From 1991, an image of Xu Bing’s “Ghosts Pounding the Wall”:
As the project is described on the artist’s website:
Xu Bing and his crew labored in the mountains for twenty-four days in 1990 to make impressions of the surface of the Great Wall, Using a technique traditionally employed for reproducing fine carvings of calligraphy. Over the course of several months, the ink-smudged sheets of Chinese paper were resembled [sic] and mounted. For Xu, the expenditure of utmost effort was necessary to create an imposing psychological and physical space similar to the space of the Great Wall itself. Yet, the piled earth of the tomb at the foot of Xu’s paper Great Wall is an obvious symbol of death. The confrontation between the splendid if ghostly paper representation of the Great Wall and the nihilistic physical presence of the earthen grave mound raises doubts about the purpose of human effort. Not only questioning the artist’s replication of the rough and inelegant surface of the Great Wall, but questioning more generally all human effort, including construction of the original Great Wall.
It is also especially important to consider the political context of this important piece:
The title of this work is derived from critical attacks on Xu Bing’s earlier installation work Book from the Sky, leveled against the artist by a coterie of conservative art critics in the period immediately following the Tian’an men Incident. The phrase “ghosts pounding the wall” carried the implied criticism that the artist’s thinking and approach were seriously flawed, and that he thus was doomed to failure.
Even in the context of Xu Bing’s eminent career, “Ghosts Pounding the Wall” is a masterpiece, and many years later remains a monument to the artist’s ingenuity and intelligence. The historical and political context of the subject, the durational nature of the project, and the ephemeral qualities of the material all converge to express a profound statement about the futility of human endeavor.