Although the use of Chinese language in art work is prevalent in much contemporary art, the Chinese language is worth more and more focus and attention at this moment. To most westerns, Chinese language is usually regarded as “exotic” because of its complexity and its totally different internal structure against western letters. Language differences and diverse understanding structure of culture are still main gaps between Asian and Western art world. Xu Bing, as a Chinese-born artist who lived in the United States for a long time, always had a strange relationship to words and books, has been trying to build bridges and connect the east and the west, creating a series of art works and characters in terms of Chinese characters and English letters. This article will first make a brief description of Xu Bing, and then analyzing his three most famous works and installations, Tian shu (Book from the sky), Square Word Calligraphy, and Di Shu (Book from the Ground) to explore his art world and his comprehension of the world.
Xu Bing is a Chinese-born artist who is widely regarded as one of the most recognized modern Chinese artists in West culture, having won numerous prestigious awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship—considered to be the Nobel Prize of the America at world. He is mostly known for his printmaking skills and installation pieces, as well as his creative artistic use of language, words, text, and how they have affected our understanding of the world.
In his article To Frighten Heaven and Earth and Make the Spirit Cry, Xu wrote about his family background, “My father worked in the Beijing University History Department, My mother in the Department of Library Sciences. I am familiar with all types of books because I grew up surrounded by the books from my parents’ work.” (Xu Bing, 1998) Taking advantages from his parents’ work-related access, he can easily access to all kinds of books from every culture. And after his whole life that exposed to books, he became to have strong and special feelings and sensitive outlooks toward books. When Xu was young, he regarded books as strangers since he was not able to read them, and when the time went by, though he was capable of reading characters, he was even more muddled and lost. “I was like a starving person who all at once has too much to eat, and winds up so uncomfortable that he is filled with disgust.” Books, which became to be his mainly interest afterwards, has always been something that make him feel both unacquainted and conversant simultaneously, and he started the idea to make a book of his own that would explain the world.
Xu Bing was born in 1955, he experienced the tumultuous years of Chinese Culture Revolution, New Culture Movement in 1980s, and 1990s’ American Immigration Flow and had lived in the United States for a long time, which can all be found in his creations and inventions, especially in his works of books. When we are appreciating Xu Bing’s works of books, we can see that he usually created his books and installations, complying with his unique calligraphy and characters of regional history and culture, to manifest the propagation role books play in every specific civilization.
The Language of Xu BIng, Photo of Xu Bing’s exhibition, Source: Xu Bing Studio
The Chinese language is a performance of culture. Use Chinese cultural elements to address global issues, to participate in global cultural debates is a positive development. Part of the international success of Book from the Sky has come precisely from the fact that it embodies a particularly Chinese approach to culture.
Although the use of language is prevalent in much contemporary art, the appearance of Chinese Characters and Chinese language at historic moment is worthy of particular focus and attention. In the west, where the Chinese language is so often taken as a sign of the exotic, the methods which many Chinese artists are using can sometimes get confused and lost. In Xu Bing’s art work, he wants to find the balance between familiarity and strange, he wants to find the equal point from words and in words. Xu’s inspiration for universal signs can be found in nearly all his works related to books and words: Everybody is equal in their approach to two books, as one is unreadable while the other one is understandable.
To Xu Bing, books and words reflects his unique life experience and Chinese culture that he represented. What form do books and characters appear in his art work? How Xu Bing show his experience and culture concept and understanding through these works?
Tian shu (“Book from the Sky”)
“……when visitors first entered the space, they thought that the words they saw were words they could read. However, when they actually tried to read the words, they couldn’t. they thought that some of the words are wrong. Then they realized that all of the words were wrong. Their expected response was disrupted.”
Book from the Sky, 1987-91. Hand-printed books, ceiling and wall scrolls, and false character blocks, installation view. Source: Xu Bing Studio website.
The mammoth Book From the Sky installation, originally consisting of several 80-foot-scrolls that swag across a gallery ceiling, a wall covered with contemporary Chinese newspapers and a floor filled with traditional hand-bound books. Its deployment of 4000 hand-carved though meaningless characters resembling Chinese characters that Xu created and carved over a period of several years. After its first showing in Beijng, China in October 1988, Tian shu (Book form the Sky) has since gone to the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Italy and etc.. It is probably the most famous work of Chinese contemporary art in the West at this moment. Throughout these years, these created characters have attracted more and more attention and stirred discussion and speculation over their meaning.
