Xu Bing: Book from the Sky
by Catherine Zinser
The written word shapes our world. Borders are declared and peace treaties drawn; manifestos proclaimed; sacred prayers and rituals cemented. String them together and declare love in a sonnet; string them another way for propaganda and manipulation. There can be great power in what is essentially a system of scribbled lines. Language, as subject for art, is super-charged.
Chinese artist Xu Bing comments on the nature of language with textual art in visually stunning and elegantly subversive installations. One of his most impressive is the immersive Book from the Sky, printed in the late 1980s from 4,000 hand-carved, Chinese-looking characters. It surrounds the viewer in a world of unreadable text, unreadable by even the artist. Characters lie at your feet, climb the walls, and float overhead. The inability to decode the sea of words whose volume suggests something important frustrates viewers. Because the text says nothing the work is open to meaning.
aether sat down with Hao Sheng, curator of Xu Bing: Book from the Sky, on view at the Blanton Museum of Art through January 22, 2017, to talk about this monumental work of art.
Tell me about your personal interest in his work.
I’ve known and followed his work for decades, first as a graduate student and later as a curator who commissioned his work for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Despite the diversity of his subject and format, he is amazingly consistent in his way of thinking, always profound and full of curiosity. I find so interesting the way he positions himself in relationship to tradition, to politics, and to globalization. This standpoint has influenced how I think and how I live my life. That’s the kind of thing I want people to get out of the exhibition, to go beyond the exhibition itself.
What does it mean for you as a curator to work with a piece of art of this magnitude—in size and significance?
It’s a tough install, demanding in each step. The paper relaxes and breathes unevenly. As we were installing we realized how precise and labor intensive his work truly is. To us it was a call to match his effort in our own installation work. We were challenged to be just as thoughtful in our handling as he was in the creation. In a brand new way I was moved by the work.
Tell me about this work.
When we talk about Book from the Sky as a work of art, it can mean two things: the set of four books you see in the wooden boxes displayed on the floor, or the immersive installation you walk into and become a part of. You are in a world of words, enveloped by texts on the floor, on the walls, and draped from the ceiling. People refer to it as a ritual space because it seems almost architectural. It is defined by itself.
You are in a world of words, enveloped by texts on the floor, on the walls, and draped from the ceiling.
Each component refers to different types of textural prototypes in Chinese culture. The floor texts are presented as traditional books. The wall panels refer to ancient steles, or carved stones. Important texts were carved into stone because they could not be easily corrupted or altered; the wall panels reference this permanence. The draped ceiling panels refer to Buddhist texts written in scroll form. The three references each lend its form of authority and permanence.
What does the title mean?
The original title given by the artist, Mirror to Analyze the World: The Century’s Final Volume, quickly fell out of use. Book from the Sky was adopted from a critical review of his work in 1989. In the aftermath of the suppression of the student-lead democratic movement, Xu’s work was singled out for criticism. Every aspect was being questioned and read in a political way. It was denounced a “book from the sky” to mean that it was foreign, indecipherable; it was ridiculous and had no meaning. Xu adopted it.
Even the artist himself cannot read the imaginary characters. Imagine the kind of emotional reaction a Chinese person has when he approaches it. The installation suggests something important, but they can’t read it; each character is familiar looking but not readable. His characters do not even have sound or hint at ways to pronounce them. This frustration contributes to the power of the work.
For non-Chinese readers it calls for empathy. The Book from the Sky may not look that different from any other books printed in Chinese. But I think our western viewers have been pretty successful to go one step further and imagine that. Here is a book that no one can read.
How important is the fabrication process, in this case printmaking, to the overall meaning of this installation?
He is first celebrated as a printmaker. It is his training and specialty. In this particular work he revitalized and reinvented moveable type. Johannes Gutenberg standardized moveable type in the 1400s and made printing more accessible across Europe. The Chinese moveable type was invented 400 years earlier but was never in wide use because of the number of characters; it did not reduce labor. Xu’s choice to use moveable type is consistent with his idea to create a book as authentic as possible. It contributes to the conundrum of making an unreadable book. It can be duplicated in endless editions and can be shared in its physical form across time and space. The method of fabrication legitimizes the text. The basic principles of printmaking contribute to the power of the work.
Where do you think the artist gets his inspiration?
Zen Buddhism uses absurdity, famously “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” as a way to take one out of the mundane and to unmoor intellectual habits. That is what Book from the Sky does.
I don’t think he has given a straightforward answer to that question. Art historians try to look for clues in his biography. For example, Mao Zedong was in power when Bing was born in 1955. When he was 5-6 years old and learning to read there was a reformation on how characters were written. Mao simplified it. Consequently, if you were educated after 1960 you can only read simplified characters and older books became illegible. Other Chinese speaking places like Taiwan and Hong Kong still read and write the traditional complicated characters; hence their writing became illegible to mainlanders. Xu experienced firsthand how language and words could be manipulated.
China entered the Cultural Revolution when Xu was 12. He missed formal education and was sent to do farm labor. In the 1980s he returned to Beijing and studied printmaking. Again an important time for China, the country that had been closed to the world for 30 years was open again. Literature, film, music, and art all flooded in from the West. Xu described his encounter with translated texts as a starving person coming to a banquet and eating everything in front of him. He was left nauseated. He felt lost going from a lack of information in his youth to this level of over stimulation. This sense of bewilderment could have motivated him to create a book that cannot be read.
Xu’s personal interest in Zen Buddhism offers another possible way to interpret his Book from the Sky. Zen Buddhism uses absurdity, famously “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” as a way to take one out of the mundane and to unmoor intellectual habits. That is what Book from the Sky does. It makes you think.
How should viewers “read” this work?
What makes us think it holds knowledge and information?
We talked about Xu’s biography, but this work continues to be relevant and powerful precisely because it is not bound by its original cultural and political context. Often contemporary art is particular to its context and is one-dimensional. The power of the work is more apparent after having been shown globally for 30 years, generating layers of interpretation in different contexts, including Texas.
Viewers need to know very few facts when approaching the work. Know that it is a book that cannot be read. Let the space talk and take your time to notice the various signifiers of an authentic book. What makes us think it holds knowledge and information? The more you quietly spend time with it you will ask yourself questions on how to read it and what it means to “read” an unreadable book.
Xu Bing: Book from the Sky is on view at the Blanton Museum, 200 E. MLK Jr. Blvd, in Austin, Texas through January 22, 2017