Square Word Calligraphy
Let’s first examine these four characters. Although they appear to be Chinese, they are English. The upper part of the first character is “A” while the lower part is “r” and “t.” Together they spell “Art.” The second character is composed of “F,” “o,” and “r” forming “For.” The third character has “t” in the middle and “h” and “e” on both sides forming “the.” The fourth character begins with a “P” on the left. The right side reads “e,” “o,” “p,” “l,” “e” from top to bottom forming “People.” These characters are actually English. By following the sequence of a Chinese character—left to right, top to bottom, outside to inside—an English word can be read. This is a mask wearing, camouflaged script. The characters resemble Chinese, yet their essence is thoroughly English and completely unrelated to Chinese. I forced together the two different writing systems of Chinese and English, as if arranging the marriage of a couple who are incompatible yet must be made to be compatible, or like a fanciful expert in breeding who takes two species that are not of the same genetic pedigree and forces them to mate, producing a bizarre new “species.”
Exhibited as contemporary artwork in the West, I tend to focus on a “calligraphy classroom” approach. I turn the gallery into a classroom with desks, a blackboard, audiovisual equipment, instructional posters, textbooks, brushes, ink, paper and inkstones. Visitors enter a “Chinese calligraphy classroom,” but once they participate in writing, they discover that they are in fact writing in their own language, English, and that they can read and understand it. In this moment they experience something extremely unusual, something they have never experienced before.
For people outside of the Sinosphere, Chinese calligraphy is a mysterious, inaccessible script. Appreciation of Chinese calligraphy has long remained at the level of viewing abstract painting. Because calligraphy is related to the writing of decipherable text, appreciating calligraphy requires the development of a relationship with the written language. Through Square Word Calligraphy, I have given the West an Eastern-inflected calligraphic culture. Westerners are able to create their own calligraphic works. The form of this calligraphy is exactly Chinese; its content is exactly English. While giving lectures in the United States, I have been asked, “Does this work upset Chinese audiences because you have turned Chinese into English?” I respond, “Chinese people should be especially happy because I have turned English into Chinese.” This type of writing is caught between two concepts; it belongs to both and also to neither. When they write it, people really do not know whether they are writing Chinese or English.
Square Word Calligraphy began in 1993. Why did I have this idea and create this form of writing? I have always maintained this attitude towards art: wherever you live, you will face the problems there. If you have problems, then you have art. The genesis of the Square Word Calligraphy concept was definitely related to my living environment and conditions. Living in a foreign country means living in a region between two cultures. As far as I was concerned, the problems of this region were new; as far as humanity was concerned they were worth discussing because an increasing number of people had entered this region and were confronting these problems. If I had continued living in China, this work never would have arisen. The cultural conflict would not have been as direct and would not have constituted a “vital” issue for me. My work would have resembled that of other artists living in China, focused instead on a set of issues related to China. In the same way, American artists focus on problems related to America and have no reason to focus on the problems of other regions that have no particularly direct relationship to their lives. I focus on different problems than American artists because I have a different background. The question of an artist's point of departure is not, in and of itself, important; the only differences are in the level and the depth and breadth of thinking of the artist. A problem that is local or personal in nature can nevertheless be a shared human problem. The implications of temporary phenomena can be extended into problems that humanity will confront over the long term. A small problem handled well can provide new inspiration for the way we think. Whether the problem is “extendable” or whether it remains only locally applicable or specific to the original situation itself is determined by the strength of the artist’s thinking and his expressive abilities.
Once you get to the United States, language and communication become a direct problem in your daily life. Your life becomes awkward because your level of thinking is mature, but your abilities of speech and expression are those of a child. Chinese is deeply and firmly rooted in your being, and yet you must use a language that is unfamiliar and difficult for you. You are a respected artist, yet in this linguistic context, in this regard, you can be considered “illiterate.” I have always had an interest in language. When I was in China, I produced many works related to Chinese. When I got to the United States, I constantly wondered whether I could use the English language to make some things. I did a number of experiments like A, B, C... and an English version of Book from the Sky, among others. While these works were unsuccessful, the attempts formed the process by which I came to understand the characteristics of different languages. Understanding the core of a different written language can help you understand cultural difference. Understanding this type of difference became the motivation behind my fantasy of “grafting” Chinese and English.
