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Chinese Printmaking Today


Suggested Activities

Here are some practical things you can try:

  1. Invent

    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 can't picture?)
    • Excitement (discuss: should this relate to things only you find exciting or that most people find exciting? You could make a character for its opposite, boredom, and think how they look different and help each other's meaning.)
    • Look at how others have visualised each word.
    • Discuss: Are there common features that mean you're starting to invent a shared language? Could you fuse them all into one shared character?

  2. 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 into English?

    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 characters?

  3. Translate

    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.)

  4. Talk

    Because The Book from the Sky has no easy answers it can be a great springboard for a group discussion:

    • 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 it.
    • 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).

  5. 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 cultures.

  6. 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 the 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 or the lines - to make a relief print or counter relief print?

    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 infinity?

  7. 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 a computer!)

    Discuss: In general, why would you want to combine image and text on the same plate? What are the possibilities of mixing the two?

  8. 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 shapes behind.

    Cover a sheet of white drawing paper with charcoal or a dark-coloured pastel. Now draw something in the darkness using a rubber. If 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, if 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 blank sheet a work of art.

  9. 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 made.

    Discuss: Why do you think they are in an illegible script? Why is this like tagging?

  10. Make your own Book from the Sky

    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 frame.

    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 or 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 language, for example.

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