By Peter Galuszka

The history of Virginia is intertwined very tightly with that of tobacco.

The Golden Leaf boosted the two colonies from their earliest days. One of the first acts of the new colonial legislature in the Old Dominion was establishing price supports for tobacco, which was used a currency and was the state’s most important export product. The first machine to roll cigarettes was invented in Richmond, creating an entirely new industry. One of the last remaining major cigarette factories is in the capital

With this history in mind, and if you looking for something to do on a weekend, you might consider driving down to Richmond to see the new “Xu Bing: Tobacco Project” exhibit at the newly renovated Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

Begun in 2000 when Chinese-born Xu Bing was artist in residence at Duke University, the tobacco project mixes cigarettes, advertising, brand names old books, pay checks and other memorabilia into a highly unusual exhibition exploring the relationship between humans and tobacco.

One work involves 440,000 cigarettes fashioned into the form a 40-foot-long floor rug shaped like a tiger. A wall is covered with old tobacco advertisements. Another curiosity is a 50-foot-long reproduction of a Zhang Zeduan painting from the 10th century, “Along the River During the Qingming Festival,” that has an extra-long cigarette burned down its center.

Xu Bing plays with the ironies of tobacco’s deadly nature and its attractiveness to people. Tobacco kills about 400,000 Americans every year and may kill billion globally in this century, according to the World Health Organization. Xu Bing’s father died of tobacco-related lung cancer.

I asked Xu Bing, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1999 and who moved to the U.S. in 1990, about this contradiction at a reception this morning. “My show isn’t about propaganda,” he says, “it is about the relationship between tobacco and human beings. It is sort of like love and its effect on people. It is awkward.”

Curiously, after I first posted this blog item, I saw that the Wall Street Journal had run a similar story on Xu Bing with one important difference. The Journal noted that the artist had gone to Altria, the operator of a huge Philip Morris plant in Richmond, to ask for hundreds of thousands of cigarettes. But Altria, a major donor to the VMFA as it is to many Richmond entities, turned him down. So Xu Bing had to try another route.

Last Friday, I had asked a VMFA spokeswoman where Xu Bing had found so many cigarettes and she said that the VMFA had helped locate and pay for them. She did not bring up Altria’s role, most likely because of their funding relationship with the museum. I asked her about it today and she said she wouldn’t have volunteered the information because Altria was not involved in this particular exhibit.

I guess I can understand that, but it does raise many questions, once again, about the tobacco giant’s impact on its new corporate headquarters home of Richmond. Years ago, the American Tobacco Company was such a moneybags that the Medical College of Virginia acted as its chief researcher and promoter. One science historian writing about tobacco research labeled his chapter on the cozy relationship “Sold, American!”

Later, Virginia Commonwealth University got skewered by entering into secretive research contracts with Philip Morris requiring that the cigarette maker be notified immediately if anyone, especially a news reporter, asked about them. VCU later decided not to get into such contracts again.

And now, we’re finding tobacco’s stained hands on art in Richmond. It’s really too bad because the Great Recession has killed off several firms that were major benefactors in the city, leaving basically, Altria, Dominion and MeadWestvaco.

The good news is that Altria’s refusal did not prevent Xu Bing’s show from taking place. It is a good thing that VMFA found another way. Given tobacco’s impact on the region’s history, his show, which is free, is worth a look.

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8 responses to “Xu Bing’s Tobacco Show”

  1. It kills 400,000 Americans a year and the city that most supported and continues to support that carnage has a free exhibit? The artist who created the exhibit says, “It’s sort of like love and its effect on people.”.

    Who runs Richmond? Beavis and Butthead (pun intended)?

    And who is paying for this tribute to mass murder? Please tell me it isn’t the taxpayers.

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I don’t know Groveton, I can see your point, but I’m not sure Xu Bing’s purpose is to glorify tobacco but to spark comment, just like yours.


  3. Sparking comments about tobacco is perhaps worthwhile. However, I question whether those comments should be sparked in the city that has led the centuries long march of tobacco related death. That easily leads people to wonder if Richmond has come to terms with its role in the deaths of millions and millions (billions?) of people.

    Xu Bing ought to add X-Rays of horribly diseased lungs alongside photographs of the Country Club of Virginia to paint a more complete picture of tobacco and Richmond.

    1. Actually, he does — he has included his father’s medical reports tracking his lung cancer.

      And the wall covered with tobacco advertisements is actually a series of tobacco brands arranged into a poem (by someone other than Xu Bing) in homage to the black women who picked tobacco.

      So the exhibit represents a whole lot of different points of view and our entangled love/hate relationship with tobacco over the centuries.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Agree completely, but Richmond never will come to terms with the leaf. PG

  5. Read the article on the front page of the WSJ today about this very exhibit. Interesting angle: Xu Bing figured it was be easy to get materials for the exhibit. But Altria declined to donate cigarettes, tobacco or other materials. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts had to search for months to find a manufacturer to custom manufacture a super-long cigarette. The museum found a North Carolina firm but it had to use self-extinguishing paper (presumably to meet federal regulations). Xu Bing finally found a supplier in… China.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I blogged about this for the Post on Friday. They asked where the cigarettes came from. I called the VMFA and asked. They didn’t get back to me, apparently knowing the Journal had the story about Altria.

    Peter Galuszka

  7. Altria didn’t donate cigarettes to Bing because they didn’t want to diminish the supply available for “back to school” purposes.

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