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"
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.
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.
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.
(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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
photographic images and video along with the essays will available
on a Web site for the project (http://www.jhfc.duke.edu/ducis/tobacco).
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.
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.
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The Dukes of Durham, 1865-1929. Durham, NC: Duke University
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North Carolina's "China connection," 1840-1949: A
Record. Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina China Council,
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Tobacco and Smoking in Art. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina
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