Meaninglessness and Confrontation in Xu Bing's Art

Gao Minglu

Fragmented Memory: The Chinese Avant-Garde in Exile (Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University)


Meaninglessness and confrontation, the most important presuppositions of Xu Bing's art, are both exemplified in "Cultural Negotiation", an installation in which several hundred unreadable books in English and Chinese cover the surface of a gargantuan conference table. Xu claims meaninglessness as the goal of his art, a function all the more contradictory because he uses language or symbol-laden monumental imagery as the basis for his work. When he establishes a space without meaning in his work, Xu believes, viewers will fill it with their own readings of the confrontations that occur between different cultures and eras.

Well-established as a print-maker in the early 1980s, Xu Bing shifted his attention to the making of installations in 1985. His first major piece of this kind, " Book of Heaven" (sometimes translated as "Book from the Sky), was completed in 1988; the work comprises long scrolls of printed text, strips of text that may be pasted on the wall to resemble monumental steles, and boxed sets of books bound in blue paper covers that perfectly resemble traditional Chinese books. First exhibited in 1988 at the Chinese National Art Gallery in Beijing, and subsequently shown in a number of venues in Asia and the West, this extraordinary piece was the product of three years of intensive labor. Xu hand-carved over two thousand pieces of wooden type to print what look like Chinese characters in the Song dynasty style. None of Xu Bing's characters can be pronounced or understood, however, since each is invented by the artist, composed of rearranged elements from real Chinese characters.

By his complete avoidance of legibility in the text, Xu removed all semantic significance from the work itself, and thus erased all traces of his own ego as the creator of the work. The viewer fi free to invest the piece with meaning and to create a new mental space in the space of the installation. Xu's work seems to exemplify in quite literal terms Rolans Barthes's concept that after the author has finished his or her work. The "reader is the space… on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed…a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination." That is to say, the explanation of a work should not be thought in the artist who produced it, but in the reader.

The space created in Xu Bing's work relates also to a Chinese concept, the idea of " emptiness," that is crucial in Chan Buddhism. In Chan thought, a realization of the concept of "emptiness" is the moment in a person's experience when the mind is opened to discover a much richer and more certain truth, namely, enlightenment. Xu's illegible "Book of heaven " provides for the viewer a meaningless text that can serve a role similar to the space of "emptiness".

XuBing's second major installation was his "Ghosts Pounding the Wall, a three-story-high ink rubbing taken from a section of the Great Wall. As displayed in the Elvehjem Museum at the University of Wisconsin in late 1991, the work involved massive black and white scrolls hung from ceiling to floor across the building's central court. At the lower end, a mound of dirt that looks like a tomb pinned the scrolls to the floor.

Xu Bing and his crew labored in the mountains for twenty-four days in 1990 to make impressions of the surface of the Great Wall, Using a technique traditionally employed for reproducing fine carvings of calligraphy. Over the course of several months, the ink-smudged sheets of Chinese paper were resembled and mounted. For Xu , the expenditure of utmost effort was necessary to create an imposing psychological and physical space similar to the space of the Great Wall itself. Yet, the piled earth of the tomb at the foot of Xu's paper Great Wall is an obvious symbol of death. The confrontation between the splendid if ghostly paper representation of the Great Wall and the nihilistic physical presence of the earthen grave mound raises doubts about the purpose of human effort. Not only questioning the artist's replication of the rough and inelegant surface of the Great Wall, but questioning more generally all human effort, including construction of the original Great Wall.

