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.
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.
In 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.
Perhaps 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:
the whole enterprise meaningless.
I was young, arrogant. I only trusted things
I could feel and touch.
Art, beauty, spirit? Outdated ideas.
we had even
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
Memories in the familiar vernacular
of my father and grandfather and his father
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
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