A large hanging installation of hundreds of heat-shaped acrylic pictographs has been installed at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America in Washington, D.C., designed by architect I.M. Pei and the firm Pei Partnership Architects, New York.
The work,《紫气东来》＝Ziqi Donglai (loosely translated as “a purple breeze comes from the East”), was created by Xu Bing between 2006-2008. It hangs 11 meters from a skylight in the main chancery building of the Embassy, with a span of 4 meters. Each character depicts an ancient nature-based Chinese pictograph including 云＝ cloud, 水 ＝ water, 气 ＝ air and 雨 = rain.
The phrase ziqi donglai is derived from the Han Dynasty Daoist hagiography Liexian Zhuan. It describes a purple breeze that proceeded Laozi as he approached Hangu Pass. The phrase ziqi donglai has come into modern Chinese as a set-phrase to describe a good omen.
The work is composed of clear acrylic characters carved using a high-speed water jet according to Xu Bing’s calligraphic renderings. Once carved, the characters were then flame-polished and finaly sand-blasted. Some of the characters were later treated with a light purple dye. Carving was executed by Milgo/Bufkin, Brooklyn and hand finishing (flame-polishing and sand-blasting) was carried out by Evan Eisman Co. also in Brooklyn.
Xu Bing’s 96 ft. hanging Baltic birch word-puzzle Monkeys Grasping for the Moon (2001 and 2003) is now on view at the visa section of the new Embassy of the United States in Beijing, China, a massive diplomatic complex designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP (SOM).
Monkey Grasping for the Moon was originally created by Xu Bing in 2001 out of fiberglass for the exhibition Wordplay: Contemporary Art by Xu Bing at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The linked work, comprised of the word monkey in 21 languages, is based on an ancient Chinese folktale and hung for two years over the Sackler’s third level reflecting pool.
Due to its popularity with museum visitors, Monkeys was reconstructed from lacquered Baltic birch wood in 2003 in an edition of two identical 21 character sets and the original fiberglass model was destroyed. One of these sets was gifted to the Sackler by the family of Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Chiang Soong Mayling 1898–2003) in commemoration of her historic visits to the Joint Session of Congress in 1943 and her return to the U.S. Capitol in 1995.
In 2008, Xu Bing Studio was approached by the Art in Embassies Program (AIEP), a vibrant State Department curatorial program that has been working since 1964 to develop the collection of the United States Embassies and to arrange for the exhibition of works of fine art at U.S. diplomatic residences throughout the world. Discussions resulted in a long-term loan of the second set of Monkeys to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Monkeys is included in the exhibition Landscapes of the Mind, organized by AIEP Chief Curator Virginia Shore alongside work by artists Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg, Maya Lin, Yun Fei-ji and Cai Guo-qiang, among others. State Magazine reports on the exhibition here (pdf).
Installed at the U.S. Embassy in October 2009, Monkeys Grasping for the Moon will remain on display. Its matching set can also be viewed at the Sackler Galley, hours and directions here.