The history of Virginia, and of southern Maryland, 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 as a currency and was the state’s most important export product. Maryland became famous for its air-cured leaf. One of the last remaining major cigarette factories in the United States is in Richmond.
With this history in mind, and if you’re 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, paychecks and other memorabilia into a highly unusual exhibition.
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 that will be burned down its center.
Zu 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 1 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 United States 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.”
Given tobacco’s impact on the region’s history, his show, which is free, is worth a look.