book from the sky, book from the ground

Yesterday I wiped myself out going hard on the elliptical at the gym, and ended up passing out at 5 in the afternoon. I promised myself upon awakening later than evening, bleary-eyed and furry-mouthed, that today would not involve exercise. In fact, it would involve art.

Would you believe that just a 20-minute walk away from me is a free exhibition of Xu Bing’s infamous work, Book from the Sky, as well as his latest work, Book from the Ground. When I was studying Chinese Art, Xu Bing was THE MAN (Ai Weiwei is obviously the guy everyone is talking about these days) and I have long dreamed of seeing his masterpiece Book from the Sky:

So I scuttled off to Eslite Gallery, which doesn’t allow photography sadly or I would have probably taken so many pictures. I did sneak a couple in though (no flash of course)… sorry Xu Bing! I just love what you do too much. I could wrote separate blog entries for each of his works but I’ll try to keep it short.

The front of the gallery shows off his recent “Book from the Earth” concept, along with his fascinating Square Calligraphy. More on both of these below.

Book from the Sky consists of a gigantic installation of hand-printed scrolls and books, the content of which is made up of 4000 hand-carved invented Chinese characters. Xu Bing sat down and took apart the existing thousands of Chinese characters and reassembled them so that they look like Chinese but are absolute gibberish.

The work involved in the whole process — designing new characters, hand-carving the reverse image of each character onto wood, printing by hand — is phenomenal and took him 4 years to complete.

Xu Bing’s work is fascinating for anyone who loves Chinese characters and language in general. Over the years, Xu Bing developed Square Word Calligraphy, a special way of adapting Roman letters to create Chinese-looking calligraphy. Any non-Chinese-reading person when confronted with this scroll would assume it was Chinese, and yet it’s illegible unless you have a strong knowledge of English.

Can you read it?
I’ll start you off: An Ascent – Poem by Du Fu
The wind so wild, the sky so high…

…the moody monkeys sorely sigh
This is a poem by Deng Gao (aka Du Fu) that has been translated in so many ways (this webpage lists 48 translations) — but Xu Bing’s calligraphy makes the translation almost illegible unless you know his trick.

The last section was about his recent publication, Book from the Ground, which I suppose is why Eslite is offering this exhibition at the moment, as they are the ones selling it. Basically Xu Bing has been researching symbols for the last 10 years, in order to develop a universal writing system that anyone can read regardless of language spoken. The book is a novelization of a 24-hour day and after a while, does in fact become legible once you have worked out the symbols and syntax. It was fun seeing the Chinese people around me being able to read the story just as well as I did, and wondering whether it truly is legible to everyone.

Xu Bing has even developed a special computer software where you write in your own language and it is transcribed into his “symbol” language. When it was my turn on the computer I wrote “I believe in Chinese Art” — love that he has a symbol just for Chinese art!

The symbol for Chinese Art is a portrait by artist Zhang Xiaogang. The symbol for just art was the Mona Lisa…

Oh and now you know the trick to reading Xu Bing’s system, can you see what it says underneath each symbol in my fuzzy picture of the gallery window? Men, Nursery, and Women.


5 thoughts on “book from the sky, book from the ground

  1. these kinds of characters were something i was incredibly curious about, but couldn’t get a lot of information out of my students about, even the really high level ones. thanks for the links!

    • I’m always amazed when locals don’t know about the stuff I’m interested in… I guess he is more of a mainland artist who got big in the states 10 years ago, so maybe students now wouldn’t have much idea or interest, sadly.

      • well, i was more interested in the way people interpret nonsense characters and if people make up words by creating characters, but all the students i asked were in their 40s, so not really at the cutting edge of linguistic creativity. all they could really tell me about was the internet martian language…

      • Oh I see….. completely different to how I had interpreted your comment! that is very interesting… I bet you could have great conversations with Xu Bing on that topic!

  2. Pingback: the world will never be the same | today I did this for me

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