The Idiosyncrasies of Language — Xu Bing: Thought and Method

Portrait of Xu Bing. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.
Xu Bing – Book from the Sky, 1987 – 1991, mixed media installation, single-volume wooden movable type print, 46 x 30 x 2.75 cm (closed) per volume. Installation view at the exhibition of Xu Bing: Thought and Method at Museum MACAN, Jakarta. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.
Xu Bing – Book from the Ground Studio, 2003 – 2018, mixed media, software, digital print on paper, variable dimensions. Installation view at the exhibition of Xu Bing: Thought and Method at Museum MACAN, Jakarta. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.
Xu Bing – Honor and Splendor, 2004, 660,000 cigarettes, spray adhesive, cardboard, approx. 900 x 700 cm. Installation view at the exhibition of Xu Bing: Thought and Method at Museum MACAN, Jakarta. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.
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CoBo Social Chinese Abstraction Series

On view at Musuem MACAN in Jakarta until mid-January 2020 is a major retrospective of renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing, whose invention of a new calligraphic language based on Chinese and English has made him a global phenomenon. “Thought and Method”, produced in collaboration with Beijing’s UCCA, presents over 60 works spanning more than four decades of his practice.

TEXT: Carla Bianpoen
IMAGES: Courtesy of Museum MACAN

Portrait of Xu Bing. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.

 

At a time when sociopolitical turbulence and globally dominating forces of power continue to impinge on human lives, and human rights issues are rife with questions of border security, and violence against humanity, the monumental installation by famed Chinese artist Xu Bing, titled Book from the Sky (1987–1991) presents a poignant comment on the state of the world. It is fascinating how Xu delves deep into Chinese tradition, borrowing its aesthetics to offer critique on the fallacy of make-believe tactics. What appears to be a scroll of Chinese characters has been deceptively rendered illegible and meaningless; only superficially resembling the ancient language.

Central to the exhibition is Book from the Sky, a mixed media installation that evokes a strong sense of drama and foreboding, a feeling that permeates through Xu’s artistic practice. Some 4000 nonsensical pseudo Chinese characters mimicking authentic Chinese characters are meticulously written by the artist onto huge scrolls that loom downward from the ceiling. With further scrolls covering the side walls and books laid on the ground, the installation instils the calm of a sanctuary while hinting at some hidden dark emotions. One of China’s foremost artists, Xu experienced firsthand the changing role of language during the Cultural Revolution and the subsequent simplification of the Chinese language that was enforced. Xu was still a youth when he was sent to the countryside in China where he was forced to abandon traditional Chinese characters for the new language, and partake in creating state propaganda banners with the simplified characters. His experience with the shifting role of language that was utilized as tools for propaganda was traumatic and palpable and can be felt throughout the retrospective.

 

Xu Bing – Book from the Sky, 1987 – 1991, mixed media installation, single-volume wooden movable type print, 46 x 30 x 2.75 cm (closed) per volume. Installation view at the exhibition of Xu Bing: Thought and Method at Museum MACAN, Jakarta. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.

 

While Book from the Sky looked at the erasure of language in recent history and its subsequent impact, Xu’s mixed media installation Book from the Ground Studio (2003–2019) is a direct reference to present day life and the generation of new linguistics. A walk-in space mimicking an open office or studio, we see desktop computers, chairs, books lining the table and an array of notes, sketches, road signs and more on the back walls. Very quickly we come to recognize the notes are composed entirely of popular symbols and icons, as is everything else in the room. Such iconography has become a universal language of sorts, in the same way that the use of emojis—a product of the smartphone era—has proliferated globally.

 

Xu Bing – Book from the Ground Studio, 2003 – 2018, mixed media, software, digital print on paper, variable dimensions. Installation view at the exhibition of Xu Bing: Thought and Method at Museum MACAN, Jakarta. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.

 

The idea came to Xu when he noted how increasingly the use of such pictorial symbols was replacing the written language. Xu speaks of how he started noting the habit of using pictograms at airports during his many travels. Particularly remarkable to notice is how airports adopt signs featuring images as well as words, including the flight safety cards using diagrams to explain emergency procedures to travelers from any country. But it was the bubblegum wrapper he found that convinced him. On a series of three images connected by two arrows, the consumer was to put the gum back into the wrapper after chewing and throw it in the trash bin.

