Saturday, August 7, 2010
|Xu Bing. Book from the Sky. 1987-89.|
At first glance, Xu Bing's work overwhelms the viewer with its size and seemingly endless collection of text. Yet any viewer with knowledge of the Chinese language who looks more closely realizes rather quickly that the text is not text. The symbols are so-called nonsense characters—characters very deliberately fabricated to look like the records of a language. Xu Bing's four thousand invented characters are printed in traditional formats such as the handscroll (hanging from the ceiling) and the bound book (spread open across the floor). The characters themselves—and we can call them such as symbols or representations of a nonsense language—are composed of very real radicals found throughout the written Chinese language, yet in non-existent combinations. The process for Book from the Sky's creation was long and labor intensive, illustrating Xu Bing's dedication to perfecting the concepts in his work. Despite the beauty of the installation in its sweeping lines and stark contrast of black ink on a white surface, it is the reaction of the audience that reveals the true impact of the work.
In China, calligraphy has a long tradition of reverence as the highest form of art. It has often been insinuated that it is not the content of a text, but rather the calligraphy itself as a visual form which should be appreciated. Scholar Robert Harrist disputes the validity of this common ideology by pointing out that words have an irreversible effect on calligraphy, if only in the mind of the calligrapher: “Once literacy takes root in the mind, it will not let go.” Though a work of calligraphy can arguably be appreciated simply for its visual presence, the fact remains that the viewer understands it as a text even without being literate in Chinese. This point becomes a valid entry for discussion when viewing Book from the Sky. A number of native Chinese viewers have reportedly been disturbed by this work. Drawn in by the promise of a work with textual meaning, the viewer instead discovers a work that at the surface level is meaningless. Text that is not text. Xu Bing's choice of the Song ti font, widely used in Ming dynasty printing due to its clarity, further perpetrates the illusion of accessibility and legibility. It is precisely this experience that has led to many an upset viewer, including those at its inaugural showing in Beijing in 1988.
It has been hypothesized that the frustration and sometimes even anger found among the reactions of Book from the Sky's audiences stems from the role of written language in China. As a very large and diverse country with many spoken dialects, China's written language is one of the most important unifiers. While two people, each from different areas of China, may not be able to understand one another verbally, the same characters constitute the written version of their different dialects. Written Chinese unifies a nation of diverse people—it is inherently an indicator of “Chineseness.” Ostensibly, Book from the Sky unifies all audiences, whether Chinese or not. All viewers standing in front of this installation are put on a level playing field in regards to literacy.
While this equalization of sorts is indeed found in Book from the Sky, Xu Bing's artistic career maintains an avid interest in the complexities of language, specifically in relation to people's expectations and experiences with it. As a teen living through China's Cultural Revolution, Xu Bing's education nurtured this fascination with the shifting boundaries of language. Learning Chinese characters requires extensive study and repetition. Xu Bing has recounted memories of government notices informing schools that certain characters should be forgotten and new ones memorized. Only months later, it was possible that this would change yet again, sometimes even re-employing the original character. This ambiguity in his childhood study of written language can easily be traced through his artwork.
Book from the Sky illustrates the existence of text as a powerful tool. Used purposefully by governments, rulers and even artists, text promotes certain ways of thinking and helps to construct a particular view of society. In a pared down reading of Book from the Sky, the nonsense text Xu Bing presents is analogous to any text, historical or contemporary. In a culture such as that of China, where text has historically been related not only to the ruling faction but also to the Heavens, the revelation of a very human, manipulative force behind text can be an especially sensitive issue. It is mainly for this type of subversive quality that Book from the Sky was banned from China shortly after its first exhibition. And perhaps it is that reaction even more than the actions of Xu Bing that reveals the power of text within art.
 It may be noted here that there are a select few characters in Book from the Sky that can be found in some ancient dictionaries, which was not the intention of Xu Bing but rather coincidence.
 Harrist, Robert E. “Book from the Sky at Princeton: Reflections on Scale, Sense, and Sound.” Persistence Transformation: Text as Image in the Art of Xu Bing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press: 2006), p. 33.
 His work is no longer banned from China as he has become a renowned international artist.