Bing Xu presents a new graphic novel—one composed entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood - pictograms and emojis

Bing Xu, Book from the Ground: from point to point, MIT Press, 2016.

Twenty years ago I made Book from the Sky, a book of illegible Chinese characters that no one could read. Now I have created Book from the Ground, a book that anyone can read.--Xu Bing

Following his classic work Book from the Sky, the Chinese artist Xu Bing presents a new graphic novel—one composed entirely of symbols and icons that are universally understood. Xu Bing spent seven years gathering materials, experimenting, revising, and arranging thousands of pictograms to construct the narrative of Book from the Ground. The result is a readable story without words, an account of twenty-four hours in the life of “Mr. Black,” a typical urban white-collar worker.

Our protagonist’s day begins with wake-up calls from a nearby bird and his bedside alarm clock; it continues through tooth-brushing, coffee-making, TV-watching, and cat-feeding. He commutes to his job on the subway, works in his office, ponders various fast-food options for lunch, waits in line for the bathroom, daydreams, sends flowers, socializes after work, goes home, kills a mosquito, goes to bed, sleeps, and gets up the next morning to do it all over again. His day is recounted with meticulous and intimate detail, and reads like a postmodern, post-textual riff on James Joyce’s account of Bloom’s peregrinations in Ulysses. But Xu Bing’s narrative, using an exclusively visual language, could be published anywhere, without translation or explication; anyone with experience in contemporary life--anyone who has internalized the icons and logos of modernity, from smiley faces to transit maps to menus--can understand it.

“While this book might turn off readers looking to escape into a more conventional narrative, anyone interested in experimental fiction, modern art, or a little bit of challenge will be delighted.”—Library Journal

From Point to Point, part of Xu Bing’s wider project Book from the Ground, is a 112-page novel depicting 24 hours in the life of an ordinary office worker, Mr Black, from seven one morning to seven the next, as he wakes, eats breakfast, goes to work, meets friends, looks for love online and goes out on a date. The book has punctuation marks, but no text; in place of words there are pictograms, logos, illustrative signs and emoticons, all taken from real symbols in use around the world. The artist has collated these over a period of seven years and used them to devise a universal ideographic language, in theory understandable by anyone engaged with modern life.
On one level Xu achieves his goal: it doesn’t take too much effort for the reader – ‘interpreter’ might be more appropriate – to decipher the central character’s day. Mr Black decides what shoes to wear (Lacoste, Adidas, Nike logos) and what to have for lunch (McDonald’s arches, illustration of a steaming steak/bowl of noodles/ sushi). He becomes increasingly stressed (series of anxious-face emoticons, each shedding an increasing number of drops of sweat) preparing for a work presentation. There’s humour, too, some of it slightly odd and scatological, as when Mr Black is straining on the toilet (coiled turd with a red line through it, more sweat-shedding emoticon faces). But perhaps this merely reflects the universality of toilet-related symbols. The accompanying explanatory book, The Book About Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground, includes documentation of the wider project when it has been presented in the context of an exhibition, and includes its development as a software program that translates Chinese and English text into pictograms and symbols. Essays and an interview with the artist put the novel in context, both in terms of Xu’s previous work and in terms of historical and more recently devised pictographic languages – not forgetting that the Chinese also retains pictographic roots.
In relation to Xu’s previous work, Book from the Ground is a companion piece to one of his best-known works, Book from the Sky (1987–91), the four-year project in which he created 4,000 ‘fake’ Chinese characters, which he hand-cut into wooden blocks and printed within books and on scrolls. Instead of attempting a language understandable to everyone, here he created a language that was understandable by no one. When considering the implications of a global language for an increasingly global world, Xu’s project is a highly relevant one. But when considered within the context of language and literature, the arguments become more problematic, particularly when, in his introductory essay, Mathieu Borysevicz discusses From Point to Point alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). As an overarching narrative, both books may be the story of a day in the life of one man, told over 24 hours, but pushing the literary possibilities of an existing language, as Joyce was doing, is not the same as attempting to tell a story through simplified signs and symbols. The artist himself is the first to acknowledge the limitations of his project by stating, in his interview in The Book About…, that the desire to ‘pursue a dream that all humans can communicate freely without difficulty is a dream too big to realise’. The limitations of From Point to Point as literature are particularly highlighted when reading its English translation, given in The Book About… Here’s an excerpt: ‘Mr Black gets up, shuffles over to the bathroom and sits on the toilet for a long time. “En…er… ugh…en…” as much as he tries nothing comes out. “What’s wrong down there?” He ponders.’ Compare that to a few lines from Ulysses. ‘Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time. A very short space of time through very short times of space.’ Try expressing that in pictograms and smiley faces. - Helen Sumpter

