I’m in the midst of my final exams, and I can’t believe that my graduate program in Chinese Studies is coming to an end already. (I do have to submit a dissertation that’s due in September, but that’s another story!) My parents have generously agreed to give me a piece of art as a congratulatory gift, and I’ve already selected the piece that I want. Of course, it’s by a Chinese artist! I don’t want to give too much away, since I haven’t even purchased the piece yet, but it definitely got me thinking about other works of contemporary Chinese art with similar themes that I could showcase on the blog in the meantime. I’ll definitely do a post about the piece I am buying once I’ve seen it in person!
I particularly love contemporary Chinese art because it is so closely linked with Chinese culture and history. There seems to be a huge pool of very talented Chinese artists working today, and the fact that the PRC heavily censors the media adds a lot of dimension and controversy to the landscape that these artists inhabit. As a result, the Chinese art market is booming, and the variety of styles and perspectives represented in the field is truly incredible.
My very close friend Nina Lippman is a specialist of Contemporary Chinese art based in Shanghai and New York, and she is the one who introduced me to the piece that I am buying. Have a look at her beautiful and inspiring facebook page that is constantly updated with the latest news in the Chinese contemporary art world.
This will be a three part post that explores some of my favorite Chinese contemporary artworks who are all concerned with issues of written language, calligraphy, and translation, starting with Xu Bing’s “Book from the Sky”. Look out for more art-related posts to follow in the next few weeks.
Keep in mind that these are just my personal interpretations of artworks and my opinions may not accurately reflect that artists’ original intentions.
Xu Bing’s “Tian Shu” (天书 － translated into English as “Book from the Sky”) was first shown publicly in 1988, and it is an installation of invented, meaningless Chinese characters hanging from the ceiling. The name “Tian Shu” functions as a pun in Chinese, meaning “Heavenly Script”, or “Obscure or Illegible Writing”.
The book was printed by hand in a factory specializing in traditional Chinese methods of printing and binding which are based on the techniques used in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 C.E.). The structure of the book includes a title, table of contents, recognizable paragraph structures, quotations, etc… Excluding the fact that the characters themselves are unreadable, “Book from the Sky” is a perfect example of an archive of Chinese literature.
The disciplined and historically accurate production, organization, and formatting render the piece a perfect example of Chinese cultural authority. The very name “Tian Shu” implies that the book has come from heaven and is bestowed or imposed upon the masses, thereby further emphasizing its authority. In this sense, one can interpret Xu Bing’s work as a commentary on how simplified Chinese characters were made the compulsory standard by the government in the 1950’s and 60’s and have lost much of the original cultural meaning of traditional characters.
However, “meaningless” may be a poor way to describe the characters in “Tian Shu”; perhaps Xu Bing has actually created a new system of writing in which each character has a specific connotation, but has yet to disclose this information to the public. Although this is entirely possible, we must not discard the word “meaningless” when describing the characters featured in “Tian Shu”, because their very “meaninglessness” makes a very significant point; some viewers speculate that Xu Bing’s intention was to comment on the reliability of knowledge and the place of tradition in modern Chinese society. The artist himself spent around three years designing and producing this work of art that no one can read or comprehend, thereby poignantly commenting on the futility of existence and limitations of human knowledge.
Chinese people’s reactions to “Tian Shu” are notably very different than those of a Western audience: Chinese people are frustrated by the piece because although the characters look like legible Chinese writing, ironically, they are unreadable! People who have no knowledge of written Chinese would not understand the significance of Xu Bing’s work. “Tian Shu” is certainly not “export art” because it is intended for a Chinese audience, or at least an audience with some knowledge of Chinese language.
Xu Bing’s emotive piece laments the current state of Chinese identity; by implying that Chinese written language itself has lost its meaning, Xu Bing is pointing out that Chinese culture is losing its meaning and significance as well. The artist uses Chinese characters to assert that language is a critical component of culture, and that Chinese language and historical traditions must be protected, internalized, and revered in order for Chinese culture to thrive and remain relevant in the 21st century.
You can see some of Xu Bing’s other amazing works on his website.