Xu Bing and the “indecipherable” power of the written word

Xu Bing, A Book From The Sky (detail)

The sight of his famous Phoenix at the Venice Arsenal during the last 2015 Biennial, sister of the one already exhibited at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, could leave us breathless. Xu Bing, the man from Chongcing, is much more. Talking about the art of Xu means, in some way, to overtake every knowledge one have about your language, about the way one communicate, to question the relationship of our original culture with all the others as well. You can not therefore choose to quote this Contemporary Art “master” without linking it to the work that most represents him around the world, his A Book From The Sky (天书) exhibited for the first time in 1987 at the China Art Gallery in Beijing and then in numerous western museums (his last showcase, the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai with the exhibition Linguistic Pavilion, active until March 13) and the subsequent New English Calligraphy of 1994.

The artist takes months to create new Chinese characters which he first engraves on wooden molds (his training is just like an engraver in the classical oriental technique) and then impressed on long rice paper rolls. Nothing new so far, tradition pervades every single aspect of the creation of Xu’s work, but when the public (obviously the had to know Chinese language) approach and try to decipher the writings suddenly understand what a courageous act at that time and extreme breakup had accomplished the artist. The characters are meaningless, without any semantic content, illegible and indecipherable. Huge pages filled with characters hang from the ceiling of the hall as if they came from a distant kingdom, a realm of heaven indeed. The reaction is a complete shock, those who know the Chinese approach the installation with curiosity and discover with great regret of not being able to read or interpret the work; most of the politicized critics were annoyed to say the least, and accused the work of Xu to be the bearer of bad social messages for the fundamental lack of educational and communicative aspects.

The artist, always curious and avid reader in the pre-revolutionary period (his parents were teachers), grows and lives the period of his training during the long years of the Great Chinese Cultural Revolution, when the publication of international literature is forbidden and the Chinese language itself, in its written form above all, is shocked by political fervor. Every character, mostly those written in the dazibao, was reinterpreted changed by political means; anyone became a possible defendant and any written thought in any way revisable. After the phase of the Cultural Revolution and the momentary opening to foreign literature, Xu argues in various interviews that he had read everything that was possible for him so as to reach a complete saturation, a “nausea” due to such much words. He decides to start deciphering his language. His characters are stripped of every meaning, naked, therefore not reinterpretable, they put each of us at the same level, the “ground zero” of communication.

The next step in the artist’s career is predictable, after years of artistic research exposes in 1994 an interactive installation called Square Calligraphy Classroom (英文 方块字 书法 入门), a real class in which everyone could experience a new language and with which he presents his New English Calligraphy to the public and became an internationally renowned artist. He decodes our Latin script using the form and the appearance of Chinese seal writing. The collective reaction is twofold: the Chinese user approaches New English Calligraphy with involuntary security due to the cultural familiarity with the aforesaid characters but still realizing the real extraneousness to the work, while the average Western user, on the contrary, fascinated by the possibility of being able to practice the millenary art of calligraphy, takes a few minutes to realize the amazing truth: those symbols with an exotic appearance are nothing but our language in disguise. Xu has thus found a probable connection between two different worlds under different aspects, East and West, united by a primordial need belonging to every civilization, Communication.