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Puff Piece: Xing Ped

Your Humble Blogger is back, having had an excellent Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is in some way all about wresting our attention from those things that get up our noses to those things we happen to actually like, yes? So here’s a Puff Piece, since we haven’t had one in a while, about guerilla artist and pedestrian activist Xing Ped. Honestly, I don’t know much about Mr. Xing, who is (or perhaps was) incredibly reclusive. A lot of what I do know is unverifiable anecdote; a lot of people claim to have known or even worked with Mr. Xing, but it seems unlikely to me that he would have confided in them. Anyway, it’s the work that counts. The most likely bio, based as much on conjecture as reliable evidence, is that he was a war orphan of a Chinese soldier and a Korean mother, adopted by a Canadian nurse and brought up somewhere in lower Canada or northern US. The influence of Pop Art and minimalism is obvious, but the stories about his relationship with Donald Judd are probably false. It’s tempting to imagine them on a cross-country car trip, the older man holding forth on materials, on sites, on consumerism, on galleries ... and then the crash outside Marfa and the youngster’s vow never to drive again. Still, there’s no evidence of that, nor of the similar stories about collaborations with Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono or Sol LeWitt. The story of the Marfa crash, particularly, seems to contradict the story about his adoptive family being killed when they were crossing a busy intersection and a car failed to stop. Of course, there’s no evidence for that, either. Or, really, for the youthful flirtation with First Nation religions that led to the early site-specific works.

It was those works—the two-dimensional yellow diamonds, all flat surface, the stenciled words and images, the roadside locations—that really started Mr. Xing’s career. It’s hard to imagine how startling the now-iconic deer or moose would have appeared at the time. Just the silhouette, and the name of the animal (and the stenciled signature) in easy-to-read large sans-serif letters. Later he eschewed the images for short, passionate slogans, making my own favorite pieces. The thing that makes the works powerful is the contrast between the style of the work—cold, industrial, manufactured—and the passion of the pleas to ‘End Road Work’ or ‘End Construction’. And, of course, the siting, by the side of the road, always near some of the ubiquitous construction, the attempt to make the roads wider, longer, faster.

In fact, these later works without Mr. Xing’s name affixed are even more powerful for me, because they play with the whole question of identity. After the seventies ‘happenings’ where he spray-painted the ‘graffiti’ (just his name, in all caps) on the road near some dangerous intersection, his legions of followers have taken to stenciling his name on roads in cities and towns across America (oddly, in Canada they put his family name last as if it were a Western surname). The strong association of his name with dangerous intersections and bus stops carries over to his later, unsigned work, to the point where the signs in proximity to the ever-increasing roadways evoke the danger to pedestrians as well, and even while driving, I find myself raising a fist and shouting his name, as if it had been printed right on the sign.

Of course, after so many years, it’s not clear whether Mr. Xing is still active, or whether he has retired from the active supervision of the team of assistants he had delegated to do the actual siting. He had always taken the minimalist rejection of craft to an extreme, using geometric figures, stencils and print to universalize the artworks. Like the conceptualists, he distanced himself from the actual production of the art. What was clearly his own hand was the placement of the signs and the graffiti, and he attempted to remove himself even from that by allowing assistants to choose the placement of the signs. Added to that, of course, was the work of ‘independent’ copycat artists, and of course many pedestrian-rights activists took his work as part of their cause. By removing his self from the works, he in effect multiplied himself; because it is impossible to tell whether a particular work is a “real” Xing Ped, all of them are and none. There is no artist, there is just art. And yet, when you see any of them—the most amateurish scrawl on a road near a school, or a flimsy canvas orange sign on the roadside—you take it for a Xing Ped, you say his name, you think about the other works (I haven’t even mentioned the marvelous Holzer-like installations where his stylized self-portrait alternates with a warning hand, or where the words WALK and DON’T WALK alternate in red and green like a contradiction incarnate) and, inevitably, you think of the place of walking and driving in our culture.

That’s the magnificent paradox. He removes himself from the work so that he doesn’t stand between the viewer and the (political) meaning, but the result is not that he disappears but that he grows larger, his name encompassing all the byways of the nation. Even if he has already died, and the studio now carries on making the works without any supervision at all, his influence is so strong that they are him, they work for him and he works through them, achieving a sort of immortality. There will always be Xing Ped; the endless construction demands Xing Ped; the children dodging traffic in front of approved Xing Schools grow up to be the drivers he excoriated but also to be the activists he still inspires.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

Xing Ped
Xing Ped, Self-Portrait, date unknown.



That was hilarious! More puff pieces please :)


For further commentary on the work of Xing:

Blumberg, Alex. "Small Thoughts in Big Brains." This American Life #293, A Little Bit of Knowledge, Act I; July 22, 2005.

And a dialectic on the continuing controversy that Xing touched off:

Gambrel, Dorothy. "Art or Not." Cat and Girl #244. (with meta-commentary!)

A moving and thoughtful summary.

But it's hard to see how you could review this artist without touching on the vicious campaign waged against him by Hilton Kramer and the New Criterion. More even than the Conceptualists, who for all their innovations still hung their work in galleries, Xing came to represent (for the right wing) a removal of beauty and of taste from art.

Would he represent himself that way? Taste, perhaps, he would have seen as too selfish an attribute: why should his taste be privileged over someone else? But I think he would strongly differ with regard to his relationship to Beauty -- he's not eschewing the beautiful, but he's moving it outside the frame. Is the iconic pedestrian, flat black on yellow, without brushwork or chiaroscuro, beautiful? Some would argue that it is not. But the actual pedestrians, safely traversing, making themselves into the referent that didn't exist yet when the sign was created? Surely anyone can see the beauty there.

But Xing doesn't take credit for that beauty. He is, perhaps, a facilitator -- rather than creating a visual image himself, he both guides and points to a moment of life itself. Is he denigrating the role of the artist as creator? Rather, I think, he hands that role back to the viewer: just walk here and Art is made.

Why did the aesthete cross the road?

I think we all know why.

For those Gentle Readers who don’t go to Dan’s link and listen, the piece is on the sort of thing that we misunderstand as kids, and somehow we never quite get corrected until adults. Mr. Xing’s name is include as one that we often read but rarely hear, and so like misled we can keep the mispronunciation in our heads for some time. The really interesting part, though, was that when the woman describes how she if finally corrected, it’s when driving on a road and commenting to her friend something like “There really ought to be a Xing here”. Her point in the story is that she pronounces the initial X as a Z, as in xenophile, rather than as pinyan, which is something like SH, and then is embarrassed when she realizes she’s had it wrong all her life. What struck me, though, was that the casual comment “there should really be a Xing here” reveals just how deep into our culture the work gets. I mean, how often does somebody say “there should really be a Smithson here” or “there should really be a Wodiczko here”? Not from a collector, either, or a curator or some other professional appreciator, but from somebody who doesn’t even know how to pronounce the guy’s name. That’s astonishing.
And Jacob, I think you make an excellent point. But let’s not forget that Hilton Kramer and his ilk recoiled not just from the art but from the politics, not (as you say) that the two are really separable. But what distinguished Mr. Kramer’s criticism from that of, oh, Robert Hughes, was that the latter at least attacked Mr. Xing’s work from a standpoint that for all its retarditaire contrariness at least acknowledged the context. For the New Criterion, the placement of the art was simply rejection of both the gallery and the car and therefore of art itself, and no further examination of the context was possible. I think it was Yves-Alain Bois (or perhaps Stephen Fry) who referred to this deliberate blindness on the part of the formalist critics as “road rage”.

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