Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part II (B)

Today’s post features Chinese artist Gu Wenda’s piece entitled “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry”. (For my previous post on Gu, click here).

To produce this piece, Gu carved translations of Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 C.E.) poetry into 50 stone tablets. The poems were translated first literally from Chinese into English, and then phonetically from English back into Chinese. As you can imagine, this convoluted method of translation renders the final product completely incomprehensible.

Gu Wenda, “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (2001)

Gu Wenda, “Forest of Stone Steles: Retranslation and Rewriting of Tang Poetry” (2001)

 

Gu’s “Forest of Stone Steles” comments on issues of translation and cultural misunderstanding in a globalized world. His artistic rendition of misinterpretation challenges the accepted notions of translation and meaning, arguing that a misunderstanding of text, writing, and language inevitably results in a misreading of culture itself.

Gu Wenda’s concern with translation can be interpreted as a distinctly post-modern, global problem, but his knowledge of traditional Chinese poetry and writing systems ground him firmly in ancient Chinese history. In this way, Gu manages to straddle the past and the present, the East and the West, addressing contemporary, universal questions with an understanding of tradition and a sense of history.

“Forest of Stone Steles” can alternatively be interpreted as an exploration of the Chinese cultural identity as it stands in opposition to “the other” or “the West”, exposing the miscommunications that occur because of that dichotomy. Gu’s artwork does not offer a solution to cross-cultural misunderstanding, nor does it provide a concrete definition of what it means to be Chinese; however, his work clearly exposes the linkages between Chinese writing systems and the Chinese concept of cultural identity. Through his commitment to ancient Chinese methodology and his deep understanding of Chinese linguistic traditions, he proposes that ancient Chinese language and text can serve as a source of distinction and definition.

Stay tuned for my next post featuring another contemporary Chinese artist who deals with issues of language and translation in his work!

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Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part II (A)

Another Chinese artist who works with language as a means of deconstructing the Chinese cultural identity is Gu Wenda. Gu has an array of fascinating pieces to explore – which is why this post will actually be divided into two parts (A and B). Part A will focus specifically on the “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series, which explores the historical significance of the simplification of Chinese characters. Check the blog again in the next few weeks to see my next post about some of Gu’s other works.

Born in 1955, Gu Wenda experienced the Cultural Revolution and even joined the Red Guard, where he was asked to contribute to the simplification of Chinese characters. His experience during this time sparked a fascination with the ancient Chinese writing system, and he was inspired to study traditional Chinese calligraphy. As a result, text and language are central to his “Mythos of Lost Dynasties” series, which are large-scale ink paintings on scrolls depicting subverted Chinese ideographs.

Gu Wenda - The Mythos of Lost Dynasties

Gu Wenda, “The Mythos of Lost Dynasties” (1983-1987)

 

Much like Xu Bing’s “Tian Shu” (check out my previous post on Xu Bing here), Gu Wenda’s characters are “meaningless” and invented, but both artists’ works remain true to traditional Chinese methods of calligraphy and printing, and both pieces clearly maintain a distinctively Chinese quality. Gu Wenda’s characters are in fact based off the ancient Chinese “Seal Script” that was widely used in the Qin (221-206 B.C.E) and Han (206 B.C.E – 220 C.E.) Dynasties. Aside from the fact that the ideographs are completely indecipherable, Gu’s art works look remarkably historically accurate. He utilizes conventional media such as ink, paper scrolls, and traditional calligraphy tools to create a seemingly authentic pseudo-language.

Gu posits that writing and text are fundamental to Chinese cultural identity. He argues that language is a signifier of cultural conventions, but by manipulating language, one can both embrace and challenge tradition simultaneously. Like Xu Bing, Gu’s “meaningless” characters also provoke questions about the limitations of language and human understanding. Perhaps Gu Wenda, in calling attention to the fact that language and text can be manipulated, is drawing upon his own experience in the Cultural Revolution and referencing his own role in the process of simplifying traditional Chinese characters.

Although his work provides no easy answers, I would argue that Gu, like Xu Bing, laments the current state of Chinese identity, and proposes a renewed interest in ancient Chinese writing and language as source of self discovery. His fastidious commitment to historical accuracy in the process of writing the characters and clear respect and knowledge of the discipline of calligraphy itself can be interpreted as somewhat nostalgic; perhaps Gu is arguing that a renewed understanding and of the process and methodology of traditional Chinese writing systems can provide meaning to the Chinese people.

