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Forbidden Texts

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A child of China's Cultural Revolution, artist Xiaoze Xie knows censorship all too well. For over twenty years, he's worked to understand thought control by making art and compiling an archive of illicit materials. Through January 2020, he brings his forbidden library to the Asia Society Museum in New York City.

Included in this exhibition are photographs, an installation and a documentary from Xiaoze's Banned Books Project as well as paintings and a video from his Chinese Library Series.


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I’m Henna Wang, and you’re listening to Gesso - a podcast about human creativity, history, and the spaces we live to learn about.


Let’s dive in. 


<SFX: music, Xiaoze’s track from video> 


19:35 “This one in front of us, that’s a square composition, it is a big close-up of this stack of thread-bound books, the edges already eaten away by worms. They almost feel like an archeological site, like layers of earth.” 


NARRATION (HENNA): Artist Xiaoze Xie walks towards one of his works, titled, Chinese Library No. 55. Its linen canvas stretches from floor to ceiling,. Fine brushstrokes of oil paint depict a stratified pile of books, their red covers peeking out from the stacks of  the decaying pages.


 “You see a lot of variation of thickness, of paint and texture visible brushworks. It's really no longer photorealistic anymore, particularly when you're up close.”


Xiaoze and I are at the Asia Society Museum, just before the opening of his Autumn 2019 exhibition, Objects of Evidence. He’s walking me through his work, which is displayed in the Museum’s 3rd floor galleries. There’s photographs, paintings, and a video, all featuring the same subject: banned books. He calls it his “library series,” which he’s been working on since the early 90’s.


At the beginning, I was not sure what really captivated me. And eventually, as I work on the subject and expand my subject to include different kind of books, Western books, Chinese thread-bound books and museum folios, I realize the formal potential. And, of course, the conceptual potential of this subject.”


Xiaoze was born at the start of the Cultural Revolution. Long before he created his library series, before his current tenure at Stanford, he spent muggy childhood summers in Guangdong, China. 


So in the summer, kids would roll around on the cement floor and over time the cement floor will become dark and slightly shiny, and I would steal chalks from my father's office. My father was high school director, so I would draw with chalks on the cement floor, and I still remember the touch. 


Xiaoze later attended architecture school, which armed him with the classical training he now uses in his practice.


“in architectural school, I was not completely happy. I was more excited about forms of expression that I'm freer, that are not constrained by, say, economical or functional or technological constraints. I just want to finish the work that is within my control.”


The books depicted in Xiaoze’s library series usually can’t be removed from their native archives. So instead of the traditional process of painting from still life, Xiaoze painted from photographs. 


“It's got a kind of in situ, you might say, or the kind of mise-en-scene that I was always interested in. The atmosphere, the space, the light of the library room, usually in a public collection with this cool glow of the fluorescent light. ... I prefer to present them as I found them.”


We walk over to an installation of three cases of books. Some are manuscripts, illegally transcribed by hand. Xiaoze explains to me that the books with grey and yellow covers inside were heavily regulated during the Cultural Revolution. 


the whole idea of censorship is about controlling access. It's about what this included or is excluded. What is peripheral, what you can say, what you cannot say, what you can know, what you cannot know. It's all about, you know, the control of thought.”


From 1966 to 1976, oppression spread in Mao Zedong’s Communist China. Academics, intellectuals, and anyone perceived as bourgeois were persecuted by Mao’s working-class student movement, the Red Guards. Books, newspapers, and other media of all kinds were heavily censored and even destroyed. 


“During the Cultural Revolution all kind of books are banned, you know, schools were not functioning normally, libraries closed down, library collections get dispersed  


But the practice of banning books extends far beyond Mao’s China. Censorship, for a variety of reasons, has at times outlawed books that are now considered U.S. classics. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. James Joyce’s Ulysses. Even To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be challenged in some American schools to this day. 


Maybe this is why Xiaoze tells me that book banning transcends geography. 


“Book banning is always a time based concept. You know when a ban is imposed. And then over a certain period of time, when the social and political climate changes, ban will be lifted, and then the books would be accessible to the public again, and certain works that we’ll concede are really harmful in a certain period of time could be elevated to a status of being, you know, classics, important works in history, of literature, or other types of writing.”


“It's actually -- it's always affected by the social climate, the political climate at the time.”


Michelle Yun, the curator of Xiaoze’s show, agrees. She says that his work shows how censorship is a force that can transcend culture, geography, and history. 


“The nature of censorship is very subjective, obviously. And any given point within any given culture, what may seem provocative or controversial or taboo may well change within even the next generation or within different groups of people within that same culture.”


Because many of these titles that are included in the exhibition are no longer banned… I think that’s a wonderful example of how, over time, perspectives and ideals or values may change and so that’s a reminder that, you know, people should not be so… fanatical in terms of their stance on a particular idea.” 


Xiaoze’s work does double duty to sound the warning bell for global censorship today. 


I don’t see art as purely an instrument of political struggle. in general I think the production of art and culture is always grounded in the much larger social context... inescapable. isn't that the whole point to comment on what's going on right now in various parts of the world?


Xiaoze’s paintings at first glance, seem to be the epitome of silence: books lying sideways across the library stacks, quietly collecting dust, their memory perhaps . but the more time I spend with his work, the more I realize that these books are bursting with power, explosive ideas that were once suppressed. 


I always feel that art is inevitably connected to a much bigger cultural or political or social background, and art should engage the context. 

“I hope that this work would raise some kind of awareness, you know, inspire some kind of discussions about topics of censorship. The control of thought, not just books but also theater and film production, perhaps TV magazines, newspapers, the Internet. These are all related issues. We view this, the culture production as a whole, in a bigger context.”




OUTRO: This interview featured artist Xiaoze Xie, and curator Michelle Yun. Objects of Evidence will be on view at the Asia Society Museum through January 5th, 2020. 


Weng Fei performed the music featured in this episode. 


This podcast was produced for Gesso Media, by Georgia Wright, and me, Henna Wang.


For more immersive media, download our app, Gesso Experiences, or look for us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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