How would Xu Bing sound? (part 1)


I spent a pleasant afternoon at the museum, checking out a new installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing. He was originally identified as part of the Xinchao–a group of younger Chinese artists who eschewed the prevailing socialist realism and conventions of representation. He left China following the massacre in Tienanmen Square. Interestingly, the Elvehjem Museum of Art right here in Madison hosted The his first exhibition outside of China.

Sadly, there aren’t any images of the new work out there, so I’ll have to tell you about it: it’s a large overhead “net” under the skylight consisting of a series of cast lead letters wired together that form a paragraph of text by Thoreau. In the midst of this paragraph, a kind of hole or vortex appears and descends to the floor, where it ends in a tangle of loose letters. It’s really quite arresting.

The exhibition also includes a couple of other installations, including his by-now-well-known calligraphy lesson. Like some other projects, this one uses an invented alphabet; from a distance, it appears to be a set of Chinese characters, but it’s actually composed of western letterforms done in a brush-painting style that resembles Chinese characters which are then arranged in various spatial configurations so that one word is composed of the arranged letters. Here is an example of this “new English calligraphy.” You can, with a little work, see some obvious words. If you’re at all familiar with radicals (the component parts of both Chinese and Japanese words), you’ll recognize how this works. It’s really intriguing. Here is an example on the left side of the webpage that shows Xu Bing’s name. There are a similar set of landscape paintings whose brushwork, when viewed at close range, dissolves into a set of Chinese characters that are narrative content about the image itself.

His work, for me, has the hallmarks of good installation work; it simply doesn’t translate to static images. One needs to be in its presence. If a lack of real presence bothers you, then this monograph goes into his work in considerably more exhaustive detail, or you can find a couple of short interviews with him here.

But I did find myself looking at the work and thinking about its sound, or rather what might be analogous to some of his ideas. I suppose I should say more about this in another posting.