A funny thing happened at Eslite Gallery (誠品畫廊) on Sunday. While I was translating the interview below, a woman wandered into the room where I was working to examine a large rectangular whiteboard covered in tiny circular magnets, which she obviously presumed was a work of art. As she moved in for a closer look, a gallery employee shooed her out of the room with a “nothing to see here” gesture. “NT$100,000 and it’s yours,” I said as she exited the room.
The woman’s misunderstanding would probably appeal to contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing (徐冰) because she was forced to confront her own ideas of what constitutes an art object.
Xu, 57, has built his career on using art to snap us out of our habitual ways of thinking and perceiving. When Book From the Sky (天書) was first exhibited in China in 1989, for example, artists and intellectuals there couldn’t agree on what they were seeing. Conservative critics found his faux Chinese characters, printed on sheets of paper and bound in authentic-looking scrolls, blasphemous, his gesture tantamount to urinating on a revered literary tradition that had already received its fair share of disrespect during the Cultural Revolution.
Avant-garde critics, steeped in conceptual art, yawned at the work, calling the pictographs pointless reimaginings of an outmoded past; by the early 1990s, if you weren’t hanging naked from a ceiling or cooking and eating a fetus, the thinking went, then you shouldn’t be bothering with art.
But time seems to have vindicated Xu’s work. Celebrated at home and often discussed in art circles abroad, Xu seamlessly integrates Chinese tradition with contemporary art concepts, while managing to transcend both. Along with Book From the Sky, which consists of more than 4,000 invented Chinese characters, Eslite Gallery is currently showing Xu’s Square Word Calligraphy (新英文書法), a work made of English-language text written to look like Chinese characters, and Book From the Ground (地書), a novel constructed out of icons. The Taipei Times caught up with a relaxed-looking Xu last week and discussed the works on display.
What: Book From the Sky to Book From the Ground (從天書到地書)
When: Tuesdays to Sundays from 11am to 7pm. Until April 1
Where: Eslite Gallery (誠品畫廊), 5F, 11 Songgao Rd, Taipei City (台北市松高路11號5樓), tel: (02) 8789-3388 X1588
Taipei Times: Let’s first talk about Book From the Sky. How would you characterize the intellectual atmosphere in China in the years leading up to its production?
Xu Bing: The idea began in 1986, I started the project in 1988, and it was first exhibited in 1989. At the time, China was experiencing cultural fever (文化熱). The Cultural Revolution had just ended and there were many young intellectuals yearning to discuss questions of culture.
TT: China’s contemporary culture or traditional culture?
XB: Any culture. During the Cultural Revolution, access to anything outside of socialism was highly restricted or banned. Post-Cultural Revolution China saw the translation of books on modern Western philosophy — and these books were translated very quickly because, you know, there are a lot of Chinese. We also had access to and discussed books on classical Chinese [philosophy and art]. Book From the Sky was a response to this period.
TT: Is it fair to say that the shift from traditional characters to simplified characters during the Cultural Revolution also exerted an influence on your work, particularly Book From the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy?
XB: Absolutely. During the Cultural Revolution our teachers told us that traditional characters were no longer useful. Every semester, some traditional characters would be abolished and replaced by simplified characters. But then they would abolish the simplified characters that had just been introduced. This was an odd time for us because traditionally we Chinese believe that words are the creation of heaven; they are supposed to be respected, revered even. But when I was in school, it was okay to change them, which was truly an epochal shift. So having gone through this period, a seed was planted in me and those of my generation, that words are something that can be played with.