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  • Caterina Paiva

Oh no, another article about Xu Bing. And the a-cultural beauty of linguistic mastery

Reaction in international contemporary art?

Xu Bing 徐冰 is one of the most internationally famous contemporary Chinese artists. With dozens of books and articles written about him—both in western and Asian languages—and several academic syllabi based on his conceptual development, it becomes almost a dead-end to propose another article on him.

But why is he so important?

Li Xianting 栗宪庭considers Xu Bing as part of the reaction towards what he designates as the appropriation of western art paradigms in “contemporary art” movements in China starting from the ’80s.1 That reaction was called the “Back-to-the-Root Movement” (本土bentu).2

Xu Bing has, in his artwork, indeed brought to the international contemporary art scenario the usage of calligraphy and ink-wash.3 Nonetheless, should the use of these particular techniques be enough to label an artist as moved by “reaction”?

Close-up of the original material used to produce The Book from the Sky. In the installation The Book from the Sky, at the Museum of Art Pudong (MAP). Taken by the author (03/01/2022)

Xu Bing used those mediums to go through universal philosophical and anthropological questions. For the artist,

“Language is one of the essential elements of our human existence. Knowing and touching a language means touching the core of culture, while transforming a language means transforming the most fundamental part of thinking.”

This is obviously not a strange debate to Chinese philosophical traditions too. Philosophical Confucianism and Daoism, for example, developed thoroughly in the importance of the written word to the process of grounding reality into a person’s cognition. So why is it problematic to call Xu Bing’s works “a reaction” to western art paradigms?

Reaction to what?

Reaction, according to Li Xianting, implies that it comes from a marginalized situation, contrary to the mainstream praxis. However, and bear with me, what if Xu Bing is just translating universal human concerns into another language and through art?

Such possibility might sound strange for a significant reason.

A European and North American-centric paradigm in art and philosophy of art is still the mainstream one, both in academic and public discourses. These paradigms translate into Chinese art be debated and analyzed by those same regional standards: Is it “contemporary art” as if that would mean a particular set of techniques? Is it “traditional Chinese art” because it uses Chinese characters and ink? Is it "post-modern"? Many art analyses are still moved through these guidelines, and not even post-colonial intuitions are necessarily immune to it.

Aside from this issue, the understanding of contemporary art (in the sense that it is produced in this globalized context) as objecting to universal claims is also very generalized, resulting in the detachment of contemporary art criticism from universalizing philosophical questioning.

Then, should we discard any categories or genealogies?

Not necessarily. But in this context of contemporary globalized art market production, if any art production is labeled as a reaction to the standards mentioned above, then acknowledging new formulations by their own value becomes impossible. We would be only reproducing, repeatedly, those same European and North American standards.

A familiar face without being able to say the face’s name

Xu Bing’s major artwork, the installation of The Book from the Sky (天书Tianshu), is a collection of more than 4,000 fake characters invented by Xu Bing after years of studying Chinese characters.

They are displayed in three scrolls hanging from the ceiling, written on the paper that covers the lateral walls, and inscribed in many traditional-looking Chinese notebooks.

The Book from the Sky, installed at the Museum of Art Pudong (MAP). Taken by the author (03/01/2021)

They are visually similar to actual characters. They are constituted by ordinary Chinese radicals and strokes. But their composition does not comprise recognizable words.

“It’s like seeing a familiar face but unable to utter that person’s name.”

Something that could be faster to detect for a Mandarin-reader still creates a liminal space of doubt for both readers and non-readers of Mandarin.

Close-up of Xu Bing’s The Book from the Sky, highlighting the fake characters. The Book from the Sky installation at the Museum of Art Pudong. Taken by the author (03/01/2022)

Close-up of one of Xu Bing’s notebooks. The Book from the Sky installation at the Museum of Art Pudong. Taken by the author (03/01/2022)

Xu Bing proposes the following question: What happens to our understanding of reality when the characters (or words) to describe them are not recognizable?

“The work simultaneously invites and denies the viewer’s desire to read the piece.”

The artist brings to art his positions on what has been a lengthy philosophical debate in both western and eastern philosophical traditions. He added these formulations into cognitive terminology and translated them into the particularity of Chinese characters and calligraphy.

So, should we acknowledge that Xu Bing reacts to western art paradigms? Or, instead, is he reformulating the importance of language—a concern that he (and many others worldwide) deems universal?

Should the use of Chinese characters be called a reaction? Or, when acknowledging the globalized contemporary art scenario, should we also recognize that the world does not only speak English?

These are some of the questions that should be posed when analyzing this art installation. The problem of lazy understandings and discourses of contemporary art can lead to misguiding classifications. If anything, art should be appreciated by the old/new formulations of concrete human experiences.


References / To go further

  1. Li Xianting, “Major Trends in the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art,” in China’s New Art, Post-1989, ed. Tsong-zung Chang et al. (Hong Kong: hanart: TZ Gallery, 1993), X-XXII.

  2. Xianting Li, “Major Trends.”

  3. Xianting Li, “Major Trends.”


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