By Duncan Bartlett for The British Library
The renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing likes to use puzzles, surprises and jokes to challenge the way people think about words.
He has written books in emoji, created his own version of the Chinese alphabet and even made elaborate pop-up books out of moving sheets of paper.
“I believe the artist has a duty to say things that have never been said before. I cannot follow the traditions of the Old Masters. I must find my own voice,” Xu Bing said during a recent meeting at the British Library in London.
Much of his work draws inspiration from ancient and modern China, although he also lived in the United States for nearly two decades. “Of course I am a Chinese artist. I grew up in China and its culture is in my blood. But I work internationally, so the questions I deal with have a global reach,” he said.
“The questions I deal with have a global reach” – Xu Bing
Xu Bing was born in the province of Sichuan in 1955. His mother was a librarian and his father worked at a university. When he was a young boy, he suffered from ill health, which restricted his physical activities but did not quench his intense intellectual curiosity.
“When my mother worked in Peking Library, I often sat on the steps with a big pile of books,” he explained. He fondly remembers the volumes about history and topography and the guides to bookbinding, which later informed his art.
He visited the British Library as part of a programme of events taking place alongside the Making Your Markexhibition, which celebrates 5,000 years of writing. The show includes examples of Egyptian hieroglyphs, alongside ancient texts from Europe, Asia and the Middle East – as well as contemporary forms of expression.
Xu Bing proclaimed when he saw the exhibition: “Writing is the most fundamental expression of humankind. We recognise its power, whatever our nationality or culture.”
World of books
Much of Xu Bing’s work draws on the ancient art of calligraphy, although he also experiments with other types of written expression, such as the western alphabet, symbols and emojis.
When he was young, books were a vital point of contact with the wider world. “The Chinese books were very soft and light, whereas the western books were heavy and sometimes bound with leather,” he recalls.
Despite his love of books and art, as a young man he became frustrated by the pretentious language used by critics.
He once took an article about contemporary art from an American magazine and translated it into Chinese “so it made even less sense.” He then asked street artists in China to allow him to place their pictures alongside the garbled translation. This strange combination was submitted to a prestigious magazine called World Of Art.
The editors published the article in good faith, although by that stage any link between the words and pictures was purely coincidental. He smiles at the memory of his elaborate practical joke.
Xu Bing is among a generation of artists, including Ai Weiwei and Gu Wenda, who experienced the Cultural Revolution in China.
During the period from 1966 to 1976, China’s Communist leader Chairman Mao decided that all art should be primarily political, serving the Socialist cause. Works which were seen as western or decadent were removed from libraries and galleries and sometimes destroyed.
Xu Bing was studying at the time. “A few copies of precious books were circulated among the students and we even copied some of them by hand. We had to finish reading them quickly and then pass them to the next person,” he said.
After the Cultural Revolution, he remembers books becoming available and lots of people excitedly reading “like gorging on knowledge after a long hunger.”
Despite his constant quest for new forms of expression, Xu Bing
believes that artistic creation can flourish through disciplined practice. “In Zen Buddhism, one of the sutras says that it is only through constraint that the Buddha is born within us,” he said.
His most famous work, Book from the Sky (1988), includes 4,000 laboriously carved, seemingly traditional letters of Chinese text on hanging scrolls. Each of the characters is Xu Bing’s own creation and has no clear meaning, although the piece is evocative of many ideas.
At the moment, one of his major concerns is the environment. He recently undertook a major project in Kenya which included planting trees, as well as dialogue and education about environmental protection.
Xu Bing believes this form of art could be more rebellious than political expression.
“Whatever our ideology, be it Socialism or Capitalism, we all face the same crises caused by industrialisation. There is an ancient philosophy in China which emphasises the link between nature and human beings. If that idea was allowed to flourish now, I believe it would be truly revolutionary,” he said.
The author, Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine.