Art Here and Now
Daring creativity happening now around the world
Xu Bing, Books and Language

I’ve been trying to learn Japanese this year. I’m making progress but it’s definitely slow. While I took Spanish in high school, my brain didn’t shift the way it is now. As I started to write and learn these brand new characters, I started noticing all the things I take for granted, all the built in assumptions that come from the structure and vocabulary of my native language. The way your language is shaped influences the way your ideas are shaped. Learning a language very different from your own makes you deconstruct what things mean. Not just what words mean, but the ideas behind the words. For instance, the belief in the void or emptiness in early India, combined with the structure of their language, likely led to the creation of the number zero.

I recently saw an exhibit of work by Xu Bing, a Chinese artist who wrote about a similar experience.

I didn’t come to America until I was 35. While my mind was already fully developed, my English level was still that of a child. This awkward feeling that came from my experience of cultural and linguistic miscommunication turned my interest towards symbols, language and communication.

His artwork often revolves around language and books, what forms they take and what they mean to a culture. The seeds for this artistic direction started as a child. His parents were librarians during the Cultural Revolution.

When the Cultural Revolution ended, I returned from the countryside to the city. I took advantage of my parent’s work-related access to the library, and read all kinds of books from the stacks enormous holdings… 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.

Some of his work includes:

  • A Case Study of Transference – Two pigs in a pen littered with books, one female covered in fake Chinese characters, and one male covered in fake latin alphabet characters, mate in front of an invited “intellectual audience.”
  • Silkworm Series I – IV – Moths lay small black silkworm eggs onto open books. The eggs form the appearance of a Braille-like language. Shortly after the exhibit opens, the eggs hatch, and the small black worms wriggle over the pages, forming the appearance of ink lines and squiggles, a second incomprehensible language.
  • The Parrot – A parrot shouts learned phrases to the gallery visitors, such as “You people are so boring!”, “Modern art is crap!” and “Why are you holding me prisoner, you bastards!”

In Xu Bing’s most recent work, Book from the Ground, he is compiling a universal language created from existing international icons. The first icons came from airplane safety cards and airports, and later came from street signs, other safety instructions, advertising and other sources. The icons are chosen for their universality, and require almost no learning curve from most people who read them. His plan is to create a multilingual dictionary and software of these words (for universal translation) and to publish a novel written in this icon language.

Now when asked about the meaning of his work, he often simply points to the Chinese legend of the origin of writing, contained in the Huainanzi. In the story, when Cang Jie invents Cangjie, the God of Heaven is so afraid that grain falls from the sky and ghosts begin to wale.

Those whose culture embraces Chinese characters (i.e. people in Greater China, Korea, and Japan) have such respect for shu and consider it so sacred, that they believe it capable of effecting change in the natural order of things.

The artist’s web sites have many great insights into language, culture and art.
Xu Bing Dot Com (the artist’s web site)
Book from the Ground (project web site)
Xu Bing’s blog

Books by or about Xu Bing

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posted by Trout Monfalco