Lost and Found

Ann W. Lloyd
Xu Bing: Language Lost (Massachusetts: Massachusetts College of Art)


One suspects Xu Bing was a cultural nomad long before he ever left his homeland. On the surface, Xu Bing's work may look as if it addresses rootlessness and standard east/west cultural clash but it is much more about dislocation in the conceptual sphere than the geographic one. The uncharted places Bing probes lie between parallel cultures of high intellectualism and simple earthiness, between the analytical and the actual, between humanity¹s vaporous mental spinnings and a silkworm¹s tensile floss. Language Lost, Bing's newest installation, invokes corollary responses to these cultural breaches, responses marked by absurdity and anxiety (usually more so for the sophisticate, ironically, than the less aware.)

Parallel cultures are universal. Art students know the problem—explaining your current conceptually—based work to dear old auntie, for instance. Bing‘s work proves that cultures can reconnect through means other than language per se. Futility and meaninglessness, bywords critically connected with his work, have connotations too negative to describe what really occurs. Beneath his precise formalism, Bing jostles together diverse levels of cultural 'languages,' meanings and experiences, provoking sly and subtle ironies and conceptual agitations.

His wry humor was most obvious in his performance/video piece A Case Study of Transference, 1994, in Beijing, the artist¹s first major work using live animals. In it, he mixed the pragmatism of Chinese pig-breeding farmers with conceptual linguistics and poetic metaphors. But the pigs just did their thing—mating, and then rooting around the book-covered floor of their pen. Xu Bing says what interested him most about the piece, was the challenge of dealing with the animals' biology and idiosyncrasies, and how he had to rely heavily on the earthy experience of peasant pig farmers to orchestrate the event. Reactions of both pigs and people were also revealing. Pigs have sexual preferences, for instance. The male refused the first female offered him, but showed no hesitation to the second. Bing was also concerned the pigs might not perform under the stressful conditions—a new pen, the glare of lights from the video camera, and the crowd of avant garde intellectuals who gathered to watch. But it was the intellectuals who became anxious, not the pigs. "All these professors came to the art activity and became very awkward during the mating," Bings says. "The pigs were very cool, very focused, and when the piece was finished, the pigs were just the same, but not so the people."

On the surface the pigs were not exactly the same either. Before hand, the artist had bathed, shaved and inked them up with his signature nonsense writing—the female pig sported faux Chinese characters, the male, Roman letters spelling pseudo words. And while the pig farmers likely thought all this was just quizzical, it's a good bet the art intellectuals were obsessing about metaphoric meanings, references to Dadaist irony, tradition versus postmodernism, cultural hierarchies, and who's screwing whom, culturally speaking.

Intellectualism and its legal currency, language, are better off for injections of earthiness and absurdity. Animals, the ultimate other, bring rationality up short; our primary relationship with them is essentially ineffable. The farther away from our own animal nature we ‘progress,’ however, the shallower, more artificial that relationship becomes. Who is to say who has the more ‘natural’ relationship to pigs, the pragmatic pig-breeding farmers, or the intellectual, who, faced with what pigs naturally do, must struggle hard to be analytical. The mating pigs have had a lingering lingual resonance that is a perfect illustration for Bing's point about language, though since he is not a native English speaker, he may not yet have realized it. Documented in the critical discourse about this work, the pigs are often described as ‘fornicating,’ a word with a definite gloss of morality, meaning lust outside of marriage. Since it's not possible for pigs to marry or be immoral, it's not possible for them to fornicate either. Language lost from its physical roots trips up intellectualism yet again.

Like the hard-working pig farmers, Xu Bing seems to have an inherent ability to provoke these absurd situations with his culturally hybrid, labor-intensive installations. Language Lost is perhaps his most complexly layered work. It combines elements of past pieces, like the swooping paper sutras, painstakingly printed with nonsense Chinese characters (from A Book from the Sky, 1987-91), interlayerings of Chinese and western books that appeared in Cultural Negotiations, 1992-93, disjunctively titled Braille texts that confound both the blind and the sighted (from Brailliterate, 1993), computer printouts, and another challenging orchestration of living creatures, the silkworms busily propagating inside the table cases. For the several months preceding Bing's installation here, he immersed himself in sericulture, overseeing the hatching of silkworm eggs imported from Japan, nurturing them through their various stages, and allowing them to collaborate on the final outcome of the piece. The artist's concept evolved as the worms did, giving Language Lost a Cage-like element of chance and surprise. The tiny mature worms move ever so slightly on the printed pages, suggesting text come alive, quite literally a living language. Other pages host incubating eggs or have become finely encased in silkworm spinnings as nature slowly obliterates all traces of culture. One can't help making poetic metaphors, it seems, though, like pigs, silkworms just do and just are. 

Other artists have used living creatures in their installations, most notably Ann Hamilton, to whom Bing is also related by a common penchant for intensive labor. Over a period of four years, for instance, Bing handcarved over 4000 nonsense Chinese characters, one to correspond to each legitimate character, and used them to print the hanging sutras and the Chinese books. He is linked particularly to Hamilton by the installation's emphatic physical impact that acts to counter esoterica and reveal the arbitrary nature of language. The many hours of 'doing' behind the work give it substance; out of action comes real knowing and authenticity that prevail against inflated texts.

Hamilton's installations tend to be more serious and meditative, while Bing finesses a fine sense of irony and absurdity out of similar methods and concerns. Unquestionably, real life experience has been a model for him. During China's Cultural Revolution Bing was sent away from his privileged academic family to work on peasant farms, an experience he found enlightening. Combined with China's recent political flux, with it's totalitarian mythmaking and constant revision of those myths, Bing was provided a profound life exercise in the arbitrary nature of culture and language.

Xu Bing deftly transcends those fertile experiences. Rather than personal narrative, his work compels through formal beauty and authentic physicality that slowly reveals its details—massive amounts of unreadable words, for instance, or the tiny silkworms spinning away on their nests of human ditherings, 'losing' the printed language. Parallel universes are quietly present here, beckoning to any and all. But while there's something for everyone, much is also unavailable, or only partially so. Western literates, for instance, might well have levels of anxiety confronted with so much importantly presented Chinese writing, yet think how Chinese literates must feel confronted by yards of Chinese writing unintelligible even to them.

To the literate, simply being shut out of such a monumental display of information is absurdly worrisome—like walking through stacks at a serious library, realizing the futility of absorbing it all. Language has it limitations, but there are other ways of knowing. Only illiterates, perhaps, can fully appreciate Xu Bing's graceful and elegant installations. Only they are relieved of the paranoia instilled by that dangerous possession, a little knowledge. (pp. 20-25)

(Ann Wilson is an American independent art critic who writes international reviews and features for the New York Times newspaper, Art in America Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and other American art publications. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., and has written extensively atbout Xu Bing's work)