Tian shu, in Chinese, literally means “heavenly words” and those words and phrases people are not able to understand. For this well-established and even overwhelmed installation, non-Chinese viewers can be no doubt guided through the strange geography of ‘heavenly’ signs because of the reading issues. To those viewers who know nothing about Chinese language and characters would consider those words are unmistakably drawn from Chinese traditional culture and literary form, however, these carved words are also strange to local Chinese.
“Strictly speaking, Book from the Sky doesn’t have any connection with text, since there is no ‘real’ text, even though it takes the form of books and the appearance of ‘words’.”, Xu Bing said about the ‘words’. These characters are devoid of any kind of personality and thus have no concrete implication or emotional significance. While different from foreign viewers who would directly and suddenly feel strange to these characters, those audiences who mastered Chinese language would sense the similarity and feel intimacy, while the upcoming unfamiliarity would trigger feelings of simulation and then become uncomfortable. Furthermore, Chinese characters was created and experienced evolution over a period of 5000 years, the unfamiliarity may somehow remind these local viewers of ancient Chinese Characters.
Original carved printing plate form and scanned version of one page of books of Book from the Sky, Source: Xu Bing Studio website.
Xu Bing’s work speaks powerfully to me and it does do, to one who was brought up on Chinese classics and Western semiotics. These ‘nonsense’ words and characters are not invented groundlessly, the very first thing to consider is the format and architecture of the characters, they look as much like Chinese Characters as possible and meanwhile cannot be one. They make no sense themselves and unreadable, while strictly follow internal structural morphology.
According to Xu, Book From the Sky was originally created to express his feelings about popular culture at that time. It has different effects on people from different cultures, but the entry point is essentially the same. From Xu’s perspective, the invented characters have a sort of equaling effect, “they are playing joke on everybody, but at the same time they do not condescend to anybody”. There’s no one on earth can read and comprehend these characters, including Xu Bing himself. In Book from the Sky, what Xu wanted to create is a huge, empty space free of meaning and content, without giving people any hint of specificity.
New English Calligraphy
“Turning the written English language upside-down is fascinating for English-reading viewers”
Letters separation of Square Word Calligraphy, Source: Xu Bing Studio website.
Square Word Calligraphy, Art for the People, MoMA, 1999, Source: Xu BIng Studio website.
From the thorough value denial of language to the earnest search for a trans-cultural communication tool, language has always been at the core of Xu’s artistic works. After he moved to America in 1990, though the fresh environment and different styles of living started to flow into his sight, he never changed his passion towards words. Facing English everyday, he was always trying to figure out the relationship and integrating point between English letters and Chinese characters.
Xu Bing’s creative manipulation of language worked, another specific language created by him. In the mid-1990s, Xu invented what he calls “Square Word Calligraphy.” He used his printing and calligraphy background and arranged English letters in squares to make the words look like Chinese characters, yet they remain legible to the English speaker.
Square Word Calligraphy takes a visual turn on translanguaging by inventing a hybrid calligraphy that incorporates English words into the orthographic frame of Chinese. By physically tracing the alphabet through the character, viewers would gain an embodied translingual experience, which encompasses an intercultural imaginary negotiating and transcending the English-Chinese divide.
As for Square Word Calligraphy, Chinese viewers can recognize the characters as familiar shapes but can’t figure out exactly what they mean. To a non-Chinese viewer, they first appear as mysterious characters from Asian culture, yet ultimately they can be read and understood.
Square Word Calligraphy classroom installation, source: Xu Bing Studio website
Except for doing exhibitions and making design signs and logos for some organizations in the United States and abroad using Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy, he has turned gallery and museum spaces into classroom settings where visitors can learn how to write Square Word Calligraphy.
The intention of this installation is to simulate a classroom-like setting in a gallery or museum space. Desks are arranged with small containers of ink, brushes and a copybook with instructions on the basic principles of ”Square Word Calligraphy,”, just like traditional Chinese classrooms. A video titled ”Elementary Square-Word Calligraphy Instruction,” was played on a monitor in the exhibition space, capturing the audience’s attention and inviting them to participate in the class. Once they are seated at the desks, the audience are instructed to take up their brushes and the lesson in New English Calligraphy begins.
