, water and buildings, in this case echoing Wang Shimin’s hanging scroll. However the illusion is shattered when the viewer sees the seemingly chaotic scattering of debris at the back of the work. The work will be created on site by Xu Bing and his studio assistants and will be completely dismantled afterwards. The installation will be filmed for the first time to allow viewers to share the inside story of this artistic creation in a daily time-lapse segment on the British Museum website.

Xu Bing’s work explores the relationship and tension between art and illusion. Xu intentionally challenges the relationship between the image and medium. Unlike the traditional Chinese painter who creates a simple illusion by committing a landscape scene to paper in a realistic manner, Xu extends the artist’s remit. He creates a work that reads as a landscape painting, but is neither a landscape nor a painting and uses three-dimensional materials to imitate two-dimensional brushstrokes. Each of Xu’s unique installations pushes the viewer to confront the limitations of the way we habitually process and respond to what we see.

The British Museum already houses several of Xu Bing’s works in the collection, including a boxed set of the volumes entitled Book from the Sky, Xu Bing’s career-launching masterwork which established his pathway of thought, reverberations of which can be seen in Background Story. In these hand-printed volumes he confronted viewers with his self-invented system of signs that so decisively resemble Chinese characters that viewers struggled to understand why they were unable to read the words. Here at the British Museum Xu Bing now extends this mind game to the pictorial realm.

Notes to Editors:

  • The Asahi Shimbun Displays are a series of regularly changing displays which look at objects in new or different ways. Sometimes the display highlights a well-known item, sometimes it surprises the audience with extraordinary items from times and cultures that may not be very familiar. This is also an opportunity for the Museum to learn how it can improve its larger exhibitions and permanent gallery displays. These displays have been made possible by the generous sponsorship of The Asahi Shimbun Company, who are long standing supporters of the British Museum. With a circulation of more than 8 million for the morning edition alone, The Asahi Shimbun is the most prestigious newspaper in Japan. The company also publishes magazines and books, and provides a substantial information service on the Internet. The Asahi Shimbun Company has a century long tradition of staging exhibitions in Japan of art, culture and history from around the world.

  • A special evening event will be held in relation to this display: In conversation with Xu Bing and Philip Dodd, Thursday 12 May, 18.30, BP Lecture Theatre, £5, concessions £3.

  • The progress of Xu Bing’s installation will be recorded on the British Museum website (www.britishmuseum.org), sponsored by Miss Kai-Yin Lo. The exhibition opens on 12 May, but check the website after 5 May to watch for possible earlier postings.

  • The British Museum website will carry an essay written by Robert Harrist, Jr., on Xu Bing’s Background Story installation – this is a chapter extracted from a new monograph titled Xu Bing about this prominent and influential Chinese artist that will be published by Albion Editions in May 2011: Xu Bing, hardback.


For further information please contact Esme Wilson: ewilson@britishmuseum.org or 020 7323 8394