Book From the Sky to Book From the Ground (從天書到地書) is many things: It’s a book launch and a contest that anyone from anywhere in the world can enter. It presents a narrative thread that shows how technology can be used to manipulate our ideas about language. More than anything else, though, the retrospective of works by Xu Bing (徐冰), a renowned Chinese avant-garde and conceptual artist, impressively contextualizes the evolution of his ideas about language and culture.
The exhibition, currently on display at Eslite Gallery (誠品畫廊), brings together two earlier installations, Book From the Sky (天書) and Square Word Calligraphy (新英文書法), as well as his recent Book From the Ground (地書), a novel and interactive computer installation.
Born in 1955 into a family of intellectuals — his mother was a library administrator and his father chaired the history department at Beijing University — Xu’s early ideas about the uses (and abuses) of language and its relation to experience were informed by the volatile period leading up to and during the Cultural Revolution. It was a time when his parents were persecuted and Xu, who demonstrated an early facility with writing, was forced to use his literary talents to make propaganda posters similar to those that had condemned his father.
“At that time you really felt the power of words,” he told Claire Liu in a profile of the artist for Print, a US magazine about contemporary visual culture. “If you wanted to kill somebody, you did it not by gun but by brush.”
Yet the genesis of Book From the Sky is not only to be found in this destructive cultural milieu. As art critic Alice Yang wrote in Xu Bing: Rewriting Culture, he also looks to the past to address “the tangled legacy of his cultural heritage,” while reflecting on the critical introspection and cultural fever that infected Chinese literary and artistic society in the decade following the Cultural Revolution.
What: Book From the Sky to Book From the Ground (從天書到地書)
Where: Eslite Gallery (誠品畫廊), 5F, 11 Songgao Rd, Taipei City (台北市松高路11號5樓), tel: (02) 8789-3388 X1588
When: Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 11am to 7pm. Until April 1
On the Net: www.eslitegallery.com
The installation is patterned after Song Dynasty calligraphy. Xu spent four years hand-carving some 4,000 faux-Chinese characters (the number of characters in frequent use) from wooden blocks, which he then typeset and printed onto large sheets of paper that were mounted into books or onto scrolls. We are presented with pictograms that are familiar, yet strange, apparently Chinese, yet rendered in a meaningless language that is meant to break the “cognitive structures of the mind,” as Xu calls the habitual ways of thinking that have resulted in so much bloodshed in his homeland.
Those who read Chinese uniformly perceive a meaningless text, while those unable to read Chinese see it as a cultural document not dissimilar from what we might find exhibited at the National Palace Museum. Readers and non-readers of Chinese equally share in the experience of being able to perceive a language — though one whose meaning they are estranged from. In so doing, Book From the Sky compels the viewer to reconsider cherished assumptions about language and unquestioned traditions.
Similar to Book From the Sky, Square Word Calligraphy takes the form of traditional texts and mounted scrolls. It was created after Xu moved to the US in 1991, and presents English with Chinese pictorial elements.
For Xu, Book From the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy are the same because they “have different effects on people from different cultures, but the entry point is essentially the same. In both, the invented characters have a sort of equalizing effect: they are playing a joke on everybody, but at the same time they do not condescend to anybody,” he said in an interview with Sculpture magazine.