Background Story: Woodcutter in Winter Mountains
Materials: Cut and painted acrylic
Location: Shanghai Library East Collection, Shanghai, 1st October 2022 Opening
The work is composed of more than 800 "bird" characters written in different styles of Square World Calligraphy—an innovative form of writing designed by Xu Bing, fashioning English letters in a manner that imitates Chinese square characters. According to the dictionary, the word "bird" is defined as "a feathered creature with two legs and two wings, usually able to fly." Using this text as a starting point, the word "bird" starts to soar into the air, evolving from the printed script to the regular script, the official script and the small seal script, and finally tracing back to the "bird" characters of ancient hieroglyphs. The words gradually ascend toward the window leading to the open sky. In a concise form, the artwork is inspiring, compelling viewers to contemplate the significance of words, concepts, knowledge, symbols, and images.
1. Shanghai Library: https://www.library.sh.cn/service/yspDetail?id=79274
2. UAP Company: https://www.uapcompany.com/zh/projects/xu-bing
The Genetics of Reading Image
Media: Mixed media
Dimensions: 145 x 100 x 2.4 x 8 cm
Exhibition: Mirroring the Heart of Heaven and Earth—Ideals and Images in the Chinese Study, The Palace Museum Meridian Gate (Wu men)，Beijing
Since 2004, Xu Bing has sought to create a book comprehensible to all human beings using solely public signs. Although it has been more than a decade since the start of this project, it is ever evolving. With the growing globalization of “graphic expression” brought by digital computation, new forms of expressions such as emojis and memes have emerged, particularly popular among young generations. These contemporary signs, seemingly disconnected from ancient traditions, now find their place in the main exhibition hall of the Palace Museum. While the audience may initially struggle to adjust to the translation of “兰亭集序” in emojis and memes, the resulting sense of alienation produced is essential to this work’s intention—to supply traditional modes of thinking with new “elements”. Through this approach, one may gain a better understanding of both traditional and contemporary cultures.
In contemporary language, “Wujing Cuishi” (“a room assembling five classics”) would mean “library”. Ancient Chinese culture adeptly employed images to convey complex ideas, demonstrating that looking at images is akin to reading texts. “Shu Hua Tong Yuan” (“writing and drawing bear the same root”) is less of a commentary on style, but rather a reflection of semiotics. The way in which the Chinese character “shan” (“mountain”) is written is comparable to the way in which one would draw a mountain. Despite the evolution of signification techniques, hieroglyphs, and coreference in modern Chinese, the hieroglyphic constituents still form the genetic core of the language. For instance, when one reads the word “门” (“door”), one sees the image of a door. If one were to bolt the door, adding a rod/stroke on it, then one arrives at “闩” (“latch”). Even when one writes the character “囧” (“undesirable distress”), it resembles the creation of an emoji.
Winessing the continuity of communication through pictures and images, especially in the context of the cyberpunk and space age, is truly captivating. It evokes a sense of time travel, residing in this juncture and perceiving life’s expansion across time and space. To describe this as merely entering the age of images is somewhat inaccurate, as humanity has been immersed in this mode of communication for thousands of years. Today, our daily lives are deeply intertwined with the use of cell phones, which serve as our portable libraries and museums. As soon as we turn them on, our first instinct is to read the signs they present to us.
Xu Bing’s profound sensitivity to signs stems from the genetic ability of reading images ingrained within us. It is deeply rooted in humanity’s tradition, and its fullest potential is realized when it is activated.
Medium: Mixed media installation
Dimensions: 25.5 x 15.7 x 15.7 m
Exhibition: Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai
This installation art is founded on the law of perspective, but it does not end with visuality.
Stretched by gravity, this sky-dimming Square Word Calligraphy reaches the ground. While creating a distorted textual space, it simultaneously immerses the viewers into an interplay between “seeing” and “reading”.
The initial challenge of “seeing” arises when viewers position themselves beneath the work. In addition to the reversed text, the contortions and overlaps render the characters in the exhibition hall difficult to read. Simultaneously, the mirror on the floor embeds the text into a warped wormhole model which interconnects the two inverted spaces. While the reversed characters become legible in the mirror image, the audience is still unable to see the work in its entirety. The combination of the installation and the museum space seems to present a theatrically inviting quality. As visitors ascend to higher floors and alter their viewing perspectives, the distorted characters appear increasingly familiar. From the top floor, the viewers can finally see the front of the characters; however, remain unable to read the body of text as a whole. Where lies this work’s ideal perspective?
Fundamentally, the installation can be perceived as an optical illusion. Since people are accustomed to reading words written on a flat surface, words are stretched in space, the ideal viewing perspective becomes non-existent. When the three-dimensional is converted to the two-dimensional, the laws of perspective give rise to a conflicting relationship. The interplay between the artwork’s form and the viewer’s standpoint pushes the ideal viewing perspective to an unattainable height beyond the confines of the museum. This perspective exists solely on a conceptual level.
The law of perspective exists due to the inherent limitation of human vision, which cannot bend. In this work, this very limitation transforms into a unique “material”. The law of perspective functions as a language that we employ to articulate and understand the world. Like any other language, it serves as an intermediary between our thoughts and the external world. Nonetheless, our thinking is inevitably influenced by various languages, resulting in potential blind spots. These blind spots may also exist beyond linguistic demonstrations.
The Square Word Calligraphy contained in this work is transcribed from an excerpt by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although it appears to be an analysis of several visual experiments, this passage actually points to a common misunderstanding in human cognition. Wittgenstein argues that people are inclined to summarize concepts with logic, emplying a systematic approach to comprehend the world through clarifying these concepts. In reality, this practice distances us from the genuine aspects of the world, much like the ongoing tensions among civilizations that orignate from disparities and divergent human perspectives. This creates an arena fraught with tensions and gravitational forces. The characters, distorted by space, fall into a chaos of illegibility, with each element pointing to an “ideal perspective” suspended outside the exhibition hall. It is as if all the chaos in the world stems from an unknown purpose—an unseen yet palpable existence.