In 1993, Gu began a fifteen year project called “United Nations”, in which Gu collected human hair donated by people around the world to create massive calligraphy installations that explored the idea of “internationalism”. You can learn more about that project here.

Also, check out Gu’s website for his bio and some of his other works. Look forward to part B of this post, which will feature more on Gu Wenda!

Nerding Out Over Contemporary Chinese Art – Part I

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”.

Xu Bing Tian Shu

Xu Bing, “Tian Shu” (1988)

 

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.

My Favorite Chinese Poem – “Quiet Night Thoughts” by Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Po or Li Bo,  (701-762 C.E.) is one of the most well-known and widely quoted poets in Chinese history. He lived during the “Golden Age” of Chinese art and culture, the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.).

 

Li Bai

Here is one of his most famous poems, which also happens to be my personal favorite:

 

靜夜思

床前明月光,

疑是地上霜。 

举头望明月, 

低头思故乡。

 

Jìng yè sī 

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.

Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè,

Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

 

Quiet Night Thoughts

In front of my bed, the bright moon shines,

I thought it was frost on the ground.

I raise my head and gaze at the shimmering moon,

Then lower my head and miss my home.

The Lion Eating Poet in the Stone Den

Here is an amazing example of how puns work in Mandarin Chinese language.

This is a very famous Chinese poem written by Yuan Rao Chen (1892-1982) that consists only of the sound “shi” in different tones. Yuan Rao Chen was a Chinese American linguist who developed a new romanization scheme for Chinese, served as Bertrand Russell’s interpreter for his visit to China in 1920, and created this really cool example of constrained writing in Chinese.

 

Yuen RaoChen

 

All in all, a pretty cool guy! Now, let’s have a look at the poem written in Chinese characters:

 

《施氏食狮史》

石室诗士施氏,嗜狮,誓食十狮。

氏时时适市视狮。

十时,适十狮适市。

是时,适施氏适市。

氏视是十狮,恃矢势,使是十狮逝世。

氏拾是十狮尸,适石室。

石室湿,氏使侍拭石室。

石室拭,氏始试食是十狮。

食时,始识是十狮尸,实十石狮尸。

试释是事。

 

Notice that each character is different and each character represents a word (or a word-component) in Chinese. Looking at this, it’s clear that the poem consists of many different words with different meanings.  Now have a look at the romanized version of the poem. For those who aren’t familiar with “pinyin”, the little lines on the top represent various tones.

 

« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.

Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.

Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.

Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.

Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.

Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.

Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.

Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.

Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.

Shì shì shì shì.

 

As you can see, the poem consists only of the sound “shi” in different tones. Now let’s examine the English translation:

 

« Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den »

In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.

He often went to the market to look for lions.

At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.

At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.

He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.

He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.

The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.

After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.

When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.

Try to explain this matter.

 

Brilliant, isn’t it?

Chineasy?

I came across this TED Talk a while ago and thought it deserved a place on the blog since it is so relevant to what I’m studying! In it, ShaoLan Hsueh discusses her intuitive method of learning Chinese characters, which she calls “Chineasy”. Have a watch:

You can learn more about Hsueh’s background on the TED website. And you can check out the Chineasy website as well if you’re interested.

It’s important to remember that since she is from Taiwan, Hsueh is actually using traditional characters instead of the simplified characters that are used in mainland China. This is apparent when you look at the character “door”.

Hsueh uses the traditional variant, that looks like this: 門

As opposed to the simplified version that looks like this: 门

She also mentions that if you know 1,000 characters, you have achieved basic literacy in Chinese. And, according to Hsueh, if you can recognize the most basic 200 characters, than you have achieved “basic comprehension”, enabling you to read menus, most signs, etc… Personally, I think Hsueh has a relatively low bar for what “basic comprehension” means. I hope this doesn’t put anyone off learning Chinese, but I have studied formally for five years and probably recognize somewhere between 1,500 – 2,000 characters, and I still struggle with reading menus and newspapers, just because of the sheer volume of characters in use today.

In any case, even though I disagree with her benchmarks for success, I really like that Hsueh has attempted to make Chinese written language somewhat more accessible to foreigners. I find that many people who are unfamiliar with Asian languages find them intimidating, and I applaud anyone who tries to make Chinese language fun.

Dose of Philosophy

子曰:”三人行,必有我师焉:择其善者而从之,其不善者而改之.”

Confucius said: “In a group of three people, there is always something I can learn. Choose to follow the strengths of others, use the shortcomings to reflect upon ourselves.”

Verse 21 of Analects of Confucius Chapter 7