A closer look at a phoenix hanging in the Mass. MoCA in North Adams, Mass., 2013

Atlanta is represented by the phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from the ashes as the city did after its Civil-War scorching. Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing knows a thing or two about the symbol, which takes on a slightly different significance in his culture. 

Throughout Chinese history, Mr. Xu says, the phoenix joined the dragon in representing luck and prosperity, but when he was commissioned for an art installation at the World Financial Center in Beijing, he couldn’t help but notice the misfortune of those working in the shadow of the glitzy tower as the coming-out party of the 2008 Olympics approached. 

He decided to make two hanging phoenix sculptures out of everyday construction materials, showing that beauty comes from the mundane and that the Chinese people’s aspirations were changing for the better. LED lights were embedded within the frames to show that brightness comes even as the night gets dark. The work was never displayed at the financial center — “I took too long,” he says — but it did receive international acclaim as a portrayal of China’s changes.  

That’s just one example of how the Chinese-born and New York-based artist tackles sticky societal subjects with a pointed sincerity, and now Georgians have a chance to enjoy his work. A sampling is on display through July 3 at the Savannah College of Art & Design museum in Savannah. Mr. Xu was named SCAD’s deFINE ART 2015 honoree in February and gave a keynote speech preceding the opening of the exhibition. “Things Are Not What They First Appear” brings together works from some of his best-known installments, including “Background Story” and “Tobacco Project.” 

The latter explores man’s relationship with the cash crop and cancer-causer, as well as the physical properties and commercial strategies that have transformed tobacco into a fixture in daily life for many. A high-impact piece in the collection, “1st Class” is a room-sized depiction of a yellow and white tiger rug fashioned solely out of 500,000 cigarettes. The tiger in part represents the idea of colonization, while the cigarettes show the way that China is in a way choking on its newfound capitalistic prosperity, Mr. Xu told Global Atlanta. 

The American South, the cradle of the tobacco industry, and China, where it is both a status symbol and a public-health nightmare, are historically intertwined on this thorny issue. Global Atlanta caught up with Mr. Xu by phone and then by email to discuss the motivation behind his work and what it’s like working on contemporary art in China. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity: 

Global Atlanta: You talked about your Tobacco Project being an exploration of the awkward love-hate relationship between tobacco and humans. Can you clarify what you meant by that?

Xu Bing: My interests lie in the exploration of the long, tangled relationship between humans and tobacco. This in turn reflects on the weaknesses and the problems of mankind.

Looking back at history, the relationship between tobacco and humans fluctuates in distance. There was a point in time when smoking was considered such a good thing that everyone, be it young or old, men or women, were smoking. At present, it can be considered that smoking is now at its peak. The design of a cigarette box expresses the ambiguity in the production, and marketing of cigarettes, and the action of smoking itself. Everyone is aware of the harmful effects of smoking, yet they cannot be without it. This relationship is like the relationship between lovers: the ones who drive each other up the wall when they’re together, but at the same time cannot be apart from each other. Tobacco brings to light a core, hidden part of human nature. However, it is difficult to weigh out the harmful effects of smoking on the body with the sense of eternity and boundlessness that is achieved by surrounding yourself in smoke.

Global Atlanta: Given that tobacco is so addictive physically and is so powerful at conveying status in society, what is the best way to fight against it? Does your art address how public-health officials and governments should tackle this problem, given that it’s so ingrained in the new capitalist culture in China?

Xu Bing: The first thing is to decide whether or not these issues want to be taken up. The advantages and disadvantages from addressing such issues have to be carefully weighed out. I cannot answer such a question. 

The Tobacco Project does not directly address, or provide any form of solutions for public health officials and their related governments in any way. This has to do with the governments and their own choices. My main concern in the creation of the Tobacco Project is the relationship between Man and tobacco. The project’s interests lie in the exploration of excessive human agency in the transformation of tobacco into a man made product. Originally a simple product of nature in the form of plant, tobacco did not possess any sort of ideology. It is mankind that has imbued this product with such strong political and economic meanings. The project discusses the nature of tobacco in the economic environment, and the overall function of tobacco in a civilized society.

Global Atlanta: What is the responsibility of the companies and traders in Southern U.S., the cradle of tobacco culture, to those in China who are now addicted and dying of preventable illnesses? Do you see tobacco’s history as a cautionary tale on the dangers of global trade?

Xu Bing: I think this has to do with the legal disputes between such companies and the product’s consumers in America. This can be used as a form of reference for their Chinese counterparts. (Such a question is too complex and general for me to answer.) As for the use of tobacco as a cautionary tale, history is definitely a valuable resource to learn from. 

Global Atlanta: How did the impact of tobacco on your family [Mr. Xu’s father died of lung cancer] affect your portrayal of tobacco culture, or even the fact that you selected it in the first place?

Xu Bing: I think that my family definitely plays a role in my portrayal of tobacco culture. However, my choice of tobacco as a theme did not come directly from them, but from my experience at Duke University exploring the relationship between tobacco, culture and the family’s contribution to education that sparked the initiation and creation of this project. 

Global Atlanta: How do you think the Tobacco Project is interpreted differently in China, where tobacco is still so integrated with daily life, and in the U.S., where it is on the decline?

Xu Bing: As discussed previously, at its core the project reflects on the relationship between Man and tobacco. However, the project expresses another layer of meaning in China on its exploration of the development of capitalism through the popularity of tobacco. Additionally, it also discusses topics on capitalism and labor. The project expresses a form of Western cultural penetration in history, where cigarettes and smoking were initially marketed in China as part of a new, fashionable and civilized lifestyle. 

Global Atlanta: Switching gears a bit, you seem very intrigued by language and writing. We’d be interested to know how you feel the Chinese language is changing in the digital age, as many young people are communicating more electronically and not learning how to write calligraphy as well. What will that do for China’s cultural identity?

Xu Bing: We have a tendency to think that Chinese characters do not fit very well in the digital age. However, results have proven that Chinese characters possess a distinct advantage in its input methods in the digital era. On the keyboard, typing Chinese characters is actually about a third faster than typing English words. Due to the four tones, the Chinese language also has a higher efficiency in discerning characters than the English language. 

As traditional culture is derived from the past, there would be no effect of electronic communication on traditional Chinese culture. However, electronic communication is key in the development of the current culture that will become traditional in the future. More importantly, nowadays the younger generations do not only use words and language to communicate, they also interact through icons and symbols. This phenomena is something I consider as a new form of hieroglyphic language, which shares many similarities with Chinese characters and calligraphy. 

Global Atlanta: Your art hones in on human issues facing China. What kind of opposition have you faced there, and how do you think China’s art scene is developing under the threat of censorship?  

Xu Bing: The Chinese government’s understanding of contemporary art is a work in progress. “The Book of the Sky” was once criticised by the government, but that was 25 years ago. At present, as an independent contemporary artist, as long as you do not disregard the law, attack the government, try to subvert political powers, or display any obscene content, the government generally will not try to exert any form of control on your creative process.

–Learn more about the SCAD Museum of Art exhibition here

See more about Mr. Xu’s visit to SCAD here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...