A new exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art helps correct the paucity of contemporary Chinese art in Texas.
More than 25 years ago in Beijing, a group of people walked into a room covered in what looked like Chinese characters. As they tried to read what looked like a familiar language, they realized that in fact the language was not Chinese at all. From the large scrolls hanging from the ceiling to the books covering the floor and prints on the walls, not a single character made sense. In the late 1980s, this type of open-ended, immersive art installation was new in post-Mao China. But while it may have been a sensation with visitors, others in the art community became suspicious. What is the meaning of a book no one can read? The exhibit soon closed and hasn’t been shown in China since.
Now, visitors in Texas can experience Xu Bing: Book from the Sky at the Blanton Museum of Art. The large-scale installation by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing is on view in the Blanton galleries until Jan. 22.
Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, Xu was exposed to communist propaganda and its ability to shift and manipulate language. In an attempt to challenge the way we interact with language, he began his first independent work after receiving his master of fine arts. Over several years in the late 1980s, he painstakingly created 4,000 pseudo-Chinese characters—the number of characters required for literacy in Mandarin—and carved them into wooden blocks. The habit of creating a few characters each day became like a religious ritual for Xu. From there, he printed the characters onto book-length texts. The four “books in the sky” at the forefront of the installation are created in different styles, made to look like poetry or a dictionary, for instance.
Walking into the 1,500-square-foot installation feels as if you are “wrapped in a world of words that he created,” says Blanton guest curator Hao Sheng. The temple-like space feels very structured and serious, but the contradiction lies in the absurdity that it cannot be read by anyone. “[It is] both accessible and inaccessible at the same time,” Sheng says. “The more you try and understand, the more foreign it becomes.”
After the Cultural Revolution ended, Western art and influences began to pour into China. According to Sheng, Xu described it as being like a hungry person at a banquet, where you consume everything so quickly that it becomes nauseating. In contrast, Xu spends years devoted to each of his works. China’s climate was unsympathetic to independent artists when Book from the Sky debuted, and some thought that the work was a joke. His approach, however, is one of both reverence and mockery. Xu once wrote, “To manipulate the written word is to transform the very essence of culture.”
Although Xu moved to the U.S. to pursue creative freedom, he was later invited back to Beijing to serve as the vice president of his alma mater and to teach a new generation of artists. “His biography alone reflects China’s cultural change, increasing openness, and reflection,” Sheng says.
But Xu’s work transcends its cultural context. In an effort to showcase more international art at the Blanton, the full-scale installation is on display for the first time in Texas. Sheng believes that visitors around the globe can find meaning in Book from the Sky as it challenges us to reexamine our intellectual habits. “If people in Texas only know one Chinese contemporary artist,” Sheng says, “it should be Xu Bing.”
Xu Bing: Book from the Sky will be on display at the Blanton Museum of Art through Jan. 22, 2017.
Photos: Xu Bing: Book From the Sky is an immersive installation of books and scrolls printed with 4,000 invented characters; Blanton Museum of Art
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