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
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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?
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?
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:
Can you find more examples?
- 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.
Q 3.3 Is it selfish to make art?
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
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
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?
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
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?
us an email