“Background Story” hints at complex connections between industrial globalization and environmental degradation, a theme made explicit in other segments of the exhibition. A section showcasing his ongoing “Tobacco Project” includes a floor sculpture made up of more than 660,000 Fu Gui-brand cigarettes. The sculpture throws off a pungent odor that hangs over nearby, related works, like Xu’s series of quotations from Daoist philosophy and Mao’s Little Red Book, which he painstakingly writes onto American Spirit cigarettes by hand. An adjacent display charts the progress of the ongoing “Xu Bing Forest Project,” an educational initiative launched in 2005, through which Xu works with schoolchildren in Kenya to promote ecological awareness and develop a system for promoting the circulation of work by underprivileged artists in the international art market. A living tree sits at the center of the display, sipping chlorophyll through tubes that puncture its bark.
Despite such diversity of form, the show’s center holds because it stays faithful to a core interest that has propelled Xu throughout his career: an infatuation with the centrality of the written word to culture. For The Character of Characters (2012), viewers are invited to watch a short animation in which Chinese characters assume the form of everything from interlocking organs to industrial machinery to army battalions on the march, richly demonstrating the marriage of form and function in Chinese writing. The show’s centerpiece is Book from the Sky (1987–1991), an early work of Xu’s completed over the course of five years, comprised of characters invented and hand-carved by the artist across thousands of moveable type blocks. The piece is made up of ceiling-draped and wall-mounted scrolls surrounding piled sheaves of text, arranged with an appropriately religious grandiosity in UCCA’s nave, exactly where it did for UCCA’s first-ever show in 2007. Its simultaneous levity and weight touches on what makes “Thought and Method” so impressive throughout: The text is so dense that it’s legible to no one, and therefore its composition is equally accessible to all.