In his series, Background Story, Chinese artist Xu Bing uses the play of light and shadow to create works that resemble classical Chinese paintings out of leaves, fibres and other discarded materials. He does this by carefully attaching these materials to one side of a translucent screen which, when viewed against light, creates a silhouette identical to a painting. Bing’s act of creating these ‘shadow paintings’ builds on traditional methods of art education that put emphasis on copying the works of old masters. Instead of copying brush strokes, Bing here engages in a dialogue with tradition by painstakingly creating works that interrogate our habits of visual perception.
In Background Story: Endless Xishan Mountain Scenery (2014), Xu Bing has replicated in shadows a landscape painting by Chinese artist Xu Ben who lived when the Ming Dynasty ruled China (1368- 1644). According to the artist, he chose this particular painting as its creation coincided with a period in history when generals of the Ming empire, among them the legendary General Zheng He, were making oceanic expeditions accompanied by impressive armadas of ‘Treasure Ships’ to expand China’s influence and trade. The Muslim general Zheng He, a former court eunuch, had been chosen by the emperor to be the commander of Chinese fleets that sailed to the ‘Western Oceans’. In the seven voyages he undertook, he travelled as far as the Persian Gulf and the East coast of Africa. At least twice his explorations brought him to India’s West coast, where he first arrived in 1405-07, nearly a century before Vasco da Gama, and disembarked at principal ports such as Calicut and Kochi. He died in Calicut in 1433, while on his seventh and final voyage.