Tobacco is native to the Americas, and when it first arrived in Europe, Asia, and Africa after 1492, a lot of people were just as disgusted as they were today. No matter, the world was instantly hooked. Smoking, as the new book 1493 puts it, represented “the first time people in every continent simultaneously became enraptured by a novelty.” Thus was launched the cult of the cigarette, often considered the first “modern” object.
Chinese artist Xu Bing has become, to put it mildly, obsessed with tobacco during his time in the American South, especially while preparing his current show at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The show features objects that harness the cigarette as surface, sculptural material, and globally distributed graphic-design project. They range from a tiger-skin-pattern rug made of more than half a million cigarettes standing on end; to a 440-pound compressed block of tobacco with the raised text “Light as Smoke”; to books made out of tobacco leaves printed with texts and sometimes including tobacco beetles; to trading cards for his “Puff Choice” brand; to a specially made long cigarette burned on a reproduction of a 12-century Chinese scroll.
Another piece is a collaboration with Law and Order’s René Balcer (who once named a policeman on the show Xu Bing). For his part, Balcer, working with phrases used to market tobacco in the 19th century, collaged a free-verse tribute to the women who picked it. The poem was incorporated by Xu Bing into a work titled Backbone and later set to music by bluesmen Captain Luke and Big Ron.
Finally, there is Xu Bing’s Pipe, which looks like a cross between a spider and a funky antique robot. As Magritte might say, This Is Not a Pipe after all.