In his elaborate installation Square Words-New English Calligraphy, Xu Bing transforms the gallery in to a classroom. Conforming to a rigid grid, fifteen two-person desks are squarely oriented to the front of the room where a video monitor displays an instructional tape with Xu himself demonstrating the techniques of Chinese calligraphy. Only, the language he inscribes with a brush is imaginary. His simulated ideograms are actually composed of English letters, which when read in a systematic order (left to right and top to bottom) comprise English rather than Chinese words. Gallery visitors are invited to learn Xu’s language by tracing the radicals that comprise the ideograms in delicate handmade copy books supplied, along with brushes and ink, at the desks. There they discover they are writing familiar phrases, such as ‘three blind mice,’ in an unfamiliar hand. Housed like precious antiquities in vitrines at the back of the classroom are flat stones each sandblasted with an ideogram. These, along with hundreds of other stones, were the source of graphite rubbings on massive sheets of rice paper, which are gently draped on the walls. In Xu’s synthetic language, these ideograms spell English given (or ‘first’) names. With little effort, Xu’s text is intelligible to those who read English, but remains incomprehensible to non-English speakers, to whom the ideograms might at first appear to communicate.
Xu’s conceptual, language-based work call attention to the fallibility of cross-cultural linguistic communication. It also foregrounds prejudices and preconceptions based on appearances, since most Westerners will assume that the foreign appearance of the text (or, by extension, a person’s appearance) denotes a foreign language or purpose-that of the ‘other’-which is implicitly objectified. Other works by Xu, including A Book from the Sky (1987-91), a massive undertaking for which the artist invented 4,000 meaningless Chinese characters, and Brailliterate (1993) combining various found Braille texts with an English language title (‘New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures’), also investigates the relationship between language and knowledge. Xu provocatively extends the concerns of 1960s Conceptualism by acknowledging the shortcomings of its reliance on language, which is available only to informed speakers and cannot transcend cultural limitations. But where Conceptual art was often condemned for its reluctance to confront real-world issues, Xu examines the ideologies of formal education and acculturation to uncover the building blocks of society. Having lived through the radical jolts of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Xu informs his work with the desire for freedom, equality, and respect basic to all people of the world.
by Maaretta Jaukkuri
My unorthodox advice to the visitor of this exhibition, which includes the work of Esko Mannikko, Xu Bing and Franco Mondini-Ruiz, is to forget cultural differences and just concentrate on one’s own reaction to the art. The question to ask oneself is, ‘How does this work address me, how do I understand it on the basis of my own life experiences and my culture?’ The fact is that this art already transgresses the differences created by cultures. The artists have taken into consideration the context of the exhibition by consciously making these works for an American audience, so that the first act of cultural translation has already taken place. Thus, it is beside the point to focus excessively on the artist’s culture of origin. That can come later, after an encounter with the artwork, when one is able to reflect upon the nuances of presentation.
An interesting aspect of contemporary art is the use of metonymy, instead of traditional metaphor, as the dominant trope. Meaning accrues through the recognition of the similarities in dissimilarities, as a result of the viewer’s encounter with the artwork. This is the subjective moment in art: a reaching of a level of experience not necessarily communicable to others, the domain that previously was the sole right of the artist. In these cases, the art project individuates experiences, things and contemporary ideas rather than the artist’s self. Does the artist’s utterance resonate in our experience? What is new in art is its field of references and its way of addressing people. Artists seem to wish to speak straight to their viewers about the life that we share here and now. In a unique way, this is a utopian site, where real dialogue occurs in the trivial everyday lives that we all lead.
This does not, however, mean that the site of communication is devoid of conceptual structure or is less than well formulated. On the contrary, to reach people’s interest outside of the confines of the specialists one has to be both eloquent and precise, to evoke both visual traditions and the temporal dialect. The much-talked-about globalization is perhaps more a question of identifying the issues underlying cultures than the merging of different cultures. Unless one has acquired specific knowledge, cultures are often as opaque as languages. When something is said, we often understand it better by tones and pitches of voice, mimicry and bodily expressions than by language proper. What is spoken of in this exhibition is the time we are living in with its abundance of intrinsic manifestations and fields of experience. We are offered possibilities to see the world with other eyes: a vision likely to be clarified by the sharp-sightedness of someone seeing it from the inside as well as the outside.