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April 3, 2004


Jerome du Bois of The Tears of Things is back on his moral high horse. These days he is offended by Xu Bing, the winner of the first Artes Mundi prize at the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, whose installation there consists of dust collected from the streets around Ground Zero. "This is vampiric appropriation at its most visceral. On that horrible day, whatever else he did, Xu Bing took the time to plan an artwork." (That is, for Jerome this is yet another symptom of a morally debased art world throwing accountability to the wind.)

This guy's a ghoul, and he just won the world's most lucrative art prize.
Can anyone know what's in Xu Bing's dust? Could there be the pulverized remains of human beings nicely distributed over this gallery floor, carefully outlining the stencilled [sic] letters? Yes.

And indeed, we are entering chilling territory here, so I don't think his reaction is necessarily out of line. Still, and du Bois' graphic provocation notwithstanding, Xu's work does not strike me as all that exploitative (the best I can tell sitting at a computer screen in Chicago). It in fact seems downright modest—and honestly human. Xu Bing, in the Guardian [via greg.org]:

"When I am at a place where something special happens, I like to take something from it," he said yesterday. From Tiananmen Square he has a bicycle squashed flat under a tank. "When I saw the Twin Towers fall, I felt the world change from that day."

Surely we can all somehow identify with that. How many of us, wherever might have been, have hung onto things to remember that stunning day and its aftermath—newspapers, photos, drawings, shards of an airplane? How many of us, no matter how horribly wrong it felt, remained glued to the repeating video of the South Tower being hit (again and again...) if only for the sense of duty to not let that image escape, to not let the horror of those thousands of deaths go unnoticed. Isn't it human to want to hold close to tragedy in some respect?

Was Xu 'planning an artwork' in the pall of Ground Zero? Perhaps (though I'm not entirely certain). He was also doing what we all do, especially in extraordinary circumstances such as those of 9/11: seeking to grasp a piece of our common substance so as to give feelings form, thoughts expression and memory a foothold in the world. When our lips fail us we allow the objects around us to do the talking. (Indeed this hits something close to the very heart of the question of art: how is it that dead matter can come to speak?) Du Bois dismisses the dust Xu collected as a souvenir, however, implying throughout that the man is an amoral opportunist. I'd call it a memento mori in the most blunt sense—a relic or token of, if he'll forgive my artlessness, "the tears of things."

No doubt, the dust from Ground Zero is unlike other mementos from that day. Certainly, when we begin to deal with the rubble itself, the dust and ashes (and indeed possibly human remains), we threaten to cross a threshold of appropriateness. Still, it is not so beyond the pale, I think, that a careful, decent handling of the material would be totally inappropriate.

So the question remains, is Xu Bing's installation of sufficient artistic merit and thoughtfulness to ultimately justify such a potentially contentious act? There remain questions as well regarding propriety of the tragedy of that day. To the former, unable as I am to decide from a brief AP account and a couple photos, I opt to reserve judgment. To the latter, I think it's not asserting too much to say we all in some way share 9/11 (to a lesser or greater degree, of course). But to write Xu off from the first as a "ghoul," "slinking" coward or opportunist is to cynically dismiss the common humanity at the core of his gesture.

We may not all be in the position to be the hero, to rush into the falling buildings, or to provide care for the wounded, or even to face down a column of tanks. We can, however, strive to bear witness in this world—each in our own way—to tragedy, sacrifice, and life and its ultimate limit, mortality. "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return." [hat-tip: Spitting Image]

Posted by Dan at 03:12 AM



My guess is that Xu Bing's stuff is extremely powerful, especially if it can get a reaction through the internet!

My difficulty is that 9/11 wasn't the first time there had been such a large loss of life at one time in the States. Most people now a days don't have a clue about the Johnstown Flood, and I strongly believe that anybody who gets on a high horse should have some historical insight, before they automatically assume that 9/11 is the "biggest" tragedy ever.

From what little I know about Xu Bing, I would guess he does have some historical insight, from the even less that I know about Mr. Du Bois, I would guess that he doesn't.

Play ball!

Posted by: Zeke on April 3, 2004 at 10:05 AM


Thank you for the thoughtful post. I won't be responding in detail; I just want to make a few points.

First, there's no horses around here. My whole stance is about feet firmly on the ground, eye to eye, actual size conversations. Morality is not handed down or looked up in a book; it's worked out between people.

Second, you totally ignore the message outline-stenciled on the floor. Look, if the message read NEVER FORGET we'd be having a different discussion.

Third, your pull quote from greg.org supports my notion about this guy's heart: "When I am at a place where something special happens, I like to take something from it." This guy left China around 1990, he speaks English very well. So, two words: special, and like. Would you describe Tiananmen Square or 9/11 as a special day, Dan; would that be on a list of top twenty words describing either day for you?

And, despite your moving speculations on Xu's motives for gathering the dust, he says himself that he likes to take something. He likes to. There's something cold about that man.

I'm done. Nice blog. I see on your sidebar you've been "surrendering to the Zeitgeist since January 2004." Thanks for checking me out, and welcome to the party, pal.


Posted by: Jerome du Bois on April 4, 2004 at 02:41 AM

Referenced in this post:

Artnet: Xu Bing
BBC: Dust artist wins first Artes Mundi
CNN Video: Tank Defiance '89
FDU: Marie A. Roberts
Genesis 3:19 (NIV)
Greg.org: Dust
Guardian: Artist finds peace in Ground Zero—Maev Kennedy
New York Times: Like Others, Rumsfeld Has 9/11 Memento—Eric Schmitt
Sermon and Liturgy for Ash Wednesday
Spitting Image: Prize Art
Tears of Things
Tears of Things: Xu Bing's Corpse Powder
Time: Attack on the U.S. 9/12/2001
Time: Shattered 9/11/2001