Xu Bing's Babel
By Leslie vonHolten
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
No kidding: contemporary art is an opaque language. What a relief when, literally, the work is unreadable.
In the late 1980s, Xu Bing crafted, with amazing precision and scope, 4000 “Chinese” characters according to traditional printing methods. To the untrained eye, the character strokes are the graphic, lyrical style we associate with Chinese calligraphy. They are, however, illegible and meaningless. Xu invented, carved, and printed all 4000 characters himself.
“Book from the Sky to Book from the Ground: Xu Bing’s Book Work” is currently on view at the Spencer Museum of Art through April 29. The exhibit is in conjunction with the Lifetime Achievement Award granted to Xu as part of the Southern Graphics Council Conference recently held in Kansas City. Xu will lecture on his work Thursday, April 26 at 7 p.m. at the Spencer.
Xu, the son of a librarian, had an intimate relationship with words while growing up, a privilege not common during China’s Cultural Revolution. At the time, Mao’s government was wrestling with words: characters were simplified, discarded, revived, revised, then discarded again. People were not allowed to read what they wanted. This cultural affront, Xu has noted, combined with his voracious appetite for reading led to confusion over the meaning of language: “The more I read, the more muddled my thinking became, until I felt as if something had become lost to me.”
Xu’s ambitious printing of the semantically empty 4000 characters culminated in the installation “A Book from the Sky” (pictured above), which was first seen in Beijing in 1988. It created a sensation, but he lost favor with members of the Chinese Communist government, who criticized him as a “bourgeois liberal.” He emigrated to the United States in 1990. Samples of the printed scrolls, as well as the hand-carved, pear-wood type and traditional printing tools, are on display at the Spencer.
Acclimating to a new language inspired Xu’s “Introduction to Square-Word Calligraphy,” in which he devised a Roman alphabet and English words in the manner of Chinese calligraphy. By applying quick but careful study of these words, English-speaking viewers can easily make out the letters in each character word, demystifying the process of such a graphic writing system.
Bringing his art off the page, Xu expanded his “Square-Word Calligraphy” with his installation “Living Word 2.” In this, Xu beautifully rendered Oxford English Dictionary definitions and shaped them from Roman to Square-Word type styles, and eventually a graphic image of the form itself. In other words, one can see “bird” shape into a Chinese-appearing character and then transform again to a drawing of a bird taking flight. In the installation, the paper birds then broke free, ascending toward the ceiling.
Today, Xu is working on his “Book from the Ground,” what he says is a “novel written in a ‘language of icons.’” He uses pictographic forms found on airline safety cards to create a narrative that could possibly be readable to everyone on the planet, a language with a very small learning curve involved.
It’s interesting that Xu’s work is evolving from nonsense and tradition to new, readable, almost democratic forms. One may cringe to think that a universal language can burst forth from commercial icons, but perhaps this dynamic to the “Book from the Ground” will eventually attain a statement on capitalism’s vast sweep of the planet.
In 1999, Xu was awarded a MacArthur genius grant, for good reason: his prolific body of work reaches beyond his deconstruction and manipulation of writing systems. He has worked with glass, silkworms, Braille, stamps, installation, tutorials, computer programs, among other mediums. The Spencer sampling of artworks shows Xu’s adept hand and ability to stand firm in tradition while at the same time pioneering the art world forward in repeatedly progressive, contemporary, and accessible moves.
The Spencer curation and installation are an interesting turn: whereas Xu’s art may set the form upfront, asserting function as irrelevant, the Spencer show is a function-heavy tour of the artist’s illustrative career. The exhibit—crowded, hidden, and quiet, but also honest and educational—lacks the poetry of Xu’s installations and the magnitude of his mind-bending exercises. One could bemoan the tiny scale, but when it comes to art of this caliber, gratitude for its stay in Lawrence is more appropriate.