Xu Bing : Art Beyond the Kármán Line

Xu Bing: Art Beyond the Kármán Line is a new exhibition to be hosted by Red Brick Art Museum, starting this November 6th. Director of the Tsinghua Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences (TIAS), professor Wang Hui served as the academic host and Yu Wende, the founder of WanHoo, as the project consultant, this exhibition is curated by Red Brick Art Museum’s director, Yan Shijie. The theme of the exhibition revolves around Xu Bing’s launching of his “Xu Bing Tianshu Rocket”, in collaboration with the renowned rocket company, iSpace. The exhibition itself will present a large number of archives, pictures, videos, artworks, and other presentations intended to comb through the history of space art. The title comes from the concept of the Kármán Line, the hypothetical distinction of where the earth’s atmosphere ends, and outer space begins. The artist hopes to use the fate of his “art rocket” as a means for starting dialogues about misunderstandings people have when conceptualizing ideas such as: contemporary art vs. space, civilization on this pale blue dot we call home, who exactly has the right to use resources beyond our earthly domain, and just how art is being expanded on a new and interplanetary scale.

Wang Hui, the academic host, commented that European artists used to collect questions from all over the world and try to launch them into space by rocket or other carriers, just as people in the age of navigation put their messages in sealed bottles and threw them into the sea, expecting the unknown to open them. These attempts assumed that unknown worlds, whether beings in space or people on the other side, would be able to decipher the words, and thus access our information, like someone with a codebook or an input method. We expect to hear back from them, even if it is in the distant future or countless generations from now. But launching Tianshu and the text it carried that has been meaningless since its inception into space, assumes from the beginning that there is no code to break and is rather looking back at ourselves on Earth from the perspective of the outer space and its unbreakable symbols. “At the beginning of remote antiquity, Who was there to transmit the tale? When above and below had not yet taken shape, By what means could they be examined? When darkness and light were obscured, Who could fathom them? When primal matter was the only form, How could it be recognized? Brightness became bright and darkness dark; What has caused them to be like this? Yin and yang commingle; What was basic, what transformed? (quoted Heavenly Questions, or Questions to Heaven, written by Qu Yuan)” These are the heavenly questions of the ancient. But Tianshu and its fate are the questions to heaven or the heaven’s questions to heaven?

He likened the ascension of Tianshu to “a contemporary version of The Tower of Babel. A united human race in the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating eastward, comes to the land of Shinar. There they agree to build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God, observing their city and tower, confounds their speech so that they can no longer understand each other, and scatters them around the world. The failure of launching Tianshu is just one of the countless attempts of mankind exploring space. It is not a halt, but rather a symbol of an unending effort to explore the unknown. But the difference between them is that Tianshu is never about a group of people’s language, but a long telegram without a codebook or recipient. In this sense, we can perhaps think about the fate of the Tianshu from the perspective of heaven’s questions to heaven.”

Curator Yan Shijie said, “In the early days of human civilization, when people held an insurmountable fear of the ‘heavens,’ our predecessors left for us records of culture rich with imagination, having crossed the ‘Kármán Line of Art’ in their own fantastical way. In light of the upcoming space age, people seem to have hastily changed their stance from being in awe of the heavens, and aerospace scientists have begun their relentless exploration of deep space. Within the context of the milestones achieved so far in space exploration, the artist Xu Bing coincidentally became an explorer of space art, and thus has led to the artistic practice ‘Xu Bing: Art Beyond the Kármán Line.’”

“I foresee so many possibilities in this space,” said Xu Bing. “With the increase of problems on Earth, human beings must resort to the exploration of outer space to obtain a reference for solving the Earth’s crisis. And the closer distance between space technology and the lives of ordinary people will certainly open up more thinking space in art creation. From the history of civilization, the change of artistic expression method always accompanies the progress of technology and materials.”

