Savannah College of Art and Design honoree, Chinese artist Xu Bing, first visited SCAD ten years ago, well before the existence of SCAD Museum of Art, where his exhibition, “Things Are Not What They First Appear,” is showing through July 3. Then as now, the MacArthur Fellow and U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts recipient invigorated this community of emerging artists with his lecture and work. Bing’s 2015 deFINE ART keynote, in which he chronicled his most recent exhibitions, was as transparent as his series, “Background Story.” In his interview with SCAD shone through a personal mission, which Bing also shared in his keynote address: to use his exhibitions to further art education, now matter where his work takes him. Here are excerpts of our conversation with him, conducted with the assistance of his student interpreter at SCAD's Magnolia Hall.
SCAD: Our students enthusiastically lined up to see your gallery tour at deFINE ART, snapping photos and no doubt posting them to their social networks. As a recent adopter of Instagram, what do you think of social media as a platform for sharing artistic works?
Xu Bing: I am always slow in this technology. I’m very late compared to others to use social media tools, even in China. I don’t use it a lot because I feel that nowadays social media provides people with too much information, and you are kind of just torn into too many pieces. You kind of lose yourself to it. Meanwhile, it is very valuable because it has changed people’s every day life. As you said, it reflects what young people like and that can be the future of the world. We recently started to use Instagram because we recognize its power as a tool.
S: Seen at SCAD MOA, the diversity in your practice is particularly striking because of the close proximity of the works that comprise, “Things Are Not What They First Appear.” Do you advise students to have a multi-disciplinary practice?
XB: I would tell them, please don’t focus only on the forms of art, the styles of art or what media you’re going to use, because all those forms are already fixed, they can hardly be used to address contemporary problems or situations. So if you only limit your thinking or creation to what style you’re going to use, or what category you’re going to put your art into, then you can hardly be a successful artist.
S: Is there any one message that you most want artists and students of art to take away from your keynote address?
XB: I want to show my appreciation for SCAD. I’m honored to be here to get this award. I want students to takeaway that there are so many choices in contemporary art now, so please stick to what you really want. There is one experience of mine I really want to share.
I feel like everyone has his or her own strengths or limitations. The question is how you adapt your limitation into something that only you have and try to make the full use out of it. - Xu Bing
S: Sometimes we can’t make sense of our immediate surroundings until an outsider comes and puts them in perspective. What was the reaction in Durham when “Tobacco Project” opened there? How did it differ from the reaction in Shanghai and Savannah?
XB: I didn’t realize a difference in the audience feedback, however, I felt one thing really intensely and that is that people feel so connected to tobacco’s history and they felt very strong feelings about that connection. Through this piece of art they kind of reflect on their own history and their working situation. For example, a lot of people have a very close family relationship, memory or even personal memory of it. Also, through this piece they have a new understanding about art. Because these materials have nothing to do with art, after the show they start to see that these materials can be art and have artistic meanings. So they come up to a level where they realize a relationship between art and life, which is hardly something they recognized before.
S: What is your reaction to SCAD MOA, which embodies the same principles of adaptive reuse that infuse your work?
XB: I feel strongly that students really love this environment. For the students and other audiences, SCAD MOA has a strong connection to outdoor spaces, which helps them to share and enjoy art. This should be attributed to the architect who made the original designs, which preserve the original parts of the building. For example, the renovation of the out building creates spaces that are very special. The Poetter Gallery actually benefits contemporary artists who work there because it’s not easy to use. They need to figure out innovative ways to present their art. That’s how they’ll take further steps to develop their art.