Virginia’s Slim Pickings for Smokes

Xu Bing, one of China’s best-known contemporary artists, didn’t think it would be hard to get materials for an exhibit about tobacco in a city whose ties to the leaf run long and deep.

His installation opened over the weekend at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It explores the history, culture, and links between the tobacco industries in the U.S. and China. Mr. Xu was optimistic about finding 500,000 cigarettes for a 40-by-15 foot “Tiger Carpet”; a 40-foot-long uncut cigarette to be stretched—and burned—across the length of a reproduction of an ancient Chinese scroll; and 440 pounds of tobacco leaves compressed into a cube, with raised letters reading, “Light as Smoke.”

500,000 cigarettes were used for a 40-by-15 foot Tiger Carpet

500,000 cigarettes were used for a 40-by-15 foot Tiger Carpet

But getting materials wasn’t easy, even in a city so steeped in tobacco it once had an annual festival and Tobacco Bowl. Mr. Xu says the complications he faced reflect the very point of his Tobacco Project: to explore the entangled, contradictory relationship people have with one of the world’s most widely cultivated nonfood crops, an economic engine that the World Health Organization links to the deaths of more than five million people a year.

“There’s both a closeness and a distance,” says Mr. Xu, a 1999 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant who has lived and worked both in the U.S. and China and who currently has an installation in New York made from 9/11 dust.

Altria Group Inc., Richmond-based parent company of Philip Morris USA and a major corporate donor to the VMFA, declined to donate cigarettes or other tobacco materials, according to Mr. Xu and museum staff. Altria has committed more than $1 million through 2013 to sponsor museum exhibits, including a recent successful Picasso show, but “we don’t support every exhibit that comes to the museum,” an Altria spokesman says.

The VMFA spent months searching for a manufacturer to make a long cigarette, a process that involves adjusting equipment to avoid cutting a tube into cigarette lengths. Then the museum faced another problem: The cigarette was made of self-extinguishing paper to conform to fire-safety regulations.

And the curator of Mr. Xu’s “Tobacco Project” had to arrange to have the museum’s heating and air-conditioning system temporarily expel rather than re-circulate air in the building when the long cigarette was burned. Though museum patrons once smoked free cigarettes at exhibit openings, today the museum has a strict no-smoking policy.

“This is definitely one of the most complex projects I’ve worked on,” says John Ravenal, the VMFA’S curator of modern and contemporary art.

Things were somewhat easier for Mr. Xu when he launched his Tobacco Project at Duke University a decade ago. For that exhibit, inspired in part by the Duke family’s prominent role in building a cigarette market in China, a tobacco museum manager connected him with representatives of the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., who gave him flattened cigarette packages and long rolls of narrow cigarette paper, recalls Stanley Abe, a historian of Chinese art at Duke who helped Mr. Xu assemble the exhibit.

Santa Fe Natural Tobacco was privately held then but is now owned by Reynolds American Inc. The Santa Fe company’s “longstanding practice has been to not provide packaging or advertising materials to consumers or members of the public,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

Mr. Xu faced more challenges when he mounted a second installation of the Tobacco Project in Shanghai in 2004. The Chinese government tightly regulates distribution of cigarettes, but Mr. Xu finally got cigarettes that had passed their “use by” date from a distributor.

Included in Mr. Xu’s VMFA exhibit are a live tobacco plant, trading cards with historical advertisements celebrating American and Chinese tobacco brands, and cigarettes imprinted with quotations from Mao Zedong. The installation also features handwritten medical records detailing the final days of Mr. Xu’s father, a smoker who died in 1989 of lung cancer.

The Tiger Carpet’s pattern is created by the orange filters and white columns of cigarettes stood up on end. It’s both a symbol of luxury and colonial conquest in Southeast Asia, Mr. Xu says. “Usually when you see photos of British colonists, a tiger-skin carpet is laid out in front of them, and they’re flanked on either side by natives,” he says.

To buy the half-million cigarettes for the carpet, the VMFA turned to a retired tobacco executive and family friend of Carolyn Hsu-Balcer, a former museum trustee who lured Mr. Xu to the museum. The friend, Marvin Coghill, worked his contacts to negotiate the discount purchase of a brand called 1st Class. He took pains to assure the manufacturer, a unit of Raleigh, N.C.-based U.S. Tobacco Cooperative Inc., that the museum would pay state tax. “I convinced them it wasn’t someone buying and reselling cigarettes,” Mr. Coghill says.

Contacts of Mr. Coghill’s also churned out and donated the 40-foot long cigarette. But it was made with self-extinguishing paper, and Mr. Xu wasn’t sure it would burn well alone. So he burned a nonextinguishing version that he found in China.

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