Chinese characters are more like words
and phrases than letters. They originally looked like the
things or ideas they represented.
For inspiration, look at this
animation by Xu Bing.
Create your own characters for the following
words. (Don't just draw pictures, make them up of simple
lines and shapes by thinking about the important characteristics
of the real object. Miss out detail you don't need.)
- Bird (clue: the character could have
beak, feather or wing shapes.)
- Flight (think: how would this be
different from 'bird'?)
- Song (think: does song make you
think 'mouth' or 'ear'? Or is it more a feeling you
- Excitement (discuss: should this
relate to things only you find exciting or that
most people find exciting? You could make a character
its opposite, boredom, and think how they look
different and help each other's meaning.)
- Look at how others have visualised
- Discuss: Are there common features
that mean you're starting to invent a shared language?
Could you fuse them all into one shared character?
- Picture poetry
Take the Invent activity one step further
by turning a whole poem into visual characters. Find
short poems that spark off images in your mind. Look
at Ted Hughes, William Blake, John Keats or W.H. Auden
for a start. Or why not find some Chinese poetry translated
Discuss: How different is it
to read poetry in pictogrammatic language, compared
to phonographic language? How does it change
the nature of the poetry? Why would Spike Milligan's In the
Ning Nang Nong be so difficult to turn into visual
Is it possible to translate words that
have no meaning?
First, First try this
interactive game. See if there is some shared ground
in your interpretations of these characters.
Here is a sequence from one of the Book
from the Sky books.
Can you interpret the sequence to make
a sentence or short poem? Remember that they could mean
a feeling or an idea, not just a thing.
Discuss: How arbitrary are
language signs and the things they represent? Does
it matter if the word is nothing like the thing it
represents, if we can all share the code? Can you think
of some English words that resemble the things they
represent? (clue: because English is a phonographic
not visual language, they won't look like the things.)
Because The Book from the Sky has no
easy answers it can be a great springboard for a group
- Check that everyone understands
what it looks like and how it has been installed -
e.g. look on www.xu-bing.com to see other images of
- Ask them to list all the questions
that come to them while looking at the images.
- The group then discusses and votes
on which is the most interesting question to pursue.
(As part of this process, some of the simpler questions
will get answered.)
- In order to pursue this key question,
do we need any facts answered? If you can't answer
them, give time to look in reference books
or on the web.
- The discussion can then move to
more reflective terrain.
- Conclude by asking what questions
they still want to pursue (which they can take on
as a personal or small group task).
- Research, talk and write
Research Xu Bing's work Ghosts
Pounding the Wall or any of his other works
that deal with language. After having a conversation
with a partner you could write a dialogue similar
to one of Sophie and Bridget's dialogues and submit
it for inclusion in this site. Make sure that you
ask questions about knowledge, language and different
- Draw and Print
Arrange a still life made of books,
pictures, objects, anything you can find to do with
the sky. Be creative - the books could be opened so
the pages fan to look like a flying bird, or soft rounded
objects could be piled to look like clouds.
Take a piece of paper and mask out
a frame along its edge using paper or card (fix
it in place with clips but don't stick it down). Then
use a viewfinder to select part of your arrangement.
Make a line drawing. Draw right to the edge of
the paper, even over the frame. When finished remove
frame. Transfer part of your drawing to a sheet
of lino and turn it into a printing block. Decide whether
you will carve out the space between the lines
lines - to make a relief print or counter relief
Discuss: Did you end up with
anything that suggests or resembles the sky? The
sky is infinite but this drawing keeps getting framed
and reduced. Is it possible to make art that suggests
- Mirror image
Printmakers work in reverse (they
have to draw back to front). To see an image of their
work before they print it, they need to look at their
plate in the mirror. Have you ever tried writing in
reverse, then printing it?
Look at the work of William Blake - he
developed his own unique printing techniques so that
he could combine his poems and illustrations on the
same plate. Book printers normally kept the images
and texts on separate plates. You could experiment
with different techniques for combining image and text
in the same plate, using linocut, etching, monoprint
etc. (Of course, it wouldn't be such a challenge using
Discuss: In general, why
would you want to combine image and text on the same
plate? What are the possibilities of mixing the two?
- Rub out
To make a print, ink is rolled
onto the flat surface of the wood-block. So, printmakers
have to carve out the parts they want to stay the
colour of the paper, leaving the ink lines and solid
Cover a sheet of white drawing
paper with charcoal or a dark-coloured pastel.
Now draw something in the darkness using a rubber.
you don't know what to draw, be inspired by Leonardo
who looked for shapes in marble or clouds.
Look for shapes in your lighter-toned areas. Remember,
you need a dark line or shape you will need
to rub out the surrounding area.
Discuss: What if you keep
going until there's nothing left? Have you actually
made art? Robert Rauschenberg rubbed out
a Willem de Kooning drawing and called the resulting
sheet a work of art.
- Seal it with.your name
Chinese seals are also known as
chops. They are made from small hand-held printing
stamps, often carved in jade. They have been used
like a signature to sign artworks, letters and documents
since the Song dynasty. They are written in a special
script, often illegible to the Chinese reader.
Now design your own personal seal.
Use your initials in relief on the right and in counter
relief on the left. You could print it using a potato
or a linocut - or better still get a rubber stamp
Discuss: Why do you think
they are in an illegible script? Why is this like
- Make your own Book from
The full installation of A
Book from the Sky has a large printed sheet
hanging like a canopy over the 'bed' of books.
It suggests the paper that is pulled off a print.
It also suggests heaven.
Here are a few ideas for making
your own works that are analogous to this:
You could make a 'book' to hoist
or drape above your bed or on your ceiling, so that
you can always read it. It could contain sacred or
special words, just as some people keep their Bible
or ultimate reference books by their beds. Your 'book'
could be entirely visual, like a chapel ceiling.
You could make a print that includes
the plate and the impression it makes. Think of interesting
ways to display the two together.
You could make an image that is
designed to be displayed together with a mirror.
For example, it might contain palindromic words
or lopsided faces..or the mirror might provide the
This is quite a challenge, but
you could try to make an artwork or piece of
writing that seems on the surface to be very familiar
easy to read, but which doesn't reveal any meanings
once you try to translate it. It might be that
you combine English words with a foreign or code