Taking his preoccupation with the popular and contemporary sign language further, Xu made a software containing a database of characters based on the book. Programmed with English and Chinese, the software can translate words from either language into Xu’s lexicon of symbols and icons. Computers installed in the exhibition allowed visitors to put in words they wanted to see translated into symbols. With personal computers and the internet being increasingly integrated into daily life, the lexicon of digital icons is growing accordingly, and the symbolic language of Book from the Ground has been further updated, augmented, and complicated.

Language is an enduring theme for Xu, and is explored and interrogated through various mediums throughout the exhibition. While Word Calligraphy (1994–2019) explores the possibilities of a ‘new species’ of calligraphy combining English and Chinese pinyin characters, The Character of Characters (2012) is a playful and poetic work in which the artist expresses his views on the Chinese writing system as fundamental to Chinese culture and its progress toward the future. The same line of inquiry also appears in Square; A Case Study of Transference (1994), a video of a performance piece that shows two pigs—one stamped with false Chinese characters, the other stamped with false English words—mating.

Apart from language, Xu is interested in commentary on social issues, evident in the large-scale installation Honor and Splendour (2004), made up of 660,000 cigarettes intricately composed into the shape of a tiger-print rug. Although the work was first created 15 years ago, the sale and use of tobacco continues to be a pertinent issue, as evident in the recent controversy in Indonesia of a tobacco company’s name appearing on soccer player’s shirts as the team’s primary sponsor.

 

Xu Bing – Honor and Splendor, 2004, 660,000 cigarettes, spray adhesive, cardboard, approx. 900 x 700 cm. Installation view at the exhibition of Xu Bing: Thought and Method at Museum MACAN, Jakarta. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN, Jakarta.

 

Other themes include public surveillance which he tackles in the self-directed film Dragonfly Eyes (2017), based on 10,000 hours of surveillance footage that were streamed online. Similar to the fake Chinese characters in Book from the Sky, Xu again takes to the beauty of traditional painting to tackle contemporary woes such as plastic and the environment. In Background Story (2018) he presents a painting which appears like a traditional Chinese landscape painting, but is in fact made like a work of shadow play, using waste materials touching on environmental issues, like plastic bottles and other trash.

Among the many lessons that can be drawn this timely exhibition is how Xu Bing, as an artist, is delving into the richness of his cultural roots from where he departed to evolve and explore nontraditional mediums to create works for the future. Perhaps speaking of himself and his values, when asked what makes an artist good, he answered, “To be a good artist, one must be a good thinker. If the artist only has a good thought, he can become a great philosopher. But his name will never be recorded in history if he can’t find an artistic way—a method free from normative cultural concepts—to present his idea.”

 

 

Xu Bing: Thought and Method
31 August, 2019 – 12 January, 2020
Museum MACAN, Jakarta

 

 

About the artist

Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, China, in 1955. He graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA) in 1981 and stayed there as a teacher. In 1990, he moved to the United States. Xu currently lives and works in Beijing and New York. In 1999, Xu Bing was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and in 2015, he was awarded the Medal of Arts by the U.S. Department of State’s office of Art in Embassies (AIE). Xu’s artworks have been widely collected by, and exhibited at major art museums and institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the British Museum in London.

 

 


 

Carla Bianpoen has been a freelance journalist for culture and contemporary art since 1989. Her reviews have appeared in such publications as The Jakarta Post, The Indonesian Observer, Asian Art News, C-Arts Magazine, Visual Arts Magazine, Harpers Bazaar Art Magazine, Tempo, Jakarta Globe, Esquire Indonesia, and Art Republik.

She co-authored Indonesian Women Artists: The Curtain Opens, and has also written ‘Revealing Sakti’ to introduce Sri Astari Rasjid oeuvre. She was the Artistic Director and Co-curator for the Indonesia National Pavilion, Venice 2013 and 2015. She has been a juror for the Bandung Contemporary Art Awards since 2009. She is a recipient of the Visual Art Magazine’s Award (2011), and the Government of Indonesia’s Contemporary Art Award (2014).

 

 
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