The long respected conceptual artist Xu Bing is multifaceted in talent and ideas. Renowned for his use and creation of meaningless Chinese characters, Xu probes audiences to reconsider ideas of calligraphy, symbolism of art and knowledge through language. Xu Bing subtly suggested how the amalgamation of various cultures and their products effects our perception of a piece of artwork. Despite the high walls languages build between people, Xu Bing creates abstractions of the Chinese language to enable viewers of all nationalities to associate with and value in his works.
Educated in the Classics, Xu Bing had an insatiable appetite for Chinese texts and his education until the Cultural Revolution. His later immigration to the United States morphed his comprehension of newly minted simplified Chinese characters in China and how non-Chinese readers and writers viewed Chinese as a language and as art. For centuries, China revered the act of ink painting as a righteous activity and regarded it as a product of higher reasoning. The traditional aspects of ink painting aimed to embrace vitality, careful compositional planning and expression. It was an antiquated practice that lacked the adaptation of Western ideas on perspective and representation and was assessed by its individual components over the painting's overall representation (a Western idea). Slowly with ideals to modernize and progress from its ancient past, a new written language was introduced in China. This introduction of simplified Chinese characters however marked a slow loss of this vital cultural heritage. To Xu Bing, the eyes of readers who lazed over basic, unchallenging words surely lead to a slothful mind and required a little stimulus.
Xu's commentary on this widespread phenomenon was his invention and use of the written language as a replacement of carefully rendered features such as trees, birds and water, best embodied in his later Landscript series. While this series did not fully materialize till later that year (2000), The Drawing from the Project of Helsinki-Himalaya Exchange is the part of the prelude to his highly successful and provocative series. Invited alongside five other artists to create an installation piece for the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki (1999-2000), Xu was asked to travel to Nepal and record his journey as a stranger in this new environment. Coming into contact with the poverty of the local people around Katmandu spurred the artist to new reflection on his own experiences 30 years earlier, when as a student, he was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Xu found through the recent mountain journey that despite the similar 'migration' into unknown territory of his past, his response to the new environmental stimuli was shockingly and radically distorted. He found that he and the Nepalese were incongruent in language and wealth and heritage:
I was not used to looking through those eyes, the eyes of the pitying, objective observer or an intellectual, thinking "What can be done for these people?" I was not used to looking from the vantage point of the supposedly highly civilized and looking down with fascination on unchanged cultural traditions and customs.
The separation between himself and China enabled him to see the Far East with a foreigner's perspective rather than as a local. It offered a new meaning to the previously propagandistic association of art and the people during the Cultural Revolution. This contemplation manifested itself in a series of sketches and calligraphic works during the Helsinki-Himalayan Exchange.
Over a large horizontal diptych format, Xu Bing uses Chinese ink on Nepalese paper, commanding restraint over the brushwork. The characters interweave through one another so closely the words themselves resemble one long flowing river. In the same way our eyes move along a landscape to absorb its entire image, we here are drawn to different parts of the paper by the inconsistent shape and size of the pictographs. While the writing of so many repetitive words seems like a daunting task, the words are not lackluster; they are animated and alive as nature itself. Trees line the background while leaves, rocks and even a donation box settles into the foreground.
It is ironic and convenient that the Chinese pictographs resembled the physical forms themselves in these landscape renditions. Using the character for 'rock', 'tree' house' and 'leaf', Xu aligned these characters in such a way that it mirrored the landscape he witnessed. For a viewer who is not Chinese literate, the varying thickness and shades of grey beautifully provide a dimensional rendition of the landscape, while a viewer familiar with the language can decipher the precise features of the scenery. Conversely, this linguistic barrier could be broken if the viewer recognized the relationship between shape and meaning of the characters. In this way, the viewer and the artwork are engaged in constant communication and active thinking. Observing Xu's landscape is not a mere mindless appreciation of nature but involves analysis of the synchronization of art and calligraphy thus reviving the lethargic mind.
Xu Bing's prowess as an artist is undeniable though is uncanny ability to be an educator and a humanitarian never surfaced before this project. He pays tribute to the people through the medium of art. At the exhibition in Helsinki, Xu placed a donation box in the exhibition area as depicted in the landscape in the poverty-stricken regions near Katmandu. Visitors could freely donate, and in return were offered a small postcard-sized sketch of Katmandu scenery done by Xu Bing himself. At the conclusion of the exhibition, a generous donation sufficient to provide educational opportunities for the children of the Katmandu area was collected and funded the construction of an elementary school. The giving and compassionate outlook of the artist expressed in such an act certainly surpasses the surface meaning of this large work. Though this opportunity, Xu not only truly connected the people to art but also was able to express the importance of education and the written language through a novel integration of pictorial representation. His works though rooted in the antiquated language of Chinese transpires generations and cultures, and is understood and accepted not only for its concept but indispensable aesthetic beauty.