Xu Bing, one of China's most acclaimed contemporary artists, is known especially for his exploration of language. In Tobacco Project he furthers that interest, presenting the culture of tobacco as a far-reaching system of signs and symbols. Using tobacco as both subject and object, the exhibition includes Xu Bing's adaptations of historical texts and graphics: a book made of whole tobacco leaves and printed with an early-seventeenth-century account of Jamestown, Virginia; a poem composed from historical tobacco brand names and printed on cigarette paper; and Chinese cigarettes printed with selections from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (the "Little Red Book").
Tobacco engages Xu Bing on many levels simultaneously, allowing him to raise questions, make new discoveries, and expand the viewers' awareness. Above all, he sees it as a medium of cross-cultural exchange—one that first linked Virginia and the American colonies to Europe and other parts of the world in the age of discovery and which continues to provide a connective thread in the age of globalism. In addition, he appreciates tobacco's unique formal properties. Tobacco Project appeals to the sense of smell as well as sight, and Xu Bing is conscious of permeating the gallery with the rich, sweet odor of tobacco. He also makes pieces that embody tobacco's life cycle, from leafy and green to brittle and brown to smoke and ash. Other works feature the materials and paraphernalia associated with tobacco consumption, including pipes, papers, matches, and ashtrays. Tobacco Project contains elements of sociology, history, politics, and personal narrative, but ultimately it is an artist's take on tobacco—a subject that fascinates Xu Bing for its history of innovation as much as for its exploitation and self-contradiction.