Once I had the idea for Square Word Calligraphy, I began to experiment with writing it. To be honest, the results were truly dismal when I first began—not because I lacked the basic skills of calligraphy, but because no one had written this kind of calligraphy before. As I wrote, my mind was thinking of English letters, but I was simultaneously attentive to the careful movements of the brush demanded by Chinese calligraphy. I was not in the habit of using my mind and hands in this way. Still, these unsightly works of calligraphy record the progress of one person’s mind as it struggled with and reconciled two different systems.
I was confident that this was a good idea, but how to exhibit it left me in deep contemplation. These are a kind of readable, “real words,” which are different from the “false characters” of Book from the Sky. Once they are used, they necessarily say something, which thing, in turn, unwittingly imbues the work with another form of “content.” With the addition of content, the work must then express more ideas. But what content really needs to be said or should be said with this type of calligraphy? In the end, I decided to use these characters to write a textbook that explains how to write this type of calligraphy, titled An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy. This line of thinking was the right choice when no good choice existed because it did not add a single piece of irrelevant content. At the same time, it deepened the practical character of this calligraphy. The final published product, laid out in vertical type, is a Chinese calligraphy textbook through and through with a copybook and a separate red-line tracing book. But it was, nevertheless, an English book. The letter/character comparison chart in the book allows us to see that, apart from changes in stroke style, very little else is changed. However, even with these very small changes, our entire “world” seems to change. This reveals just how limited our thinking is.
Why does this installation take the form of a classroom that allows for audience participation? First, this script is unfamiliar to everyone, and I wanted to emphasize the sense of an “anti-literacy” campaign by borrowing from the feel of anti-illiteracy tutoring centers set up in China during the period of the Early Republic. Secondly, the classroom evokes in each person the memories and aspirations of study. Finally, it aims to correct the dull shortcomings of contemporary art.
Through my “close quarters combat” with the Western contemporary art system, I was already quite fed up with “false, huge and empty” contemporary art. There was too much “incomparably profound,” superficially shocking work. In front of this kind of work, audiences develop a sense of self-doubt, that art is forever lofty and that artists are geniuses. A failure to understand is the viewer's problem; if it is not a lack of artistic sensibility, then it is a lack of artistic training. But in fact, many works of art, apart from their peculiar appearance, really possess nothing else.
This kind of art could not satisfy me. I hoped that my works would be easily approachable, that they would welcome the viewer to enter. But that is not all. When the viewer enters the work, they will also sense its distinctiveness and their thinking will be aroused.
All in all, the classroom has been exhibited at forty to fifty locations around the world. The reaction is positive wherever it goes. The lagging effects have been particularly interesting. Post-exhibition, no small number of schools have purchased copies of An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy from us. They hoped to hold calligraphy classes at their schools and bring their young students into a new cultural context. In Fukuoka, Japan I taught junior high school students to write these characters. After the class, the teacher allowed the students to discuss that day's experience. The Japanese children said it well. One remarked, “From today, I can look at all the knowledge I have learned in the past from another perspective.” Indeed, we have a conceptual understanding and knowledge of English, that it is a linear writing system with an alphabet. We also have a conceptual understanding and knowledge of Chinese, that it is a square format script evolved from pictographs. Our existing conceptual knowledge no longer works when we confront Square Word Calligraphy. We must find a new conceptual framework to restore the foundation of our cognitive knowledge.
The origins of this work lie in a conflict between language and culture. But what is really being expressed is not limited to questions of cultural exchange, communication and the harmonization of East and West. Instead, through this work, I am actually interested in prompting people with a new cognitive perspective, in changing our fixed ways of thinking.
After this system of writing took shape, a number of people and organizations requested calligraphic inscriptions. For example, Mercedes-Benz (China) and Modern Media asked me to create the headline text for an award. The first character is “power,” the second is “will” and the third is “dream,” all rendered in Song style script. (Figure)
Below is an inscription that I created for a friend.
It reads: “which is infinite,” followed by my signature (“Xu Bing”) and my personal seal (“Xu”) on the right. In fact, the Chinese concept of inscription does not exist in the West, but only in Eastern countries. But through Square Word Calligraphy, the culture of requesting inscriptions has been introduced to the West.
Last year, I received a letter from the Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. They hoped that I would allow the incorporation of An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy into their newly introduced IQ evaluation system. It is said that different parts of the brain are used for reading Chinese and English. Cognitive and neuroscience labs throughout the world have used An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy for experimental material, exploring how our pre-formed physiological systems of thinking work when confronted with this type of “conceptually confused” writing.
New blood for contemporary art usually comes from outside of art. An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy's practical nature and its ability to reproduce outside of art are what I really like about it.