“The ‘Tobacco Project’ began with an interest in the aroma of tobacco,” Chinese artist Xu Bing says over a dim-sum breakfast in New York. Likening it to something between sociology and art, he is referring to the third iteration of an ambitious, multidisciplinary undertaking based on the fraught subject of tobacco called, appropriately enough, “Tobacco Project: Duke/Shanghai/Virginia, 1999–2011.”
In 1999, Xu Bing visited Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, to give a lecture and was struck by the smell of tobacco everywhere. “Friends explained to me that the Duke family fortune was built on tobacco and that Durham came to be called ‘Tobacco City,’” he says. But because “the Duke University School of Medicine excels in treating cancer, Durham is also known as the ‘City of Medicine,’” he adds, underscoring the ironic connections “between tobacco, its production, and its cultural history.” While researching the project, Xu Bing learned about close ties between China and the Duke family, who had introduced “cigarette-rolling technology to Shanghai.” Fittingly, he brought his series to that city in 2004. Later, a pipe collection belonging to television writer and producer René Balcer and his wife Carolyn Hsu-Balcer sparked the artist’s interest in the leafy heritage of Virginia, where the “Tobacco Project” will be exhibited from September 10 to December 4 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond—in its final appearance.
For each installment of the series, says John Ravenal, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Xu Bing created new works based on local circumstances and histories and joined them with previous works. The new art in Virginia will include a 400-pound brick of pressed tobacco emblazoned with the phrase “light as smoke,” as well as a book of poetry composed of tobacco slogans printed on cigarette paper. Among the older pieces in the show are a huge book of whole tobacco leaves printed with an eyewitness account of tobacco cultivation in Jamestown from around 1600, a 40-foot simulated tiger-skin rug made from over half a million cigarettes, and an extraordinarily long lit cigarette laid out on a reproduction of the famous Song Dynasty cityscape Along the River During the Qingming Festival (ca. early 12th century) by Zhang Zeduan. The lengthy cigarette proved problematic during test runs, though. It refused to burn, since cigarette paper is now self-extinguishing.
Neither a health nut nor a smoker, Xu Bing wanted to restore some neutrality to tobacco and examine the plant from an artist’s perspective. “Everyone knows that tobacco is harmful, but we are inseparable from it,” he says. (His father died of lung cancer, a fact poignantly revealed by the inclusion of his diagnostic charts in the show.) But Xu Bing also tells us that farmers and workers revere and depend upon tobacco. And then there is the pleasure. “It is nearly impossible,” he says, “to pass judgment on all of those limitless things that we gain from within its shroud of smoke.”