Xu Bing, Radical Denial, and My “Elegy to History”

Bridge Xu Bing

What’s an appropriate way for one art form to respond to another? At what cost do we forget or deny our history? Can we ever truly escape our past?

These questions preoccupied me earlier this month when, as part of its Bridge Poetry Series, Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art invited local poets to respond to Background Story, A New Approach to Landscape Painting, a new exhibition of an installation by contemporary artist Xu Bing. I enjoy this kind of challenge, eagerly assented and took part in a very stimulating evening on December 10 when we all read our responses. You can read my poem, “Elegy to History,” in full below. But to appreciate the context, I should first tell you a few things about Xu Bing’s iconoclastic and captivating work.

1509_XuBing Background StoryWhen you first enter his exhibition’s gallery, you think you are approaching a traditional Chinese landscape painting. In fact, those familiar with Chinese art might even recognize it as a recreation of the quite famous Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains by Huang Gongwang (1269–1354), one of the Four Yuan Masters. In the centuries since, many artists have tested their skills by copying this masterpiece.


But Xu Bing is no ordinary painter. What at first seems to be an ink painting on eighty feet of rice paper turns out not to be a painting at all. It’s a screen covering a light box. The painting’s brush strokes are actually shadows cast by hundreds of LED lights illuminating dried grasses, plastic bags, sticks, rocks, tape, and other detritus. The box is open on the other side so that you can see how the illusion of the painting is created. It’s quite an astonishing act of conjuring. You can see Xu Bing and his crew at work in the video below.

Xu-Bing-GesturesIn trying to find a way into Xu Bing’s spectacular work, that is, in trying to find the human element within the larger scope of the painting’s natural world, I took as my starting place the small figure of a Chinese man sitting on a bench in the forefront of the screen. It was his voice I began to hear.

He is man having a conversation with the past, a man summoned in a dream to acknowledge the personal and collective past of which he has been dismissive.

George Orwell wrote: “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

I couldn’t have predicted even a few weeks ago how timely this quote is and how much it informs my poem. I say timely because right now on planet Earth we are more than ever undergoing sweeping cultural changes, and I believe that much of the turbulence in the world today is the result of collective forgetting and repression. What’s at issue here is not forgivable ignorance but radical denial and I believe there is a price to pay for it.

Picks-Xu-Bing-10152015 Background Story closeupPerhaps Xu Bing’s title, Background Story, refers not only to the material attached to the back of the screen that forms the frontal shadows, but also to the idea that the backstory to Background Story is the artist’s reclamation of Chinese scroll painting, an ancient and sacred art form, in a dramatic new medium.

“A core element of human culture is dialogue with the past.”—Xu Bing

Elegy to History

At first I thought they were only shadows:
repetitive, imitative,
the whole enterprise meaningless.

I was young, arrogant. I only trusted things
I could feel and touch.
Art, beauty, spirit? Outdated ideas.
We bragged
we had even
dismantled Time.
It was
a new epoch.

I wasn’t prepared
when Grandfather summoned
in a dream,
called this place hsin
the meeting of mind and heart.

I sat on a bench tapping my foot
as if at a bad movie.
I lit a cigarette. Mist kept
rolling off the mountain.
Everything was golden,
the color of ripe corn.

I didn’t realize
I had deluded myself.
I’d never escaped.
I was composed
of history.

Memories in the familiar vernacular
of my father and grandfather and his father
before him
stormed my mind.

I began to shake
with a violence I’d never encountered.
I remembered how they had forced my father from his classroom.
He had been teaching

In the alley — lashes, rifle butts and boot kicks.
Rain fusing an alchemy
of mud and blood.
My father slipping from this world.
My mother’s helpless eyes.

I lit another cigarette.
All this had happened many years ago.
The Revolution was over.
We had proclaimed
a new age.

I had to ask myself: Why
in this place of serenity
did I still feel torment?

I reached out to touch a pine.
Its needles crumbled to dust in my fingers.
The scent of resin rose in my nostrils
and became the odor
of my mother’s heavy hair.
A thought of childhood
entered my head. I chased it away.
The footbridge was empty. Not a single bird
in the vast, impenetrable sky.

My father was gone, mother, gone.
The others eaten
by sorrow.
My slender fingers
so helpless in my lap.

I fell on my knees and begged
their forgiveness. The earth
was neither warm or cold. The silence
a mockery to the chaos in my heart.

The dream was ending and
I did not want it to end.
I promised to return, I promised to remember,
but already the images were fading.
They were only shadows,
to be replaced by newer shadows.
Watch a video of how Xu Bing and his studio create his installations

Dog Training Maisie and the Power of Name-Calling

Maisie dog training

We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.—Talmudic saying

Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day she whimpers to go out; five times a day we tell her: Not now, Maisie — all three of us learning what to expect from each other concerning patience.

Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved earlier dogs, the art of dog training and the knowledge and understanding of canine behavior has exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. This, I think, follows the trend in childrearing — hundreds of “experts” with completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed.

The author Maisie dog trainingDuring the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being a littermate of ten to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy, but after another week or so my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s irresistibly cute puppy face might morph into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics. Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when real dogs run out the door, bone in mouth, and appear to be digging to China, growling if someone gets near, one gets worried. Our hands and arms bore scratches and scabs, and these made us ever more cautious in approaching our new pet.

And so we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately and arrived with an upbeat attitude — You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie — and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when on the first visit Susan, modeling a cheery dominatrix, coerced Maisie into polite manners. Susan managed this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say she was out-bullying the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headscissors lock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”

Maisie learns how to sit dog trainingWe’d never had to use force with our other dogs and were a bit horrified, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.

That night we read Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we were not just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward her had quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress.

Maisie learning to obey dog trainingLater that night, my husband and I held each other and considered returning Maisie to her breeder. Out of desperation I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer. The difference is significant and too long to go into here, but our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys, a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach. We learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand possession aggression as resource guarding. Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs that might be the leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!

This gets me to my takeaway point: how labeling … children, dogs, other ethnicities, races, genders … affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call others and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic. Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.

P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.

Maisie dog training