There’s an idea I want to develop in this post, and I’ll get to it soon. But first: a puzzle! Can you figure out what the following two pictures are?
If you’re ‘freaking out,’ here’s a helpful hint: you don’t need to know how to read Chinese, and if you can read what I’ve written so far you’ll do just fine. Here’s the second picture:
Click after the jump for the solution…
Did you figure it out? Yes? Fantastic! Indeed, the two pictures taken together ‘read’ as W. B. Yeats’ “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” written from left to right in the quasi-classical written Chinese tradition (older texts in Chinese generally read vertically from right to left). Each “character” is in fact an English word of the poem, with the letters arranged in an order reminiscent of the stroke sequences employed in writing Chinese characters. And if you made it to the end, you’ll have noted the caption: “Calligraphy by Xu Bing.”
Xu Bing (1955-present), as it turns out, is a modern Chinese artist, and one who is obsessed with exploring how language and reading shape our understanding of art and the world. This particular piece – titled after the poem and completed in 1999 – is part of a current exhibition at the Met titled “Ink Art (水墨): Past as Present in Contemporary China,” which focuses on the reinterpretation of traditional Chinese ink painting techniques in a distinctly modern context. If you’re in the NYC area, I would highly recommended checking it out – my family and I managed to do so before the new year and we found some intriguing pieces well-worth our attention. (The exhibition ends on April 6.)
But back to Xu’s piece. What’s remarkable about this representation of Yeats’ poem is how it manages to apply a well-defined writing scheme (the ‘square box’ form of Chinese characters) to a completely different linguistic form – such as the text I’m typing out right now – and yet achieve exactly the same meaning. (The man was also kind enough to write out his scheme in a separate work, also available at the exhibition: click here for a preview.) Moreover, Xu cleverly repackages the poem, an “Irish” text, as a “Chinese” work of art in an “American” setting, thereby fusing three countries, two (written) languages, and their numerous differences in – and forgive me for the pun – a single stroke. Much like the concrete poems of Herbert and the rest, this piece manages to demonstrate just how powerful language can be when we choose to look beyond some of the borders we impose between one script and another.
Yet Xu isn’t just satisfied with turning poems into pretty pictures. On the other hand, he seems to be intent on taking language in the other direction, as is the case with this piece titled “Book from the Sky” (ca. 1987-1991):
It might be tough to tell from the picture alone, but this particular piece is about as far removed from “Aengus” as possible. In fact, knowing any Chinese won’t help at all…because no character in this piece is even legible.
Yes, that’s right – every single ideograph in “Book from the Sky” is in fact a ‘false character,’ the Chinese equivalent of non-onomatopoeic gibberish in English (I’ll leave you to fill in your own examples in your mind). Xu spent over four years working on this ‘text’, apparently (according to the piece’s nameplate in the museum) hand-carving every single ‘character’ before stamping it onto the paper. Indeed, the whole book takes up an entire room at the Met, and it is perhaps the standout piece of the entire “Ink Art” exhibition. (Aren’t you glad I saved you a voluntary donation to see the exhibit?)
There’s undoubtedly a degree of neuroticism, if not outright insanity from Xu’s take on the art of writing, but it’s definitely worth noting just how easy it is to take writing – in any script – as meaning for granted. After all, English claims 26 letters in the Roman alphabet, yet for anything written in this alphabet to make semantic sense it has to fit at least one of nearly a million permutations amidst an infinite number of possibilities. Even the logic behind these permutations can feel ridiculously arbitrary. Why, after all, should the sound a dog makes be represented by letters as strangely shaped as a, b, f, k, o, r, and w? How does the word “knife” even come close to bearing the shape of that sharp-edged object we use to cut tomatoes?
Looking back on “Book from the Sky” – and even “Aengus” – I’m starting to wonder how anything can really be read at all. It’s one thing for a written piece to look, and feel, like a poem or a play or an essay. If nothing else, having enough reading experience makes that association acceptable. But for something to have no meaning at all? To have nothing, no relationship attached to form?