As a young man, Xu Bing developed an odd relationship to language. The son of a professor and a librarian, he spent his early years surrounded by books that he could not read. His school years coincided with the Cultural Revolution,... [more]
As a young man, Xu Bing developed an odd relationship to language. The son of a professor and a librarian, he spent his early years surrounded by books that he could not read. His school years coincided with the Cultural Revolution, when he and other children were sent off to camps to learn Mao's new official language, which was regularly changed to meet official doctrine. He returned home to his parents only to meet yet another language, now strange to him, and a new culture of control: to instill discipline, his father made him copy classical Chinese characters every day. For Xu, these characters came to represent the forces of authority rather than a vital link to his ancient culture.
Xu's art stems from this alienated relationship to language. His breakthrough installation, "A Book from the Sky" (1987), featured hundreds of beautifully bound books and giant scrolls that arched across ceilings and down walls. The documents contained 4000 unreadable characters: a new language that Xu had created. The installation puzzled Chinese and international viewers alike. The Chinese approached the texts expecting to find legible writing, while non-Chinese viewers viewed the work as a comment on the artist's ruptured culture. Xu insists that the project, like all his text-based installations, was not about his personal history at all. Instead, these works express his doubt about cultural authority on the larger level. In the gap that exists between the serious execution and presentation of the books -- which seem like authentic classical volumes -- and the underlying absurdity of the project, the artist points out the disconnection between official and private uses of language.
The same impulse informs Xu's "New Language Project," an English-to-Chinese dictionary in which the English text makes sense, but the Chinese is nonsensical. His art asserts that printed script is a social field that exists as a structural by-product of ideology, but that an individual's reaction to words and language occurs at a level deeper than any ideological construct. As Xu learned as a child, the personal becomes alien when used for official purposes.
In his latest projects, Xu comments on human culture by using animals. In the Performance art piece "A Case Study of Transference," he printed Chinese characters on a female pig and English characters on a male pig, then placed them in a pen filled with books in different languages. The transference could not have been more literal, as the pigs quickly set to making piglets, their primal interaction erasing the superficial constructs of culture. [show less]