1st Class, 2011, Xu Bing’s tiger-skin rug made with 500,000 “1st Class” brand cigarettes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
This is STILL Not a Pipe:
In his fascinating new book 1493, Charles C. Mann writes about the unprecedented global movements of people, animals, plants, raw materials, and products after the Europeans colonized the Americas, transforming culture, society, and ecology around the world. From the Andes to the Philippines, Spain to China, Africa to Virginia, Mann charts the trans-continental movement of slaves, soldiers, pirates, traders, earthworms, honeybees, potatoes, chocolate, silk, silver, rubber, and viruses too numerous and creepy to count, to mention but some of the subjects in his lively discussion. Among this litany of paradigm-shifting products, though, one—native to the Americas and quickly dispersed to Europe, Asia, and Africa—was particularly addictive. Tobacco, Mann writes, represented “the first time people in every continent simultaneously became enraptured by a novelty.”
Thus was launched the cult of the cigarette, fittingly described by Richard Klein in his book Cigarettes Are Sublime as “the first modern object,” inspiring everything from opera (think Carmen) to advertising and package design that aimed to advance subliminal seduction to new levels.
Given its prominence in world history and commerce, though, tobacco and even smoking are relatively minor subjects in the visual arts—despite some notable exceptions like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, his 1929 painting famously inscribed “This is not a pipe,” which launched thousands of philosophical disquisitions on the dubious relationship of words and images, or the series of re-photographed magazine advertisements of the Marlboro man Richard Prince made between 1980 and ’92, which, as MoMA puts it, “question the mythology of the American dream and the commodification of the virile male,” reaching art-market heights in the process.
Now comes Chinese artist Xu Bing, who had become, to put it mildly, obsessed with tobacco during his time in the American South, first as an artist-in-residence at Duke a decade ago and more recently preparing his current show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Tobacco Project. Xu Bing, who currently has works using the medium of 9/11 dust on West 22nd Street and Chinese calligraphy at the Morgan Library, harnesses the cigarette as surface, sculptural material, and globally distributed graphic-design project. He created objects ranging from a tiger-skin-pattern rug made of more than half a million cigarettes standing on end; to a 440-pound compressed block of tobacco with the raised text “Light as Smoke”; to books made out of tobacco leaves printed with texts and sometimes including tobacco beetles; to trading cards for his “Puff Choice” brand; to a specially made long cigarette burned on a reproduction of a 12-century Chinese scroll.
Another piece is a collaboration between with Law and Order’s René Balcer, who collects Asian art as well as pipes (and who once named a policeman on the show Xu Bing). For his part, Balcer, working with phrases used to market tobacco in the 19th century, collaged a free-verse tribute to the women who picked it. The poem was incorporated by Xu Bing into a work titled Backbone and later set to music by bluesmen Captain Luke and Big Ron.
Finally, there is Xu Bing’s Pipe, a wood tobacco pipe with six added stems—and some tobacco—made in 2004 (a seventh stem was added this year); it looks like a cross between a spider and a funky antique robot. Somehow we wish it were called This Is Not a Pipe instead.
Photo: Travis Fullerton, Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.