Book From the Sky Dialogues 1: Words and Meanings
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Bridget: Maybe Xu Bing
could tolerate his many years of carving characters into blocks because
he wanted to show the power of words, but in a neutral way that wouldn't
hurt himself or anyone else. He said, "The influence of words on
my generation was especially powerful. Words alone could determine
a person's fate. They could kill one person, and ensure a very good
life for someone else. There was a saying then: 'Pick up a pen just
as you would a knife or a gun.'" (From the article 'Xu Bing: A Logos
for the Genuine Experience', Valerie C. Doran, Orientations, 2001).
A sentence in italics and the sign ?> is a suggestion
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Words are important to him for several
reasons. His mother was a librarian and the house was full
of books. However, his schooling was interrupted by the
Cultural Revolution - he was sent to work in the country - so
he couldn't read the books very well. His father was an
academic who was sometimes forced to wear a dunce's cap
or a board that announced how 'bourgeois' he was. Criticism
was the chief weapon of the Maoist state. A critical word
could lead to loss of a job, a reputation or a life. ?> Find
out what the Cultural Revolution meant for students, writers
Q1.1 Do you think Western culture
is more based on the opposite, that 'Sticks and stones
may break my bones but words will never hurt me.'? Or
do you think this is just a playground chant and that
the truth for most cultures is that 'the pen is mightier
than the sword'?
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Sophie: Shu (calligraphy),
Hua (painting), Qin (a stringed musical instrument) and
Qi (a strategic boardgame) are known as the four basic
disciplines of the Chinese literati or the wealthy powerful
Bridget: It's strange
that this list of accomplishments doesn't include reading?
?> What is the reading culture of
China? How literate are the people? Is there a big education
gap? What do they read?
Sophie: Anyway, Xu Bing
invented characters for his Book from the Sky that could
not be read by those who could read. Can you imagine how
those people felt? People often ask Xu Bing whether he
made it solely to affect a Chinese audience. He says that
even though Western viewers can't recognise the traditional
print formats or even begin to try reading the characters,
the response from them has been 'overwhelmingly strong
and positive'. This isn't surprising if Western viewers
have been armed with knowledge about the 'trick' with this
work and at least some acceptance of conceptual art.
Bridget: Xu Bing said, "To
tamper with the written word is to strike at the very foundation
of a culture." He was tampering with the sacred written
word, without the authority that Chairman Mao had when
he standardised Chinese characters. That was quite a dangerous
thing for him to do. ?> Are there examples of other artists
or writers (not just Chinese) who have risked censure or
rocked the boat by tampering with language?
Q 1.2 Do you think Xu Bing's
invented words are meaningless, or that they are meaningful
in some ways?
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Sophie: Xu Bing can
tamper with language so convincingly because he had detailed
knowledge of the ways scripts changed over the centuries.
Originally, Chinese characters were pictographic. They
looked like the things they represented. Over time they
became combinations of sound (phonogram) and a whole idea
(ideogram). In contrast, nearly all languages today are
phonographic. You can see what you hear. ?> Can you find
any other languages that aren't phonographic?
Bridget: About 213 B.C.,
the first Emperor began the 'burning of the books and burying
of scholars'. He got his Prime Minister to draw up an official
index of characters and to unify written Chinese (Chuan-Shu).
This would help them rule the new vast Empire of so many
different regions and would ensure the rulers would understand
anything that was written by subversives. In 1956 Mao boasted
of repeating 'the burning of books and burying of scholars' and
his government simplified the standard characters yet again.
However, not all parts of China adopted this system. The
simplifications made it harder to distinguish certain characters.
Simpler language isn't always easier to understand!
?> Can you find examples of how the
scripts became standardised, in either 213 B.C. or 1956?
Q 1.3 Does this remind you of
other times and places in history when languages were
changed or destroyed by those in power?
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Sophie: I'm still thinking
about how it feels when you encounter writing that seems
so familiar but that just won't compute. I'm used to this
because there are so many different languages that use
the Roman alphabet. I feel ashamed that I can't read the
ancient manuscripts in our Treasures Gallery, so I end
up looking at them as visual objects. But I imagine that
Chinese ideograms reveal their meaning more directly and
visually than phonographic signs, so that readers would
hope to translate any Chinese characters. So, the confusion
with The Book of the Sky would be especially acute. Am
?> Do Chinese characters ever look
like the things they represent? Could you read them in
the same way that you read the world?
Bridget: Xu Bing is
reminding us what it's like to be a child, to be confronted
with so much you don't understand, to be powerless without
knowledge. But children always have a stab at making their
own sense of what they see. And they don't just reflect
what they see by speaking. They actually make their own
versions. So, children who can't read yet can try to invent
their own letters. This 3 year old was telling a story
while writing letters. She made them more graphic to better
convey their meaning until they ended up as pictograms.
Sophie: What you said
about children reflecting or copying to understand what
they see reminds me of Xu Bing's original title for this:
A Mirror to Analyse the World: The Last Book of the End
of the Century. (It's too long, so people shortened it.)
The Book from the Sky is the mirror-print of the world.
It's in reverse so you can't read it, but it holds the
key to everything.
Bridget: You're right
that it's a mirror-print. It suggests that making art is
like creating the world, but in reverse or only as a reproduction.
But, I hadn't been reading it like that. Because The Book
from the Sky is installed like a room rather than a book
I was thinking about ceilings. The mirrored ceiling of
Olafur Elliason's 'The Weather Project' at Tate Modern
reflects us. The painted ceilings of the Sistine Chapel
and a thousand other sacred buildings seem to transport
us to another place, but they still present a mirror image
of man in heaven, not the vista of bleak infinity the sky
really is. Many cultures have imagined heaven to be the
true or authentic world, but are Xu Bing and Elliason are
telling us we only a mental image, a reflection of this
?> What links can you make with Leonardo's
mirror-writing? Turn the pages of his notebook at the Turning
The Pages Site.
Q 1.4 What has heaven meant in
Chinese culture? What should it mean to the world today?
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