Most Chinese calligraphers treasure the unique continuity of the ancient Chinese language, but calligrapher and artist Xu Bing (徐冰) fearlessly dismantles it and makes an art of rearranging the pieces. Xu Bing gained international acclaim for his radical 1988 exhibit, Tianshu (Book From the Sky), and since has continued to produce linguistically ambitious art projects aimed at redefining the possibilities of language.
Book From the Sky (1988)
For Xu Bing’s Book From the Sky exhibit, he painstakingly carved thousands of invented words into wooden blocks and used moveable type, a historical printing system first applied in the Song Dynasty, to fill ancient-styled books and scrolls with these new and unreadable characters. At a time when artists tended to be cautious about the content of their work in light of restrictions on free expression, Xu Bing’s bold display of meaningless characters in such a culturally venerated framework challenged conventional perceptions of language and authority. This perhaps explains why his work became controversial in the wake of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, which led to his subsequent relocation to the United States in 1990. In a broader sense, Book From the Sky raised questions about the practicality of a language mechanically handed down over millennia, and established Xu Bing’s distinctive engagement with Chinese as a living, touchable language.
Square Word Calligraphy (1997)
Currently on display at New York’s Katonah Museum of Art, Xu Bing’s Square Word Calligraphy exhibit is reminiscent of his 1988 project in that all of the characters appear to be Chinese, but are in fact unintelligible in Chinese. Upon closer observation, English letters begin to take shape, and the seemingly obscure characters unravel into square-shaped English words. “I just put the two totally different writing systems together,” Xu Bing explains. For those Westerners overwhelmed by the sheer foreignness of characters, reading Xu Bing’s “square word” calligraphy opens the doors to this ancient language and art form. A rendition of Robert Frost’s poem, “After Apple-Picking,” is among Xu Bing’s many charming examples of his own kind of “Chinglish.”
In fact, Xu Bing’s cleverly designed writing system resembles Chinese in more than just appearance. Every student of Chinese language questions at some point or other the value of memorizing the rules of stroke order—after all, can the teacher really tell if your stroke order was backwards or upside down? Chinese calligraphers, on the other hand, never doubt its significance. Writing with a calligraphy brush is much more revealing than writing with a pen, and the beginnings and ends of each stroke are crucial criteria for judging the artistic value of Chinese calligraphy. Xu Bing incorporates stroke order rules in his “square word” lettering system, so that if you know those rules of writing left before right, top before bottom, and outside before inside, you have a method of unfolding his characters much faster. Or, you can just read the captions.
Maintaining artistic principles
In addition to stroke order, Xu Bing follows other artistic criteria in his Square Word Calligraphy exhibit. In the process of visually splicing two seemingly incompatible languages, Xu Bing consistently adheres to certain linguistic principles that make his unconventional calligraphy something still capable of being judged by conventional Chinese artistic standards. The characters are balanced and evenly spaced, the strokes stable but not static, and his content is remarkably thought-provoking.
Still, something is undeniably lost in the simplification of Chinese into a system of letters. Xu Bing sacrifices the unique pictographic and ideographic elements of Chinese calligraphy that enrich the language with artistic dimensions impossible in Western calligraphy. But when asked if Chinese are insulted by this restructuring of Chinese into English, he has replied, “To the contrary, Chinese people should praise me for having restructured English into Chinese.”
Xu Bing also abandons the typically treasured solidarity with Chinese calligraphers of past generations. Because Chinese characters have not changed much over time, and calligraphers often try their hand at older forms of the language, writing Chinese can evoke a sense of timelessness. Much like actors revive Shakespeare plays through each performance, Chinese calligraphers appreciate retracing the steps of ancient practitioners. Xu’s language does, however, build a different kind of solidarity with a new, living audience of Westerners by disarming their perceptions of foreignness.
Book From the Ground (2012)
Just this past April, Xu Bing published a new book, Book from the Ground, along with a supplementary art exhibit at the Shanghai Gallery of Art. Book from the Ground is an experiment in creating a form of communication from the ground up through a “language of icons,” a longtime fascination for Xu Bing because it provides a way of evading all language barriers. These modern hieroglyphs consist of symbols common to the contemporary human experience, and are intended to be intelligible to a global audience. Additionally, “Book from the Ground” neatly complements his 1988 “Book from the Sky.” This time, instead of a universally unintelligible system of writing, Xu Bing has invented a universally intelligible one. “Regardless of cultural background,” explains Xu, “one should be able to understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life.”
One of Xu Bing’s Square Word Calligraphy displays is a translation of Mao’s famous slogan, “Art for the People,” and that message speaks to Xu’s larger mission of bringing people together through language. Xu Bing uses art not merely to create a bridge between languages, but rather as a means of eliminating the need for a bridge altogether.