Twenty-one monkeys greet visitors to the Freer|Sackler. They hang in the stairwell, dangling from the Sackler’s glass atrium all the way to a small reflecting pool three levels down. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, a suspended sculpture by Xu Bing (born 1955), is a chain made up of twenty-one large, black, lacquered wood pieces. Created specifically for the space as part of a 2001 exhibition of the artist’s work, it tucks nicely into the existing architecture. It is the only piece from the exhibition that was permanently installed in the museum.
Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is based on the Chinese fable of the same name. The story goes that a group of monkeys catch sight of the moon and attempt to capture it. Working together, they link arms and tails to form a chain reaching from their tree branch to the moon. Just as they’re about to grab it, the monkeys realize that they had merely seen the shimmering reflection of the moon on the surface of a pool. The dual lesson is that working together lets us achieve our dreams, but also that our dreams may be naught but illusion.
Xu Bing brought this lesson into the twenty-first century with his sculpture. Rather than creating actual monkey forms, he designed pieces shaped like the word “monkey” in a dozen languages, with each word forming a link on the chain. In this way, Xu communicates the importance of working together in an age and world as interconnected as ours. The languages—representing various countries, cultures, religions, and ethnicities—must come together to achieve greater goals.
Certainly, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is a work that could be, should be, and is admired for its aesthetic qualities, innovation, and narrative. But on top of this, the work deserves to be recognized as expressly demonstrative of the oeuvre of a very important artist. Xu Bing stands among the most celebrated contemporary Chinese artists; he is already studied in art history classes at many universities. Monkeys is very much in conversation with some of his other best-known works and considers many of the same ideas. In fact, another of Xu’s famous pieces, The Living Word, was also part of his 2001 exhibition at the Freer|Sackler.
Monkeys Grasp for the Moon and The Living Word, like Xu’s other works, are inspired by the relationship between meaning and words. The result is a body of work in which the artist considers worldly issues and culture and manipulates language to subvert meaning, to turn expectations on their head, and to change human perception. In Monkeys, his use of words as sculptural forms challenges the viewer to delve deeper for meaning, to analyze, to not accept the fable at face value. When this happens, each “monkey” becomes a microcosm of a culture, and the chain becomes symbolic of an ideal world. This comes full circle to feed back into the lesson of the illusionistic and fleeting nature of dreams.
In The Living Word, pictured above in its 2011 installation at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, Xu also created a piece that considers the relationship between the written word and its physical meaning. He wrote the definition of the word niao (“bird” in Chinese) on the floor. Gradually, the niao characters morph between types of Chinese text—from Mao’s simplified text to standard Chinese and then to the ancient Chinese pictograph that means “bird.” Simultaneously, the characters move forward and lift off the floor and up to the sky. They look like birds in flight. They are literally breaking free of the literal definition of the word as they move backward on the timeline of language. Xu said that the words are “escaping the confines of human written definition . . . the birds soar, careless of the words with which humans seek to define them.”
When considered against Xu’s overall body of works, Monkeys Grasp for the Moon takes on another dimension. Its meaning becomes even more dynamic and layered. The Freer|Sackler is lucky to have such a work among its collection, and even more so, to have it permanently installed where visitors encounter it every day. And visitors are lucky to have such a work, by such a famous artist, to admire up close as they move throughout the museum.