As a contemporary artist, Xu Bing is an internationally recognized figure, and is widely deemed a leading conceptual artist in the field of language and semiotics. His often-revolutionary work continues to expand art’s preconceived boundaries.

On February 1, 2021, a rocket was launched from China’s Satellite Launch Center, marking the 6,025th time anything was launched from this planet into outer space. The name of the rocket itself was “Xu Bing Tianshu Rocket” (a nod to the famous work by Xu Bing, translated as “Book from the Sky”), making it the first rocket ever to use a name based on an artist and his artwork.

“Xu Bing Tianshu Rocket” took off from the ground, carrying a Rubik’s Cube, the edge of which is 5.5-centimeter-long. The intent was for the satellite to send back real-time images of the Rubik’s Cube in outer space. And the surface of the rocket was covered in fake Chinese characters (a play on the name Tianshu, which today means “nonsense” in colloquial speech). Various components were meant to detach from the main rocket in three stages and disintegrate within the earth’s atmosphere. In a sense, the fake Chinese characters rushed into the heavens and fell back to the Earth. For just that split moment, this piece of art visualizes the harmony between humankind and nature; the human-made structures shot upward and later were influenced by natural forces, fire from thrusters, atmospheric friction, and gravity.

“I would hardly call this an independent or creative work of art,” said Xu Bing. “Probably because its fundamental element is derived from an old work made 35 years ago. However, it has been situated under the new conditions of modern developments in space science and technology. This ‘idea’ managed to slip past various global shifts that occurred [in the same amount of time], so the concept of making an ‘art rocket’ is really a vacillating phenomenon. The difficulty of defining just what this project is therefore seems to correspond with just how hard it is to define what ‘contemporary art’ is.” He went on, “The extension of art into outer space still has to do with solving things on Earth and exploring the limitations of humankind. In the end, we are still looking for a new and effective philosophy.”

Art critic Jonas Stampe commented, “In transforming the rocket into an artwork, incorporating all of its different parts, functions and operations; its body, launch, thrusts, stages, land traces, satellite, the surrounding spacescape as well as the piece intended to stay in orbit beyond the Karman line, the Tianshu Magic Cube, Xu Bing gave a total perspective of what astronautical art could be. Not only the tangible parts with their signification, but also invisible meaning-builders. Of which the most essential is the conceptual-physical unification of science and art. Or to be more precise, to merge two of its most advanced forms, rocket science and the Tianshu characters. One representing the highest level of result oriented and intelligible science and the other the articulated unintelligibility of art. The first representing logic and praxis, the second questioning it through its own conceptual unintelligibility.”

Yu Wende considers the integration of aerospace and art to be the most sophisticated extraction and refinement of human civilization. Xu Bing is also the explorer to perfectly integrate his artistic thinking with space flight.

“Technically, this project could not be considered as a piece of artwork, but it opens a larger intellectual laboratory for artistic exploration,” Xu Bing said. For example, the crash site created a form of “land art”. The artist concluded, “It’s practically impossible to plan for a crater, but what we saw happen was the ideal unarranged ‘land art’ that completely contradicts with the artist’s original intentions. It cannot be identified as ‘ready-made’ or ‘happening’ since such works would depend on pre-arranged occurrences. What we saw happen was an ‘apparition’ that can only be ‘identified’ at a later stage. This leads to the question of who has the right to identify art. It turns out to be an artistic phenomenon that is happening now and is constantly in flux, which can hardly be explained by the existing concepts of past art history. Contemporary art exists by constantly self-correcting its mode of function in the process of civilization. From Newton to Einstein, in short, is to realize ‘Space-time entanglement of matter distortion’; the philosophy of ‘abnormality is the norm”. It is a ‘variable’ itself, like the magnetic powder which creates new images with the movement of a magnet.”

