René BalcerXu Bing


René Balcer, Xu Bing




Edition Size



Offset print




Artist Book


11.5 × 13 in

Backbone is a book project created by Xu Bing in collaboration with his friend René Balcer.

While browsing the archives of the Valentine Richmond History Center, a museum dedicated to the history of the greater Richmond area, Xu Bing became fascinated with a collection of historical stencils that were used to print tobacco brand names on boxes and crates. The romantic and suggestive nature of the brand names— DEW DROP, OH MY, VIRTUE, BLACK SATIN, QUEEN OF THE EAST, etc.— led Xu Bing and Balcer to conceive of a work that would be a poem dedicated to the African-American women who worked tirelessly in the tobacco processing industry.

Xu Bing’s interest in language, coupled with Balcer’s background as a writer (he has been a writer and producer for television’s Law & Order, in addition to other television and film projects) proved to be a fruitful combination, leading to the creation of a piece of concrete poetry that has the rhythm and cadence of a traditional blues song.

Indeed, this resemblance led Balcer to recruit Captain Luke Theyer and Big Ron Hunter, blues musicians from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to record a song using the words from the piece.

Xu Bing’s and Balcer’s unusual interrogation of history and material culture led to the creation of these genre-bending works that profoundly reveal underlying truths about the history of tobacco production in the American South.

Offset printing on cigarette paper with screen-printed cover
Fabrication assisted by Sayaka Suzuki and Xu Bing’s Beijing Studio

A sound recording of the poem, performed by Captain Luke (vocals) and Big Ron Hunter (guitar), is available on iTunes.