INK studio is honored to present "Xu Bing: Language and Nature" organized by the artist’s long-standing curatorial partner, INK studio Artistic Director Dr. Britta Erickson. Xu Bing is widely recognized as one of the leading conceptual artists of language and semiotics working today. Indeed, many consider the relationship between humankind and language to be the dominant leitmotif of Xu Bing’s oeuvre. For "Language and Nature", Erickson takes a fresh look at Xu Bing’s practice and explores its central theme of Nature. Specifically, it examines Nature’s relationship to human minds and human societies as embodied in two distinctly Chinese modes of signification: the pictorial character of Chinese writing and the language-like nature of Chinese painting.
Xu Bing and Britta Erickson first met in 1991 while working together on his first institutional exhibition outside of Asia, a major solo show at the Elvehjem Museum, Madison, Wisconsin. Xu Bing and Dr. Erickson re-united a decade later for Xu Bing’s solo exhibition Word Play: Contemporary Art by Xu Bing at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, America’s national gallery for Asian art in Washington D.C. Focusing on Xu Bing’s explorations of language, they premiered the artist’s new Landscript series of calligraphy-landscape paintings using brush, paper and ink, and staged three new installations—The Living Word, Reading Landscape, and Monkeys Grasp for the Moon—alongside definitive installations of Book from the Sky and Square Word Calligraphy, including a new version of Calligraphy Classroom. Aside from writing the seminal monograph Words without Meaning, Meaning without Words: The Art of Xu Bing, Dr. Erickson has directed the short documentary film The Enduring Passion for Ink: Xu Bing’s Semiotics and authored over a dozen catalog essays and journal articles on different aspects of Xu Bing’s artistic practice over the past 25 years.
"Xu Bing: Language and Nature" incorporates works from six distinct but conceptually inter-related practices to chart Xu Bing’s systematic exploration of what he describes as nothing less than the “most essential and particular constituent of our [Chinese] culture.”
In Xu Bing’s early woodcuts such as the Shattered Jade Series (1978–1983) and Repetitions Series (1987–1988), Xu Bing explores the woodcut medium as a means of depicting his experience of rural life in China during the Cultural Revolution. Taking full advantage of the intaglio-relief medium of the woodcut, Xu Bing distills pictorial mark making to an essential language of lines and dots so irreducible, he seems to be creating iconic symbols of his experience. This basic iconic language of natural forms would prefigure Xu Bing’s subsequent and explicit explorations of nature and culture through language and its relationship to picture-making.
In 1999 while traveling in the Himalaya Mountains, Xu Bing began to sketch his experience of the landscape in the form of written characters. Indeed, he has said that he saw the landscape as characters. In the resulting Landscript series of ink and brush paintings on paper, Xu Bing extends the idea of the “living word”—that the forms of the natural world are the source for written language—to the creation of art, specifically landscape paintings. In the Chinese tradition, painting and language have always been linked through the brushwork of calligraphy and the imagery of poetry. In his Landscript series, Xu Bing reinvents this relationship by substituting the images of Chinese written characters for painted depictions of natural forms. By inserting the iconic-symbolic dimension of calligraphy into painting, Xu Bing not only redraws the language-imaging relationship in the domain of painting, but also re-enacts the introduction of calligraphic brushwork into painting but on terms completely of his own invention.
The Living Word
Extending the concepts of Landscript to the physical, experiential mode of installation, Xu Bing created a series of three monumental installations The Living Word (2001), Monkeys Grasp for the Moon (2004), and Purple Breeze Comes from the East (2008). Here, Xu Bing re-performs Cang Jie’s original creative act of imaging written characters out of natural forms but in reverse: instead of natural forms giving rise to language signs, written characters return to their natural forms as “living words.” For Language and Nature, Xu Bing stages what he calls the “intaglio” or “white on black” edition of his iconic The Living Word installation in the character bird 鸟 transforms from its current Maoist simplified form back through its morphological history to its original natural form as a bird in flight.
In 2004 Xu Bing once again took up the landscape painting tradition as his subject, this time eschewing brush, ink, and paper in favor of installation and the light box. In this series, titled Background Story, the artist models each of his compositions after a well-known, historic masterwork, but renders them using only “non-art” materials such as dried plants and torn bits of plastic sheets, light and shadow. By showing us both the front—the iconic masterwork—and the back—the astonishing mixed array of materials that light and shadow indexically signify—Xu Bing questions the history and transmission of landscaping painting practice and asks how our relationship to the natural world gives meaning to such practices.
Mustard Seed Garden
In The Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll (2010), Xu Bing discovers in the eponymous 17th century woodcut painting manual a comprehensive pictorial “dictionary” for disseminating the landscape painting tradition as both a “language” of socially-constructed signs or symbols and a hermeneutic tradition that gains contemporary meaning only through the learning, re-performance, re-interpretation and dissemination of canonical models or “texts.” Here, Xu Bing questions how a language that has its origins in nature can become purely a construction of culture and history.
Book from the Sky
“Once in 1986, while thinking of something else, it occurred to me to make a book that no one would ever be able to read.” —Xu Bing, 2008
Artist and curator conclude Language and Nature with a special reading room where viewers can spend time quietly perusing original page spreads from Xu Bing’s original wood-block and moveable-type printing of Book from the Sky (1987–1991). This year being the 30th anniversary of this iconic work’s debut installation at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1988, artist and curator both re-examined the four books comprising Book from the Sky and discovered that many of the characters that Xu Bing had devised suggest, in their construction, natural processes, formations, beings and ideas—trees, water flowing down mountains (or mountains being eroded by water?), animals with four legs, etc.—characters so animated they assert an existence and life of their own. Xu Bing recalls that these acts of imagination were in fact the seed that gave rise to so many questions about both the nature of language and the language of nature.
“Bing talks about how art reveals. Bing’s art has always revealed / hidden / revealed. But more important is what that approach touches upon in our shared humanity. From looking deeply into a work of art, sinking deeply into it, we understand something of our time, of culture, of the artist. The process of coming to fathom what that work of art presents—now, later, later still—actually reveals our inner self, to ourselves. The act of creating is not a simple one-way process: through creating, the artist’s self-understanding also grows.”
—Britta Erickson, 2018