Background Story: Woodcutter in Winter Mountains
Materials: Cut and painted acrylic
Location: Shanghai Library East Collection, Shanghai, 1st October 2022 Opening
The work is comprised of more than 800 "bird" characters written in different styles of "square word calligraphy" — a new form of writing designed by Xu Bing, created to resemble Chinese square characters using English. According to the dictionary, the word "bird" is defined as "a feathered creature with two legs and two wings, usually able to fly". Using this text as a starting point, the word "bird" starts to soar into the air, evolving from the printed script to the regular script, the official script and the small seal script, and finally tracing back to the "bird" characters of ancient hieroglyphs. The words fly out of the window into the sky. In a concise form, the artwork is appealing and inspiring, leading the viewers to contemplate words, concepts, knowledge, symbols and images.
1、Shang Hai Library: https://www.library.sh.cn/service/yspDetail?id=79274
2、UAP Company: https://www.uapcompany.com/zh/projects/xu-bing
The genetics of reading image
Media: Mixed media
Dimension: 145x100x2.4cm x 8
Exhibition: Mirroring the Heart of Heaven and Earth—Ideals and Images in the Chinese Study, The Palace Museum Meridian Gate (Wu men)，Beijing
One wish of mine since 2004 was to create a book that can be understood by all human beings using public signs. It’s been more than a decade since the start of this project, but it is nowhere near ending, and keeps evolving. With the age of globalization, and the now emerging globalization of “graphic expression” brought by the digital computation, new modes of expressions such as emojis and memes adored by the new generation are now making their appearances in the main exhibition hall of the Palace Museum—signs that appear to bear no association to ancient traditions. The audience might find it hard to adjust to the translation of 《兰亭集序》in emojis and memes, but the sense of alienation produces is vital to the intention of this work—to supply regular modes of thinking with a new “elements”. In this way can we better understand both our traditional and contemporary cultures.
“Wujing Cuishi” (A Room Assembling Five Classics) in today’s language means the “Library”. The ancient Chinese are experts at using images to express their comprehensions of items of complexity—looking at images is reading texts. “Shu Hua Tong Yuan”(Writing and drawing bear the same root) in my understanding is less a note on style but more an indication for semiotics. The way Chinese write the character “Shan” (mountain) is the same with which they draw a mountain. Despite the technics of signification, hieroglyphs, and coreference in modern Chinese, its hieroglyphic constituents still form the genetic core of this language. When we read the word “门” (door), we see the image of a door. If we bolt the door, adding a rod/stroke on it, then we have“闩”(latch). When we write the character “囧”(undesirable distress), aren’t we already drawing an emoji?
I often feel a sense of gratitude, to be able to witness the fact that we are still communicating in a mode as ancient as pictures and images as we step into the era of cyberpunk and the space age. It feels like time travel, living in this conjuncture, feeling that life itself is being stretched across time and space. It is not quite accurate when we say we are entering the age of image—we’ve been doing this for the past thousands of years. Today, so much of our everyday life is lived in the scope of the cellphone. It is our portable library and museum; and the first thing that occurs when we turn it on is to read the signs.
My expressive sensitivity to signs is derived from the genetics of reading images carried in my body. It is in our tradition, and it works best when activated/animated.
Medium: Mixed media installation
Exhibition：Museum of Art Pudong, Shanghai.
This installation art is founded on the law of perspective, but it does not end with visuality.
Stretched by gravity, this sky-dimming “Square Word Calligraphy” reaches to the ground. While creating a distorted textual space, it simultaneously puts the viewers into a tension between “seeing” and “reading”.
Problem regarding “seeing” first arises when viewers stand underneath the work. In addition to the reversed text, the contortions and overlaps make the characters in the exhibition hall even harder to read. Meanwhile, the mirror on the floor embeds the text into a huge “wormhole model” that interconnects the two inverted spaces. It is not hard to find that the reversed characters become legible in the mirror image, but the audience in this space still cannot see the entire work. The combination of the installation and the museum space seems to present a theatrically inviting quality. As viewers go to higher floors and their viewing perspective switches, the distorted characters gradually appear normal. From the top floor, the viewers can finally see the front of the characters, but remain unable to read the text in its entirety. Where lies this work’s ideal perspective?
In fact, the whole installation is comparable to a giant “optical illusion” model: people are used to reading words written on a flat surface, so when words are stretched in space, the ideal viewing perspective is being pushed further conversely. As the three-dimensional is converted to the two-dimensional, the law of perspective inherently builds a wrestling relationship. The interaction between the form of the work and the viewing point compels the ideal viewing perspective to an unreachable height outside the museum. This perspective only exists conceptually.
The law of perspective exists because of the limitation that human sight cannot be bent, while in this work, this limitation itself becomes a kind of “material”. The law of perspective is a kind of language through which we describe the world. Like all other languages, it serves as an intermediary between our thinking and the outside world. There must be blind spots in our thinking since it is shaped by various languages. (Or, As thinking is shaped by various languages, blind spots exist outside of linguistic demonstrations.)
The Square Word Calligraphy contained in this work is transcribed from an excerpt by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Whereas it appears to be an analysis of several visual experiments, this passage actually points to a common misunderstanding in human cognition. Wittgenstein believes that people are used to summarize concepts with logic and systematically understand the world through clarifying concepts. In reality however, this practice keeps us away from real parts of the world. Just like what’s going on in the present world, the tension between civilizations seems to be fundamentally derived from dislocations and differences in human perspectives. An arena full of tensions and gravitations is thereby created. The characters, distorted by space, fall into a chaos of illegibility in which every single element points to an “ideal perspective” suspended (or hanging) outside the exhibition hall. As if all the chaos in the world stems from an unknown purpose. Unseen but exists.