The powerful image of the Great Wall has become a symbol of the Chinese nation in the twentieth century, believed, as it popularly is in China, to be the largest construction on the world and to be the product of two thousand years of labor. Scholarly research suggests, however, that the wall actually was built over a much shorter period and that it was strategically useless as a border defense in its own day. In his simulation of the Great Wall, Xu Bing embodies the meaninglessness of its construction through his own exhausting activity of pounding the wall with ink-drenched wads of cloth. Even the title conveys the meaninglessness of human effort, relating as it does to a popular Chinese folktale in which a traveler, lost in the middle of the night, kept walking in circles as if ghosts had built a wall around him to prevent him continuing in his chosen direction. In spite of its purported meaninglessness, however, the work echoes with meanings related to china's politics and its reality. Who are these ghosts, the ancients who built the wall that still restricts the direction in which Chinese might choose to go? The artist seems to mock himself and the futility of his own exertions; he is unable, even with extraordinary effort, to do anything about his own circumstances and environment, like his ancestors confined by the barrier of the real wall or the traveler surrounded by an imaginary one. The meaninglessness of the Great Wall here evokes cultural confrontations of various kinds: between the real creative power of China's ancient people and its simulation by the contemporary artist; or between China's heritage of national greatness and its current reality.

After Xu Bing emigrated to the United States in 1991, he began to respond to new cultural confrontations, shifting his concern away from the conflicts internal to China and examining instead those between Chinese and Western cultures and identities. He continued to use language, expanding beyond Chinese characters to manipulate English letters.

In San Diego in 1991, Xu exhibited a set of ceramic sculptures resembling pieces of moveable type. The words on the tops of the blocks were Chinese characters that, if read aloud , sound like the English alphabet. Used to approximate English sounds, the words are supposed to be meaningless. Chinese characters, however, bear their meaning in their forms, and the words Xu chose echo with painful or absurd semantic resonance. Often, when foreign words are transliterated in Chinese, the original meaning will be transformed in the new cultural background; one cannot but think that the work expresses the discomfort of an adult forced to learn a new language, who brings to simple linguistic facts a complicated cultural baggage.

"Cultural Negotiation," Xu Bing's installation in the present show continues these linguistic explorations. The work consists of a huge conference table, ten oversize chairs, and some four hundred large volumes from two sets of books. The first set consists of about 290 identical copies of English -language text, "Post-Testament", which was hand-printed using lead type and then bound in leather like an antique European tome. The second set comprises over 100 Chinese-style books from the "Book of Heaven" . Like the volumes from "Book of Heaven", Post-Testament", which was specifically prepared for this exhibition, initially seems conventional and readable. On closer examination, however, it is not. Xu merged two preexisting texts, the King James version of the "New Testament " and a contemporary pulp novel, alternating words do that nothing can really be read. The nonsense text that resulted has a bizarre effect on the reader, for as one's 'eyes move across each line of type, elegant Biblical phrases confront coarse fragments of erotic or violent language. "Post-Testament" makes clear the misunderstanding and miscommunication that are inevitable when two different kinds of content and systems of discourse meet, but the misunderstandings further suggest religious, and political standards. Going a step further, or perhaps taking a step back, Xu's juxtaposition of "Post- Testament" with " Book of Heaven" symbolizes the confrontation of Eastern and Western culture. Viewers could peruse copies of both as they walked the fifty-foot length of the black table, but in the work' s inaccessible center, the heavy leather-bound English books seem to crush the "Book of Heaven." Over the scene looms a large "quiet" sign, a feature of many public settings in China.

Xu Bing chooses the written language as his medium and the most traditional form of dissemination it, the hand-printed book, as the object of his representation. Indeed, his labor-intensive techniques are the most traditional of those to be found in this exhibition. His meaningless books, however, may be seen as questionings not only the relationships between traditional and contemporary culture, or between East and West, but also as allegories of contemporary representations of reality.

Brian Wallis, in summarizing the ideas of Jean Baudrillard, Points out that "media-derived representations are more real to us today than reality… Certain forms of imagery and narrative strategies in the media, having no basis in fact, have warped our definition of and access to material reality." Xu Bing's simulated books challenge our access to reality in a similar way. Indeed, Xu's representations of books, which are not really books, obscure our apprehension of reality even more obviously than most representations. The meaninglessness of Xu Bing's text, to borrow Wallis's phrase, exposes the " gauze of representation" that inevitably mediates our access to reality. His fake characters, then, reveal the deceptiveness of all representation. (pp. 28-31)