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Xu Bing’s Tobacco Project
Stanley K. Abe


The cultivation of tobacco and the production of tobacco products have been central to the economy of North Carolina since the state’s earliest days, and tobacco has been a significant source of income for many North Carolinians, including the founders of Duke University. Today, a visit to the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum in Durham provides a fascinating overview of the history of tobacco, the development of a unique local tobacco culture, and the pioneering role of the Duke family in the manufacture and marketing of cigarettes. And while the Dukes’ prominence in the U.S. tobacco industry is widely known, their leadership in the international marketing of tobacco and tobacco product is discussed less frequently. Yet, the Duke family marketed tobacco products globally well before the term "globalization" was coined.

Immediately after the invention of the cigarette machine in 1881, James B. Duke (1865—1925) is reported to have leafed through a world atlas to survey the population of foreign countries. Coming to the figure 430,000,000, he exclaimed, "That is where we are going to sell cigarettes." The country was China, and in 1890 the Dukes exported the first cigarettes to the populous Asian nation. Sales to China skyrocketed to 1.25 billion cigarettes in 1902, up to 12 billion in 1916, earning $20.75 million with a net profit of $3.75 million. From 1915 through the 1920s, the United States exported more cigarettes each year (with one exception) to China than to the rest of the world combined. British American Tobacco Company (or BAT, a multi-national company formed in 1902 with the Duke’s chief competitors in England) would sell 80 billion cigarettes in China in 1928 alone and amass a total profit of over $380 million between 1902—1948.

Leading the way for BAT was James A. Thomas (1862—1940), the company’s managing director in China from 1905 to 1922, and the person for whom the Thomas Room on the second floor of Duke’s Lilly Library is named. Although BAT shifted to English managers beginning in1923, North Carolinians continued to be involved in the China trade. A group of a dozen or so men from Oxford, North Carolina were recruited to work in China during the depression era. Some, like John Gordon Cheatham (1908—1983, would have stays in China that spanned the Japanese occupation during World War II (including a year in a detention camp) and ended only with the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

With so many connections among the Dukes and Durham and tobacco and China, it seems most appropriate for an artist born in China to create an art installation from cured tobacco and tobacco products at Duke University. This is exactly what will happen in November and December 2000 when the acclaimed contemporary artist Xu Bing installs a series of original site-specific art works on the Duke University campus and in the city of Durham.

Xu (pronounced Shoo) Bing was born in Chongqing, Sichuan province, China in 1955 and raised in Beijing. He studied printmaking at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, received an MFA in 1987, and subsequently taught at the Central Academy. In 1990 Xu Bing moved to the United States. He now lives and has his studio in Brooklyn, New York. He has exhibited widely and often in Europe, Asia, and the Americas and is an internationally recognized artist. In 1999 the MacArthur Foundation awarded a five-year fellowship to Xu Bing in recognition of his "originality, creativity, self-direction, and capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy."

Much of Xu Bing’s art revolves around words, texts, and books. One of his best known works is an installation composed of dozens of traditionally hand-stitched books and long scrolls printed with some 4,000 Chinese characters invented by the artist. The characters appear to be authentic, but they are in fact meaningless, solely the product of the artist’s imagination. In another series of works, Xu Bing has created what he calls New English Calligraphy, a system of words composed of Roman letters embedded in shapes reminiscent of Chinese characters. The artist also often incorporates nature and the processes of non-human life in his installations. One example of this practice is the arrangement of black silkworm eggs on blank book pages to form a Braille-like text. During the exhibition of the eggs, the silkworms hatched, wove a gauze of silk over the book, turned into moths, and ended their life-cycle. As these installations demonstrate, Xu Bing is an artist with subtlety, wit, and a remarkable ability to produce works of stunning visual beauty as well as tantalizingly ambiguous meanings. The Tobacco Project thus promises to be a stimulating series of installations that will evoke the history and importance of tobacco for Duke University and the wider North Carolina community in a creative and nuanced manner.

A large banner announcing the Tobacco Project in Xu Bing’s original New English Calligraphy script will hang from the exterior of Perkins Library, where the main part of the Duke/Durham project will be installed from November 2 through December 2000 in the library’s gallery. Xu Bing’s installation will not be the first tobacco-themed presentation in the gallery. In 1997 Duke’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library mounted an exhibit entitled "Golden Leaf/Evil Weed: Promoting Tobacco and Campaigning Against It, 1600—1950.