While undergoing this process of estrangement and re-familiarization with one’s written language, the audience is reminded that the sensation of distance between other systems of language and one’s own is largely self-induced, and no matter where the audience is from, they are all the same.
Di Shu (Book from the Ground)
“As long as the reader has experience of contemporary life, this script will be effective…… The script in Book from the Ground requires no study; rather it has taken shape through widespread popular use. I have not created these symbols, but instead have collected them, symbols already in wide circulation”
Different from Tian shu (Book from the Sky) and Square Word Calligraphy, Di Shu (Book form the ground) was called as the books and works everyone can understand regardless of your own culture and background. Xu borrowed and utilized icons and symbols that he thought were popular used. Xu’s inspiration for this called universal signs was drawn from the ancient Chinese form of pictographs. The modern Chinese written language is based on using pictures for words, and the characters have developed over thousands of years. Xu developed his new language using his keen sense of art, which grasped the real essence of common signs from his everyday life and frequent travels.
In Book From the Ground, Xu tried to develop a new kind of communication system relying on universal symbols, such as the icons and logos that people around the world come across everyday in places such as airports and bathrooms.
“I have a special interest in this work (Book From the Ground)) because it is my most practical work,” Xu told Beijing Review. Everybody can feel the restraints traditional languages place on modern society, Xu said, adding that his intention was to create a way of communication using the simplest, most direct and common signs.
Conclusion: The language of Xu Bing
“No matter what outer form my works take, they are all linked by a common thread, which is to construct some kind of obstacle to people’s habitual ways of thinking—what I call the ‘cognitive structures’ of the mind. These obstacles derive from intentionally mixing up different received concepts to create a sense of estrangement and unfamiliarity.”
In terms of most of Xu Bing’s art works that related to books and characters, by inventing words regarded as ‘nonsense’, even some of them never exist in the human history, those are works that most people cannot read or complete comprehend in a usual way or in a normal way, even including the artist himself. He used and deepen the abstract concept of books and words, and not limited in the format of books and languages. Radically speaking, Xu’s books, even Book from the Ground, are not readable, because those contents are basically too much abstract, isolated, and to some extent, distorted. Xu wants his readers and audience to feel this singularity, the bizarrerie, and most significantly, the conflict with in languages. He intentionally designed his installations, complying with his works in order to force his audience to interactive with his works and experience certain conflict, no matter what background you are.
His work included the relation of language to experience and the nature of writing, however, can culture be transferred and interpreted? And from my perspective, to Xu Bing, culture is a communication platform that pushes the development of human civilization. He utilized books and language as a carrier, to express his personal experience and his understanding of culture propagation. Comprehend Xu’s work from perspective of books, his works are basically grounded in the wisdom of Chinese culture, and meanwhile deepened to the topic of global cultural fusion. The aesthetics of his works are unique and abstract. Analyzing his works, the audience can go deep into the inner concept of books and languages and further experience the essence and culture significance of books.
- Xu Bing’s Personal Website: xubing.com
- Lloyd, Ann Wilson. “Lost and Found.” Xu Bing: Language Lost. Massachusetts: Massachusetts College of Art, 1995. 20-25.
- Yang, Alice, ‘Xu Bing: Rewriting Culture’, in Why Asia? Contemporary Asian and Asian American Artists (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 24-29.
- Danni Shen, Sun Contributor, A Dialogue With Chinese Artist Xu Bing, Taken from The Cornell Daily Sun, 20 October, 2014
- Simon Leung with Janet A. Kaplan, A Conversation with Wenda Gu, Xu Bing and Jonathan Hay, Art Journal, 1999, p86-99
- Kong-King Lee, Translanguaning and Visuality: Translingual practices in literary art, Applied linguistics Review 2015, 6(4): 441-465
- Patrick Mahon, Xu Bing, Ed Pien and Gu Xiong: Lost and Found in Translation, Visible Language 42.1, 28-43
- Adam Jaworski, Metrolingual art: Multilingualism and heteroglossia, International Journal of Bilingualism, 2014, Vol. 18 (2) 134-158
- Xu Bing, The Book of Unknown, MUSE, January 2014, 32-33
- Glenn Harper, A conversation with Xu Bing: Exterior Form and Interior Substance, Sculpture, 22 no1 January/February 2003