An Interview With Artist Xiaoze Xie
'Objects of Evidence' is now on view at Asia Society Museum
Artist Xiaoze Xie sat down for a conversation on his works with Michelle Yun, the senior curator of modern and contemporary art at Asia Society Museum. Xiaoze Xie: Objects of Evidence is on view this fall in our galleries. Xie's work in painting, photography, video, and installation wrestles with the long legacy of censorship in the context of shifting sociopolitical and religious ideologies in his birth country of China and around the world. These answers has been edited and condensed; read the full interview on the exhibition page.
Michelle Yun (MY): Books and libraries have figured prominently in your work for over a quarter of a century. Would you please explain your relationship to books and how they became a primary subject within your artistic practice? How has this focus shifted over time?
Xiaoze Xie (XX): I became interested in books as a subject of my painting in 1993, shortly after I moved to the United States. I was fascinated by both the potential meanings and forms of the subject. For me, books are the material form of something abstract, such as thoughts, memory, and history. In the many years that followed, I continued to expand my subject to include Chinese thread-bound books, museum library collections, and eventually newspapers.
MY: Your most recent body of work takes on as its subject the history of literary censorship in China. How did you become interested in this topic?
XX: As I continued to paint books in the 1990s, I was also interested in what people have done to books. I painted monumental volumes decorated with gold-leafed edges as well as neglected books in silent decay. I also made installations based on specific historic events such as the destruction of books by the Nazis during the Second World War and by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. All these led to the current project on the history of banned books in China. The books in my Chinese Library paintings are all closed and stacked; however, in the photographs in the banned books project, their pages open up for the first time. Content is brought to the fore for close examination.
Xiaoze Xie. Through Fire (Books that Survived the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance at Tsinghua University No.2), 2017. Oil on canvas. H. 48 x W. 74 in. (122 x 188 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art. Photograph courtesy of the artist
MY: You grew up during the Cultural Revolution and have stated previously that a memory of your father, who was a school principal, collecting banned books slated for destruction left a great impression on you. Would you please share any recollections of growing up during the Cultural Revolution that have had an impact on your artistic practice regarding this project in particular?
XX: I grew up in the rural area of southern China during the Cultural Revolution so there was little culture one could access—serious “malnutrition,” I’d say. I have vague memories of big parades, propaganda paintings, and slogans. In my father’s office, I saw piles of old books which people were urged to turn in to designated places to be destroyed. I had a strong feeling that those books were mysterious and dangerous, but did not understand exactly what was going on. One doesn’t know what kind of seeds an experience could plant for the future.
Xiaoze Xie, Transience (video still), 2011. Single-channel video with sound. Duration: 12 minutes, 32 seconds. Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art. Video still courtesy of the artist
MY: Through this body of work you utilize a broad range of media —painting, photography, video, and installation — to deconstruct the history of censorship in Mainland China. Would you please elaborate on your vision of how these visual art forms complement each other to explore this complex subject?
XX: The project started with reading and research and eventually involved searching, collecting, and photographing objects; consulting and interviewing various individuals (scholars, authors, editors, and officials in publishing houses); organization and display of materials, etc. The mediums I employed are necessary and direct ways to tell this complex story. The installation of books and life-size photographs provide concrete evidence of censorship, while the documentary film contextualizes the history of censorship and offers different perspectives on related issues.
MY: What would you like visitors to learn about the history of censorship in China and take away from a visit to your exhibition?
XX: Through these objects, images, and stories, I hope the audience will be able to get a sense of the vastness and continuity of a history of thought control, with all its complexity and texture. Banned books encapsulate political, religious, and moral conditions and reflect power relationships in different times. As the pursuit of freedom of expression often comes at a cost, I do hope that one remains hopeful despite the weight of this history.
Xiaoze Xie: Object of Evidence opens to the public on September 10, 2019, and is on view through January 5, 2020. As part of the exhibition opening on September 9, Xie will speak with Michelle Yun on the inspiration behind his latest body of work. On September 28, Xie appears in conversation with Martin Heijdra and James Tager on a panel discussing censorship and society as part of Banned Books Week. Plan your visit to Asia Society.