John Ravenal, VMFA Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art talks about creating a 40-foot long carpet that uses cigarettes online to depict a tiger skin.

A half-million cheap cigarette online shaped into a 40-by-15 foot carpet depicting the coat of a tiger is being created at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by a Chinese artist fascinated by Virginia's historical connection to tobacco.

The work, being assembled by hand in VMFA's parking deck, is the third installment of Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing's "Tobacco Project," which explores the production and culture of tobacco through the artist's eyes.

"He was interested in Richmond because of its rich connection to tobacco," said John Ravenal, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art. "He was fascinated" with the region's tobacco farms, warehouses and factories, some of which he toured.

"He loves agriculture and industry, and he spent time on a farm himself as a young person as part of (China's) cultural revolution," Ravenal said.

Xu Bing's interest in tobacco extends to the texture of the leaf itself, as well as the "visuals" associated with the product's packaging and advertising, Ravenal said. "A lot of aspects of the exhibition are a celebration of the culture of tobacco," he added.

To gain further inspiration, Xu Bing, who also is vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, conducted research at the Library of Virginia and the Valentine Richmond History Center.

Xu Bing, 56, launched his Tobacco Project more than 10 years ago at Duke University, where he was an artist in residence. From there, he traveled to Shanghai to create the second installment of the trilogy.

He is collaborating with six former graduate students from Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Arts to make the tiger skin carpet and other works, which include a 440-pound block of compressed tobacco embossed with the text, "Light as smoke."

Other items include books of poetry printed on cigarette paper and matchbooks, and a 40-foot-long reproduction of an ancient Chinese landscape painting on a scroll that will have a 40-foot-long cigarette burned down the length of it, Ravenal said.

Xu Bing is using tobacco as a subject and art medium to explore its historical and contemporary impact on human culture and trade. The exhibit will include positive and negative aspects, including Xu Bing's personal connection to a country where 50 percent of the men smoke cigarettes and his father's death of lung cancer at 64.

"He has his own kind of tragic connection," Ravenal said.

The largest piece of the Richmond exhibition will contain 500,000 "1st Class" cigarettes , a discount brand. The museum, through its exhibition budget of privately donated funds, purchased the discount cigarettes – about 35,000 packs – at roughly wholesale price from a source in North Carolina, Ravenal said.

"One of our former trustees comes from a tobacco family, and she has a connection with someone who was high up in the tobacco industry," Ravenal said.

The former VCU grad students assembling the carpet, which should be completed by late August, are gluing "handfuls" of buy cigarette online at a time to the carpet base. The orange-and-white tiger image is being created by the placement of the cheap cigarettes : the filter end is positioned upright for the color orange, the ignited end for the color white.

Xu Bing, who spent two weeks here in February planning and making templates, will return to Richmond several days before the exhibition opens Sept. 10 to "kind of fine-tune the installation," Ravenal said.

Note of the day: Blood see here now.