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Xu Bing: Word Alchemy

by Keyu Yan
Reviews / Exhibition • 10.07.2024

Known for his experimental use of language and invented ‘Chinese’ characters, as well as his immersive installations, the Chinese artist Xu Bing (b.1955) is a canonical name in both national and global contemporary art. From Book from the Sky (1987–91), Square Word Calligraphy (1994–ongoing) and Living Word (2001) to The Character of Characters (2012), Xu has continued to challenge our familiarity with language – its written form and phoneticisation – and reflect on issues related to the environment, globalisation and labour. Bringing together more than fifty works of art, Xu Bing: Word Alchemy at Asia Society Texas, Houston, co-curated by Susan L. Beningson and Owen Duffy, marks a long-awaited effort to underscore the artist’s prolific career in a Euro-American context.

Word Alchemy spans the 1980s to the present day and includes a newly commissioned work, titled Square Word Calligraphy: Deep in the Heart of Texas FIG.1. Arranged in roughly chronological order, the exhibition comprises woodcuts, paintings, videos, drawings and installations, as well as sketchbooks and ephemera, showcasing the artist’s versatility across different media. None of the rooms has a specific sub-narrative or theme. Rather, the works on display collectively echo the curatorial agenda, which is to probe how Xu has revolutionised the intersection of art-making, technology and linguistics, and, by extension, social belonging since the late twentieth century.

Installed outside of the gallery entrance on the second floor, the first work that the visitor encounters is the interactive installation Square Word Calligraphy Classroom FIG.2. Visitors are invited to follow instructions on how to practise the artist’s ‘New English Calligraphy’ using Chinese-style brushes, ink and quasi-xuan paper. Xu’s system organises letters of English words into square structures that compositely resemble Chinese characters. This combination or clash between Chinese and English writing systems – a kind of ‘word alchemy’, to borrow the exhibition’s title – has been a key concern for the artist throughout his five-decade career. 

The first room is primarily dedicated to Xu’s early works FIG.3. A set of four books from Book from the Sky (Tianshu 天書) FIG.4 is installed in the middle, suggesting the centrality of this work to the artist’s œuvre. The woodcut series Shattered Jade (1977–83), A, B, C… (1991) and Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll FIG.5 are hung on the surrounding walls. In A, B, C… the artist loosely transliterates the Roman alphabet into Chinese characters; for example ‘A’ is represented by the Chinese character ‘ai’ (哀), meaning ‘sadness’. The work, which predates Square Word Calligraphy Classroom, demonstrates Xu’s acute cultural sensitivity, particularly in relation to the challenges he faced in translating between English and Chinese when he emigrated to the United States in 1990. In Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll, the artist explores Chinese visual traditions and their connections across time and space. The work refers to the famous Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, a primer to teach beginners to paint landscapes, plants and flowers first published in 1679. The artist identifies representational similarities between schematised Chinese painting techniques (dots and strokes) and ancient Chinese characters, which developed from pictographs, while simultaneously questioning acts of copying and repetition.

As indicated by his interest in repetition and his constant return to similar subject-matter, time and space are vital in the presentation of Xu’s works of art. The next three rooms feature the artist’s mixed-media works, which highlight the significance of the spatio-temporal for the artist. Magic Carpet (2006), a towering red textile made of New Zealand wool that depicts the word ‘belief’ in Square Word Calligraphy, is displayed in conjunction with Silkworm Book: The Analects of Confucius (2019) FIG.6. Commissioned by the Asia Society Museum, New York, Silkworm Book comprises an opened copy of The Analects (Lunyu 論語), which is covered in gossamer silk cocoons and threads. The Analects is a central text of Confucianism, which had an impact on the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Xu’s work reveals both the process of writing and the result, cause and effect: how words are altered and find a new incarnation, meaningful or meaningless, through cross-cultural contact. Magic Carpet and Silkworm Book act as anchors in the exhibition, an effect strengthened by their being displayed adjacent to one another.

One room in the exhibition is reserved for Xu’s treatment of the landscape genre. Extending his interest in the relationship between word and image, Landscript (2003) is a monochrome ink painting in which Chinese characters serve as pictorial elements. For example, the Chinese characters for ‘stone’ (shi 石) and ‘cliff’ (ya 崖) form an approximation of a rocky cliff, while the character for ‘pine’ (song 松) is written repeatedly to represent a forest of pine trees. This is juxtaposed with Background Story: Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains FIG.7. Evoking the canonical thirteenth-century painting of Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), Background Story is a shadow box on which unwanted materials such as hemp, corn husks, plastic bags and newspapers are used as brushstrokes to create a landscape. The raw materials are exposed at the back of the installation FIG.8. Expanding the landscape painting into three-dimensional space, this installation conveys an environmentalist concern: the tranquil blue-and-green landscape is covered by trash. Although Background Story may initially seem to deviate from the ‘word alchemy’ posed in Xu’s other works, in some ways the play between appearance and content parallels the artist’s invention of the meaningless ‘Chinese’ script.

This exhibition is an invaluable resource on Xu’s practice. A number of works and notebooks that have not been displayed previously are included and many of the labels contain the artist’s own reflections, which function as a form of direct communication with his audience. A one-day symposium with curators from such institutions as the National Museum of Asian Art, Washington; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, provided analysis and interpretation of the exhibited works of art.1 Perhaps most important, however, is the label detailing the translation credits for this exhibition, displayed near the end of the exhibition. It is a reminder that, although language can engender confusion, it can also extend care.


Exhibition details

Xu Bing: Word Alchemy
Asia Society Texas, Houston
22nd February–14th July 2024

About the author

Keyu Yan

is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History of Art at the Ohio State University. His research asks how the notion of art was radically expanded in China in the 1980s and 1990s through the lens of installation art. Additionally, he is interested in issues related to the representations of gender and sexuality in the global Sinophone world. His writings have appeared in East Asian Publishing and Society, World Art, ASAP/J, and InVisible Culture.


See also

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Material art from China in Los Angeles
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