Artist's fascination with text writ large
Xu Bing's fascination with text is clear in retrospective being held in Taipei museum, writes David Frazier
Xu Bing has never been prone to the art-world showmanship of other top Chinese contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei, Cai Guoqiang and Zhang Huan, the men who will one day be remembered as his peers. In his Harry Potter glasses, wavy grey hair, knit scarves and sports coats, Xu looks more the part of the university professor than the aesthete or provocateur.
Yet in the art world of recent years, Xu's star has been rising quickly. The Chongqing native has seen his work exhibited in the Louvre, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and, last month, as part of the first-ever exhibition of contemporary Chinese ink painting, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
If his accession to these grey-stoned, old-guard institutions is not enough to set him apart from most contemporaries, Xu is also the recipient of a "Genius Grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, a sort of de facto nomination as one of the top intellectuals of our time. The first large survey of his work recently opened at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. "Xu Bing: A Retrospective" will be on display until April 20.
The show traces the 59-year-old artist's career from his teenage years to the present day, examining nearly two dozen major series of his works. Stand-outs include a 32-metre-long rubbing of a section of the Great Wall, a book of nonsensical Chinese text so large it fills an entire room, a "tiger skin rug" composed of more than 500,000 cigarettes, and a system of writing that appears to be Chinese, but is actually English.
Xu began his art education as a printmaker, but it may be more apt to say his major medium has become the Chinese language and culture. "Xu uses very traditional materials and methods, but he also transforms them," says Jason Wang Chia-chi, the exhibition's curator.
"He tries to reactivate tradition, and that is very important, because for the past hundred years, a major controversy for Chinese intellectuals has centred around the question of how to bring in the West. But he is doing the opposite, looking back to his own culture.
"However, even though Xu Bing's work looks very Chinese," Wang says, "it also has very universal concerns, and that's why it has a contemporary appeal."
From early on, Xu was fascinated by books. His mother worked in the Peking University Library, and when he was a child often kept him among the library's stacks.
His teen years were dominated by the Cultural Revolution, during which time he was sent down to the countryside of the Taihang Mountains outside Beijing. There, he still managed to contribute social realist illustrations to a village publication called the Brilliant Mountain Flowers Magazine.
In 1977, when the universities reopened, Xu enrolled at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts. Throughout his career, he has devoted time to studying China's canonical artworks, regional folk arts and historical texts, such as the 1679 instructional booklet, The Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual.
Xu's early drawings and etchings from the 1980s pay homage to the tradition of Chinese landscape painting, although a sense of historical awareness is already apparent. The repetitive marks and dashes he uses to draw grass and rice paddies are arranged in rectangular fields like blocks of writing, hinting at the link between Chinese characters and their pictographic origins.
Two decades later, in Landscript, a series of landscape paintings begun in the Himalayas in 1999, he makes the connection overt.
After graduating from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1981, he continued to root himself in academic institutions, first in China and then - through most of the 1990s - in the US.
Upon receiving a master's degree from the Central Academy in 1986, Xu began working intensively with even more fundamental particles of the Chinese language. He studied the rules set out in the Kangxi dictionary more than 300 years ago for composing characters from sequences of brushstrokes, eventually creating 4,000 characters that looked like Chinese letters but were in fact utterly meaningless. He spent four years carving them onto wooden blocks of type, just as Song dynasty carvers did 1,000 years ago in creating the world's first printed books. Finally, Xu composed this nonsensical script into his own book and printed it.
The work, known as Book From the Sky (1987-1991), has been exhibited on the mainland and around the world. Xu's title for the work was "An Analysed Reflection of the World: the Final Volume of the Century", but critics called it tianshu.
"Literally speaking, tianshu means 'God knows what he's writing'. When people said it, they meant that he's just speaking plain gibberish," says Wang. "But Xu enjoyed this and eventually adopted it as the title of the work."
Xu has created at least three other systems of writing. A, B, C… (1991) is his whimsical first stab at translation, using real Chinese characters to approximate the sounds of the letters of the English alphabet. Book From the Ground (2003-present) attempts to create a universal language out of such symbols as emoticons, corporate logos and the picture signs seen on bathroom doors, subways and airports. Xu continues to build the vocabulary of this pictographic Esperanto, and has even published a 112-page novella written in it.
The most interesting of his writing systems is his "Square Word Calligraphy", which, begun in 1994, refashions English words to resemble Chinese characters. The system is so ingenious that it has been incorporated into Australian IQ tests and experiments in cognitive science.
In the Taipei galleries, visitors are invited to learn this new language in a school classroom, with desks, brushes and paper provided. Xu's finished works are also displayed. These include calligraphy scrolls and tapestries on which the artist has inscribed poems by W.B. Yeats and Tang dynasty poets in English translation. Western scholars have discussed Xu's work as a "deconstruction" of language, and Lydia Liu, of Columbia University, has compared Book From the Sky to the writing of James Joyce.
The parallels to modern literary theory are indeed tantalising. Here is an artist with an intense intelligence for texts, translation and how signs generate meaning, but whose worldview stems from a writing system of ideograms rather than alphabets.
For Taiwan, however, Wang has chosen to keep the exhibition focused on a Chinese context. "The opportunity here is to present Xu Bing's works on a large scale and according to a chronological arrangement, and that has never been done before," he says.
Xu himself writes of a desire to express "the heart and power of Chinese culture, its advantages and disadvantages and its role in the new human civilisation of the future".
Xu Bing: A Retrospective runs until April 20 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan (www.tfam.museum)