Born in Chongqing in 1955, Xu grew up in Beijing. In 1975, near the end of the Cultural Revolution, he was relocated to the countryside for two years. In 1977, he enrolled at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, receiving an MFA in 1987. In 1990 he moved to the United States, where he lives today.
In 1990-91, Xu had his first exhibition in the United States at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Elvehjem Museum of Art including his installations '''' and ''Ghosts Pounding the Wall''. In ''Book from the Sky'', the artist invented 4000 characters and hand-carved them into wood blocks, then used them as movable type to print volumes and scrolls, which are displayed laid out on the floor and hung from the ceiling. The vast planes of text seem to convey ancient wisdom, but are in fact unintelligible. ''The Glassy Surface of a Lake'', a site-specific installation for the Elvehjem, was on view in 2004-05. In this work, a net of cast aluminum letters forming a passage from Henry David Thoreau's Walden stretches across the museum's atrium and pours down into an illegible pile of letters on the floor below.
Working in a wide range of media, Xu creates installations that question the idea of communicating meaning through language, demonstrating how both meanings and written words can be easily manipulated. He received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award in July 1999, presented to him for "originality, creativity, self-direction, and capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy."
In 2003 he exhibited at the then new Chinese Arts centre in Manchester, and in 2004 he won the inaugural "Artes Mundi" prize in Wales for ''Where does the dust collect itself?'', an installation using dust he collected in New York on the day after the destruction of the World Trade Center.
Partial List of Works
* ''Lanman Shanhua Magazine''
* ''A Book from the Sky''
* ''Ghosts Pounding the Wall''
* ''Post Testament''
* ''Introduction to Square-Word Calligraphy''
* ''Oxford Dictionary: Bird Definition''
* ''Silkworm Book''
* ''Lost Letters''
* ''Landscript Postcards''
* ''Red Book ''
* ''Book from the Ground''