Monkeys Grasp for the Moon Sculpture

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon Sculpture; (Artist) Xu Bing; S2004.2.1-21

A Closer Look: Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

Gallery with Monkeys hanging through center of Sackler.
Artist Xu Bing

The first installation I saw when I stepped through the doors of the Freer|Sackler to start my summer internship was Xu Bing’s Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. The piece is both daunting and intriguing, drawing visitors in for a closer look.

Artist Xu Bing


As someone who loves stories, I was fascinated by the idea behind the artwork. The sculpture is based on a Chinese folktale of monkeys who try to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from the branch of a tree to the moon, only to discover that it is a shimmering reflection on the surface of a pool beneath them.

At first the sculpture appears to be a chain of black lines and shapes, but there is more than originally meets the eye. Monkeys Grasp for the Moon is an installation of word shapes. Twenty-one laminated wood pieces represent the word “monkey” in a dozen languages and writing systems, including English, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Braille.


Artist Xu Bing

The words themselves also resemble monkeys, stretched at beginning and end to form long tails and arms. They link together in a large chain that extends down three levels. Perhaps this is why I like the piece so much: wherever you are in the Sackler, you’re never far from the sculpture. It serves as a constant reminder of the way in which art can be displayed effectively in an unusual space.

Artist Xu Bing

I got to know the piece in an even more personal way when I helped create an Instagram story that revolved around Monkeys Grasp for the Moon. This involved planning out a storyboard to decide what text and images would be shown, getting our ideas approved, and then going out into the museum to shoot the sculpture. Getting up close meant I really got to look at the sculpture, picking out the different languages I knew and reading about those that I didn’t.

Artist Xu Bing

The installation will be on permanent display once the Freer|Sackler reopens this fall. Join us on reopening weekend, which kicks off at 5 pm on Saturday, October 14, to visit Monkeys and marvel at its spellbinding design.

Savannah Jelks

Savannah Jelks is a rising sophomore at Union College and an Alexandria, Virginia, native. During Summer 2017, she was an intern with communications and social media, contributing to the Bento blog and Instagram stories. With a major in history and a minor in studio arts, Savannah is excited to have learned how these two subjects interact in a museum setting, especially at the Freer|Sackler. Her hobbies include playing tennis, dancing bhangra, reading anytime and anywhere, and geeking out over British history.

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  • Very cool!! As a traditional, perhaps one level minded artist due to the nature of decades of fast production work, this art fascinates me. The words DO look like monkeys. Who would think that would work? Ha. I want to think like them. Maybe it was accidental a word on paper, that, with a click glance one day, it resembled a primate. 😁 Amazing brains all over the world. Thank you for sharing this from your trip, appreciated. 🌸🍫

  • Oh wow! This place is not far for me. I never heard about it before. Huge building supported by the Smithsonian. I just bookmarked it to review. Thank you for the discovery! 👍🏼🍫

  • The art fixture reminds me of a classic game called, “A Barrel of Monkeys”, where you must link all the monkeys off a surface without dropping any. Wonder if this game originated with the Chinese peoples.

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