For the Tobacco Project, Xu Bing proposes to install a variety of original "books" in the gallery display cases. Some of the books will be tiny bound sheets of text printed on cigarette paper; others will be composed of printed text on rows of cigarettes in open packages. A range of materials­ such as books, newspapers, advertisements, and related objects from the Rare Book, Manuscript, Special Collections Library will be arranged alongside Xu Bing's original creations, which will in turn draw on cigarette advertising motifs from China of the 1920s and 1930s. In the central display case, the artist proposes to install large books whose pages will be made of smooth tobacco leaves. Tobacco beetles, which live in the cured leaf, will be allowed to emerge and consume the books during the course of the exhibition.

Finally, Xu Bing will silk-screen the gallery floor with excerpts of tobacco-related texts copied from early newspapers and books. The printing will follow the rectangular outlines of the stones to simulate the text blocks of an oversized newspaper page. The stones of the gallery floor are one architectural element figuring in Xu Bing’s conceptualization of the Perkins installation, and the windows framing the gallery space are another. Interior windows on one side look into the Rare Book Room, while exterior windows on the other side of the gallery look out to a garden. As Xu Bing sees it, the views from the two sets of windows represent the dual realms of human culture and nature, as will his installation.

Outside the main entrance to Perkins Library, Xu Bing plans to convert the designated smoking area into an installation through which he can gather opinions on smoking as well as responses to his installation inside the library. The smoking area installation will incorporate the library’s night book depository, a slot in one of the walls at the building entrance. There are two large signs adjacent to the book depository, one explaining its use and another announcing Perkins Library as a non-smoking building. An ash-tray is set below the latter. The visual relationship between the pair of signs and the pair of objects (depository and ash tray) is the foundation for the installation, which will feature Xu Bing’s original signage. A short questionnaire will allow smokers and others to register their comments. The completed questionnaires will be placed in the book depository.

On the East Campus an outdoor installation composed of long lengths of uncut cigarettes will wind its way around and between the bronze statues of Duke family members. A banner that reads "Art for the People," printed in New English Calligraphy, will hang next to the Lilly Library entrance. The Museum of Modern Art in New York commissioned the banner and displayed it above its own entrance earlier this year. The Thomas Room in Lilly Library, named after James Thomas and filled with Chinese objects, will be the site of public events related to the project.

Xu Bing also will create an installation at the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum in Durham around images of Chairman Mao, who was an avid smoker. As this essay is being written, negotiations continue for an exhibition space in a former tobacco manufacturing plant in downtown Durham.

The Tobacco Project will be documented through photography and video with the cooperation of the Center for Documentary Studies and the Film and Video Program. In addition, noted scholars from a wide-range of disciplines and backgrounds will be invited to write essays inspired by the project. Those who have agreed to participate include Dan Cameron, senior curator, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Wu Hung, Department of Art History, University of Chicago; Rey Chow, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, Department of Comparative Literature, Brown University; and James Elkins, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Discussions with additional critics and scholars will add to the list of contributors.

The photographic images and video along with the essays will available on a Web site for the project ( The Web site will contain information and images about the Tobacco Project, Xu Bing, local tobacco related topics, as well as links to other sites. The Web site will document the various stages of the project during the fall with special focus on the process of the assembly and fabrication of the installations beginning in mid-October. Xu Bing will also document the project with a book that he will design. The book will be more than a catalog of the installations, more than a series of images and descriptive essays; it will be a distinct artistic project that will extend the concepts of the Tobacco Project into a permanent form. During the Fall 2000 semester, a Tobacco Project seminar comprised of undergraduate and graduate students will conduct research using historical materials, coordinate publicity, and provide support services including the fabrication of the installations and assistance with documentation.

The Tobacco Project is supported by the Department of Art and Art History, the Center for International Studies, the Institute for the Arts, the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies, the Duke University Libraries, the Duke University Museum of Art, the Center for Documentary Studies, the Program in Film and Video, and the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum. The technical consultant is Mr. Dale Coats, assistant director of the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum.

Stanley K. Abe is an assistant professor in Duke’s Department of Art and Art History.

Recommended Reading

Cochran, Sherman. Big Business in China: Sino-Foreign Rivalry in the Cigarette Industry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Durden, Robert Franklin. The Dukes of Durham, 1865-1929. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1975.

Klein, Richard. Cigarettes Are Sublime. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

North Carolina China Council and North Carolina Museum of History. North Carolina's "China connection," 1840-1949: A Record. Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina China Council, 1981.

North Carolina Museum of Art. and James B. Byrnes. Tobacco and Smoking in Art. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Museum of Art, 1960.


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