Xu Bing, Book from the Sky

Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, c. 1987-91, hand-printed books and ceiling and wall scrolls printed from wood letterpress type, ink on paper; each book, open: 18 1/8″ × 20″ / 46 × 51 cm; each of three ceiling scrolls: 38″ × c. 114′ 9-7/8″ / 96.5 × 3500 cm; each wall scroll: 9′ 2-1/4″ × 39 3/8″ / 280 × 100 cm (installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, collection of the artist) © Xu Bing

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Another installation by Xu Bing

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] I’m in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Allison Young. We’re in an installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing, called “Book from the Sky.” Chinese characters are above us, they’re below us, and they’re on either side of us.

Allison Young: [0:18] Pages containing columns and columns of Chinese text are surrounding us on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and also on the floor in the open book pages from volumes that he has hand-bound in the form of traditional Chinese book arts.

Dr. Zucker: [0:32] On either side of this gallery are thousands of Chinese characters printed on this beautiful paper. Below us, a sea of waves made up of open books, and above us, a beautiful billowing sky, three long pieces of paper, scroll-like, stretched across the ceiling, filled with Chinese characters.

Allison: [0:51] To Western viewers, it’s not immediately clear what the text says, what this piece might be about, and it reminds me of other works around the Chinese art galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of more historical calligraphic arts.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] But to a Chinese viewer, the meaning is also elusive.

Allison: [1:06] This is because Xu Bing has actually invented over one thousand new characters.

Dr. Zucker: [1:11] So these are not real characters.

Allison: [1:12] Because traditional Chinese characters are composed in a modular way, meaning that different components are brought together to form a character in a block form, Xu Bing actually uses some real components and some that are invented in combinations that are entirely new to create a character that looks extremely familiar to somebody who can read Chinese.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] We’re surrounded by literally tens of thousands of Chinese characters that don’t actually mean anything.

Allison: [1:37] Xu actually discarded any characters that he came up with that looked too inauthentic.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] Xu Bing didn’t render all of these characters with a brush by hand, rather he carved wooden blocks, harking back to the ancient Chinese system of movable type, which is far older than Gutenberg’s system in the West.

Allison: [1:53] We’re looking at a very early form of mass production that relates to the contemporary moment, in which print media have played a large role in Xu Bing’s upbringing.

Dr. Zucker: [2:00] He was a young man during the Cultural Revolution, a period when intellectuals were vilified, when the very notion of the individual was distrusted, when everything was about the group, everything was about the state.

Allison: [2:12] Xu Bing was actually very talented as a child in writing and in calligraphy. This skill was identified by teachers, and harnessed in service of the state. So like many other young intellectuals, he was sent to the countryside, where he was put to work creating banners by hand for things like holidays, weddings, and funerals, where he would be asked to combine modern and traditional forms of calligraphy.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] When Xu Bing was in art school, he was trained in the arts of propaganda, as was expected of anybody involved in the arts at this time in China. It’s fascinating, with that in mind, to look at this overwhelming display of block printing that admits no actual word.

Allison: [2:53] The piece also makes me think of a lot of other works of contemporary Chinese art which used the act of destruction in order to create new meaning. Ai Weiwei, “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn,” other artists repeating a text in layers that eventually obliterate its meaning.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] We can’t locate meaning in what we read, so where do we look for meaning? We’re asked to move from the symbolic representation of the words to the characters themselves and the accumulation of those characters.

Allison: [3:21] As well as the vehicle through which they’re delivered. We’re reminded of the way that text is used for propaganda purposes during Mao’s regime and the inundation of posters and banners that would have surrounded him. Just like these texts surround us here.

Dr. Zucker: [3:36] The irony is that this was produced not during Mao’s lifetime, but in a period after when China was flooded with Western literature, and yet the artist has nevertheless created characters that are empty of meaning.

Allison: [3:47] He has observed two phases of the consumption of texts in his lifetime; the first being from the regime through the use of propaganda, and the second when China opened up to receiving and translating Western philosophy, theory, literature, and art history. This was consumed by youths who were hungry for information.

Dr. Zucker: [4:04] I’m struck by the way the books on the floor create a series of waves that almost seem like the sea, and the banners that hang from the ceiling function very much as the sky. The title of this is “Book from the Sky.” The panels on the walls seem like landscapes.

Allison: [4:18] This is an interesting observation in light of the medium that we’re looking at.

[4:22] Mao considered woodblock-printed text to be one of the most non-elitist forms of art and communication because it was direct and because it could be mass-produced and widely disseminated, whereas scholar painting earlier in Chinese history often depicted the landscape and the natural environment, but very subtle political messages were sometimes conveyed in these compositions. These were [a] more elitist form of art.

Dr. Zucker: [4:45] Here we have subtle references to landscape, but represented through text emptied of meaning.

[4:50] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Allison Young and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Xu Bing, Book from the Sky," in Smarthistory, December 13, 2021, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/xu-bing-book-from-the-sky-2/.