See I'd follow this old dictionary from the simple to the complex," he says, opening the dictionary. "See here, one stroke, three strokes, ten strokes. You can put the water part with the mountain part and you will think the character is about the landscape.
- Xu Bing
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 affects 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 his works. "We didn't have western contemporary art. But this pushed me to find something."
Xu's invention and use of the written language as a replacement of carefully rendered features such as trees, birds and water are best embodied in his later Landscript series. Long River No. 2 & Hillside Fields (Lot 945) grew out of his self imposed exile as a young adult in the Chinese countryside. On an aesthetic level, the work could be regarded as a puzzle, map, or pictograph. Familiar signposts are marked clearly, detailing the landscape and physical imagery's placement on the canvas. Hills and fields meet at the intersection of the artist's imagination. The idea of a landscape has never been reversed in quite the way that Xu has utilized and incorporated the shapes of words and literal meanings into forming the landscape. Though letters are a limited entity that can not represent the entirety of expression found in the human language, their usage in his portrayal of the mountains, river, and sun coalesce with a descriptive emotional script.
An interaction takes place between the artist and audience with Xu's work requiring a disassembly of conjured meanings by the viewer. Despite using a traditional Chinese scroll, Landscript 2004 (Lot 944 ) has morphed into a figurative art piece, or rather, into a literal story. Characters for rock, tree, and grass navigate the canvas' monochromatic surface of undulating brush strokes. Finely detailed words emerge out of the inky patterns. Xu's works are thought provoking and challenge the preconceptions on written communication. Words, simplified in their meaning, are no longer two dimensional, stimulating the audience on a purely superficial level. Like a map, the words guide the reader in their experience of the text. Through the medium of the ink on scroll, Xu's incorporation of new elements and tangibility breathes life and creativity into one of the oldest art forms. Distinctly Chinese in text, One River, Two Lands is universally accessible in its painting of the country, and stimulation in the eyes of the reader.
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.
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. 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.