Xu Bing
Portland Institute of Contemporary Art
219 NW 12th #100, 242-1419
Through Oct 20

Within the sea of print exhibits in Portland this month, there are some showings that dig deeper into the intellect than others. A prime example: a series of prints and books by the Chinese-born, Brooklyn-based artist Xu Bing, on view at PICA. Xu uses the print process as a means to various conceptual ends. For example, he elaborates on the idea of print as index or record, expounds on the nature of the printmaking process, and illustrates the print as disseminator of information.

The exhibit is a survey of Xu's various impulses over the last 15 years--a sampling of installations and bodies of work that together reveal an artist with a strong connection to his heritage. He once said, "People of my generation went through ten years of socialism, then 10 years under the Cultural Revolution, then 10 years of economic reform and openness. And now I've been living in the West for 10 years. People like me have a very complicated, yet very rich background."

Xu first gained sizable recognition for the piece Books from the Sky (1987-91), part of which is represented in the PICA exhibit. The entire original installation consisted of more than 200 hand-printed, hand-bound volumes of a single "book" written in characters that resembled Chinese but were actually characters of his own invention. 4000 meaningless characters combine to form a poetic critique of a part of Chinese history. In an interview with VirtualChina.Com, Xu sheds some light on this piece: "We grew up during the Cultural Revolution. At the same time that we were learning how to read and write characters, the Communist Party was busy initiating reform of our language. We were constantly faced with new characters and having to forget new ones. Sometimes they would decide the new ones weren't any good and we'd have to go back to the old ones. It made a mess of our culture."

Lost Letters (1987) is another intriguing work in the exhibit. For this piece, Xu produced a large-scale relief print (process not unlike a pencil rubbing off a tombstone) off the wood floor of a factory in Berlin, a building that was used in WWII as a publishing house for Nazi propaganda. Different intensities of ink are revealed due to various pressures exerted on the surface. It is a loose grid of wood block patterns, recording the floor in textural detail. It has a tremendous physical weight, not unlike an Anselm Kiefer painting. For this reason, the print transcends the medium wonderfully. It is a simple physical gesture that achieves a complex conceptual feat. The huge print encompasses the entire wall, a sizable monument not only of a particular place, but the ideological mess of the Nazi party. It is an index of hate.