Chinese Printmaking Today

Book From the Sky Dialogues 3: Art for healing the self and the world

Sophie and Bridget have started a conversation. They have raised lots of questions which don't have easy answers. To join in, please send an e-mail to with the subject 'Dialogues' and clearly number the questions you are answering (e.g. Q1.1). We will moderate your replies and add them to the dialogue. You can also find out more about The Book from the Sky or investigate the teachers' notes.

For any question in bold you can send us an e-mail response.
A sentence in italics and the sign ?> is a suggestion for you to investigate further.

Bridget: One of the astounding things about A Book from the Sky is the 4 years it took Xu Bing to make it. It must have been so boring to carve all those characters. But maybe it was soothing? Maybe it gave him time to think?

?> Only Xu Bing himself can answer this, but how would you have found it?

Sophie: In China the practice of forming characters is said to improve the health because it coordinates the mind and the body. There are so many and such complex characters, you have to practice hard until it becomes second nature. Many calligraphers were famous for their long lives. Today in China, people gather in public spaces to do exercises and calligraphy, sometimes writing with giant brushes and water on the ground. This is like the way I enjoy writing in wet sand on the beach or doodling.

Bridget: Yes, but I think it goes deeper than that. It must be very difficult to do. Also, it doesn't just benefit their personal health, but it's a communal act of social healing too. Buddhists believe that the repetition of sacred texts brings relief to all those who are suffering.

Q 3.1 Do you think forming characters is character-forming? Would similar activities (e.g. compulsory graffiti) be good for the spiritual health of our society? What would happen if children seriously practiced Chinese calligraphy in our classrooms?

Send us an email

Sophie: Young people today are being encouraged to participate in creative activity as a means to improve their health, to help them integrate with their community and change their attitude.

Q 3.2 Do you think this project will succeed or fail?

Send us an email

Sophie: Chinese cultural activity has been, and often still is, highly communal. But we get the impression that Xu Bing is very much an individual - we imagine him carving those blocks alone in his studio (even though this may not be true). In the West, modern artists have been promoted as unique people, even sometimes like hermits, communing with their inner self through repetitive, tortuous or attentive actions. But in fact, such artists always work with others, care about others and have an impact on others in some way.

?> Here are some artists you can investigate further:

  • Ewan Gibbs transferred B&W photographs onto graph paper, translating each tone into marks representing different tapestry stitches.
  • Bill Viola has paid painstaking visual attention to mountains and human expressions.
  • Doris Salcedo has drilled millions of holes into tables and stitched them with human hair and silk cloth.
Can you find more examples?

Q 3.3 Is it selfish to make art?

Send us an email

Bridget: Here's Qi Fengge again - "After the Cultural Revolution, printmakers no longer wanted to reflect ordinary life, their desire for self-expression became more important and turned them towards a more subjective description of their inner world." (p.26) I wonder if their burning desire for self-expression was a relief, an essential kind of healing scream, after so many years of repression? Or, maybe they wanted to make more imaginative, less realist images because they were free to do so and because their peers were doing it too? And, being cynical, because that's what international recognition and the market required?

?> Look at the real or virtual exhibition and you decide. (Some artists might be more self-expressive than others.)

Sophie: Some ideas of ritual and tradition seem so at odds with Western ideas of freedom and individuality.

Tradition, ritual and freedom are complex ideas and the question of whether meaning can exist in a rule-free environment remains unanswered. As an artist, my work has never been free from the many silent rules and rituals of current art practice. I rely on those rules to lend meaning even if they are bent a little. I think the veneer of originality and freedom is thin in contemporary art practice today. So is the pursuit of a unique artistic identity as more often than not this is something described by others than determined by the artist. I was also thinking about the delicacy of creativity and how it falters if imposed by an authority, whether a school, the institutions of art, or a government.

Artists' motives are complex. For example, it's too simplistic to say that expressive art just benefits the individual and that social realist art only has a communal function.

Bridget: It is simplistic, but there is a long-standing polarity in many cultures that helps us understand this. The debate about whether art exists for a social purpose or for its own sake, goes right back to ancient debates about the value of religious practices. You can see two paths in many religions: the 'via positiva' and the 'via negativa'. The goal of both paths is to lose your individuality, but one path leads outwards to others, the other path takes you into the self. The positive path is one of selfless action, going out on pilgrimages and expansion through knowledge. The negative path is about withdrawal into the self, giving up comforts, silent meditation and inactivity. Some societies support some of their members withdrawing entirely into a reduced (but inwardly expanded) life of art, a single yogic pose or endless prayer because they believe it is for the ultimate gain of humanity.

Q 3.4 Do you believe we should support a number of people to give up a normal working life for immersion in art or religion - like monks?

Send us an email

Sophie: The Maoist critic of A Book from the Sky said that Xu Bing was like the man lost at night forced to walk in a circle by ghosts pounding on the wall. He should have been forging ahead working for society as a whole.

?> Did he think Xu Bing was on the positive or negative path? Can you discover more about the main belief systems in China (Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Maoist Marxism)? How do they combine or err towards the negative or the positive paths?

Bridget: This distaste for people who have no direction or home, for example nomads or gypsies, is common in settled urban societies. There are two acceptable positions - one is to be walking with direction (e.g. on pilgrimage or towards a better destiny e.g. West), the other is to be settled but with a strong sense of homeland (Zion or Mecca). The openness and confusion that China's authorities so disliked in Xu Bing is what we should now value in contemporary art. Susan Sontag makes us think about the role of the artist today. On receiving the Friedenpreis for being an intellectual ambassador she said, 'The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the 'intellectual ambassador', the human-rights activist. The writer is more sceptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.'

?> Follow this link for the full article.

Q 3.5 Do you agree with her? Or do you think we have too much confused thinking and not enough active citizenship today?

Send us an email


Main   Tour Artists Background Events Learning  Bookshop Competition Links Copyright © The British Library Board