Xu Bing said, “Because we broke into a strange field, it is like falling into a black hole that has lost the fulcrum of judgment as well as into a close entanglement with the social scene. It seems that the controllable parts of things are all wrapped in dark matter, which prevents you from continuing to use pathetic old knowledge or subjective and random identification methods. This is very different from fiddling with a work in a studio. For more than one year, this well-conceived ‘script’ has been written and rewritten to a multi-layered story and has developed from its original extreme realism style to a surreal science-fiction style.

“And how should we measure and judge what can emerge from the mutual implantation of art and rocket technology? It is a strange two-way observation that reveals what is invisible in one direction. Tianshu is equivalent to a ghost’s painting from the perspectives of scientific or sociological, yet it also involves the natural leading of art and poetry just like witchcraft. That is why it has been said, what is invisible to science is seen with art, and vice versa. The fate and role of this art rocket in fact highlights that contemporary art and a field with its own strict logic have been inserted in an unusual way, stirring up something that would not have had a chance to surface. The challenge in every field comes from how to take advantage of and deal with the balance that is upset by the intrusion of other fields.” Concerning this exhibition, Xu Bing continued, “Perhaps the role of this art rocket project is an experiment and exercise for future space art and is more like a transitional event. I hope it will leave a [seed-like] gene, waiting and looking for new soil before growing into something different from the [general] ‘matrix’ and becoming a spectacle never seen before. It is not a standard art exhibition, and we are still at the stage of reflecting on these strange questions,” Xu Bing commented. “What the artist and curator can do, though, is enter such a space art scene together with the audience.”

“The moment the art rocket was named ‘Xu Bing Tianshu’ marked Xu Bing’s voluntary choice to cross the ‘Kármán Line of Art’ and set off for the profound unknown of space.” emphasized Yan Shijie, “This could have been a journey in vain, leaving us with only the shadow of the artist travelling farther away from us. Xu Bing earnestly hopes to harness the energy of space as a means of enlightenment, and to use the methodologies of art to decipher the code of the universe. His artistic practice agitates the gravitational vortex between the two fields of space exploration and art, in which he is confused and disoriented while constantly searching for new coordinates and concepts of perception.”


About the artist

Xu Bing, he served as the deputy president of CAFA. He is widely recognized as the leading conceptual artist of language and semiotics working today. In 1999, he was awarded the MacArthur Genius Award, the highest creative talent award in the United States. In 2004, he was awarded the first Artes Mundi Prize. In 2018, he was awarded the Xu Beihong Art Creation Award by the Education Development Foundation of the CAFA. Xu Bing’s work has been shown at the National Art Museum of China, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the British Museum, the Venice Biennale, and other world-renowned institutions.

About the academic host

Wang Hui, the founding Director of the Tsinghua Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences (TIAS). He teaches at Tsinghua University as Distinguished Professor of Literature and History. He has published extensively on Chinese intellectual history, literature, and engaged in debates on historical and contemporary issues. The English language translations include China’s Twentieth Century (2015), China From Empire to Nation-State (2014), The Politics of Imagining Asia (2010), The End of Revolution (2009) and China’s New Order (2003). His four-volumes work The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought in Chinese (2004) is regarded as one of the most important contributions to modern Chinese scholarship over the past two decades. Wang Hui is the recipient of numerous awards such as “2013 Luca Pacioli Prize” which he shared with Jürgen Habermas in Italy and “Anneliese Maier Research Award” (2018) in Germany.

About the project consultant

Yu Wende, founder of Wanhoo, has been dedicating himself to the exploration and progress of space art for a long time.

About the curator

Yan Shijie, Founder, director and curator of the Red Brick Art Museum. Always adhering to the value of ‘academic-oriented’ exhibitions and programs, he is a pioneer in proposing and implementing the concept of the “ecological museum experience” in China. He has curated many exhibitions for influential artists from all around the globe.

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Academic Host: Wang Hui
Project Consultant: Yu Wende
Curator: Yan Shijie
Artist: Xu Bing
Dates: November 6, 2021 – April 12, 2022
Opening: November 5, 2021

Organized by: Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing, China
Co-organized with: CSA, WanHoo