Xu Bing, the renowned Chinese artist whose many laurels include a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award and an appointment as vice president of China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, has long demonstrated a fascination with the written word.
His groundbreaking work, Book from the Sky, looked like Chinese calligraphy, but was actually nonsensical characters. Square Word Calligraphy, on the other hand, looked like Chinese but was actually English, while A Case Study of Transference was two live pigs — one inked with fake English and the other with fake Chinese — copulating in a book-strewn pen.
Now, after years creating art that explores, and upends, the power of the written word, Xu Bing has authored a novella, which was published in early summer. Formally titled Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point, the tale recounts 24 hours in the life of a young white-collar worker in a major metropolis.
The man, who remains unnamed, seeks to advance his career and find love, but, like many of us, spends most of his time tending the minutiae of daily life: he battles constipation, burns his breakfast, dreads his boss, drinks too much beer, and spends too much money. The main prism through which he experiences the world is electronic — he compulsively checks Twitter, Google, and Facebook, spends his day making PowerPoint presentations (when not surreptitiously checking email), and searches online for romance. At night, characters from video games populate his anxious dreams. This prosaic existence is interspersed by a few device-free moments of genuine humanity, as when he contemplates marriage, yearns for nature, visits a friend who is sick, comforts another who is heart-broken, and brings a bouquet of roses to a blind date.
Like Leopold Bloom — the main character in James Joyce's novel Ulysses, which also takes place within a single day — the main character of From Point-to-Point is something of an Everyman. But, where Bloom is a hero, a latter-day Odysseus, Xu's Everyman is an icon — that is, an actual icon.
Indeed, if this plot summary sounds slim, consider this: From Point-to-Point is "written" without a single word — at least as they are traditionally defined. Instead, it is composed with hundreds of icons, or pictograms, that Xu has been collecting for years. Where Book from the Sky can be read by no one, Book from the Ground can be read by any one. It is, in other words, a remarkable effort to create a universal form of written communication that transcends cultural, linguistic, class, and educational backgrounds. In Xu's words, "The illiterate can enjoy the delight of reading just as the intellectual does."
Sample page from Book from the Ground

Xu, in conversation with me and my husband, and in an essay he wrote about the Book from the Ground project, explains that the idea came to him during the many hours he spent in airports and on planes, where he regularly encountered pictograms. He began to study airline safety cards, which he calls “humanity’s earliest examples of common knowledge texts.” Then, in 2003, he saw a pack of chewing gum that had written on it, in pictograms, “after use, please wrap in paper and dispose in trash can,” and was inspired to begin collecting enough pictograms to tell a larger story. He argues that we are only now realizing the true significance of the Tower of Babel — our languages have stagnated and are utterly unsuited to the global village in which we live. Philosophers have long dreamed of a shared language (and in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of Europe’s greatest minds thought this language could be rooted in Chinese) but in today’s world, it is increasingly a necessity as much as an ideal. And, thanks to global marketing images and icon-based computer commands, we are increasingly primed to “read” visual symbols.
This all makes great sense and I certainly think the MacArthur committee got it right when it deemed Xu a “genius.” But for one who is as possessed as I am by the power of the written word, From Point-to-Point was a challenging read. I marveled at its beauty on the page but was frustrated by the absence of lyric and poetry, which are so anchored to sound, and annoyed by the clumsy manner in which my brain “translated” the pictographs into words and sentences I could comprehend. Simple though the plot is, there were also parts I frankly didn’t get because I didn’t understand the icons. (Fortunately, I had readily available translators in my eleven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, who instantly accepted the premise of a book of icons and had little problem following the story.) I also got a bit tired of story’s emphasis on bodily functions and bathroom humor, and the lack of big ideas — but, then again, I feel that way about much of contemporary fiction.
Xu shares this frustration — he professes embarrassment at having to resort to standard written language in order to explain the premise of his pictographic script. But, as he says, the significance of this effort is in the attempt and all written languages go through lengthy periods of development. Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point is a work in progress — it is also a genuine work of art. - Sheila Melvin

George Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi (Life, A User’s Manual, 1978) begins with a rumination on jigsaw puzzles: ‘The parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts.’ ‘The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled,’ he writes. ‘In isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing – just an impossible question, an opaque challenge.’ For Perec, the puzzle was a metaphor not just for the discrete yet interlocking lives of the inhabitants of a particular Parisian apartment block, but was also ‘a machine for inspiring stories’, a model of the author’s own oulipian set of constraints and patterns. Three and a half decades later, contemporary artists are assembling opaque challenges of their own in a series of recent and forthcoming books that build new kinds of stories from individual blocks of cultural detritus – elements which, if not entirely lacking in significance when isolated, certainly add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014) begins like many other novels: in a certain house in a certain city an alarm bell rings and a man grudgingly gets up and leaves for work. Though it is built of sentences and paragraphs, there are hardly any letters or words – even if every symbol remains legible. Book from the Ground (a project that has also encompassed exhibitions and soft­ware) started life in an airport, when the artist recognized that in-flight safety cards were increasingly replacing words with images. From there, he set about compiling a universal language of everyday icons – from the International Organization for Standardization’s public information symbols to online emoticons – legible by anyone, Xu claims, ‘as long as you have experience of the modern world’.
As Mathieu Borysevicz points out in his introduction to the simultaneously published The Book about Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground (MIT Press, 2014), the quest for a universal tongue is as old as Babel. Just as it is natural that the Age of Reason would produce Gottfried Leibniz’s ‘algebra of human thought’ and the Romantic century would give us François Sudre’s musical conlang ‘solresol’, it is somehow fitting that, in the 21st century, Xu would make use of this iconography of trivia, a language fathered by consumerism, mass transit, and health and safety regulations. Not a great deal happens in Book from the Ground; like many of us, the protagonist seems to spend most of his day browsing the net, but in its accumulation of small panics – running late for work, traffic alerts, fear of one’s boss or the police – it manages to say a great deal about our contemporary age of anxiety. - Robert Barry

I'll get around to the explanation in a minute, but the main thing I wanted to do in this post is to quote the first paragraph of an avant-garde novel-in-progress, The Book From the Ground, by the contemporary artist Xu Bing. (The first name is pronounced -- very, very roughly -- like "shoe".*) So before I explain anything, let me quote the opening paragraph:

Go on. Read it. Yes, you can. Really. Just try. ... ... See? That wasn't that hard, was it?
-- that last of which is (if I understand it) precisely the point.
Xu Bing -- who was born in China, moved to the U.S. in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, but who seems to have recently repatriated to China -- is a conceptual artist. My experience of his work, however, differs from my experience of most conceptual artists in that I find that he's actually working with interesting concepts. The work which (as I understand it) really made his name was A Book From the Sky, which is described on the artist's site as follows:
An all-enveloping textual environment, "A Book from the Sky" is composed of massive sheets of Chinese characters, some left loose and some bound into books, which are suspended form the ceiling, pasted on the wall, and laid on the floor. Everything about "A book from the Sky" has the look of authenticity. Form its arrangement of headings and marginalia on the page to its string bindings and indigo covers, the work mimics in every detail the characteristics of traditional Chinese printing and book -making. While donning such a guise, however, "A book form the sky " is supremely inauthentic. Its characters are purely of the artist's invention and utterly without meaning. What is most [unsettling] perhaps is the way in which Xu Bing's characters approximate the real thing , for the artist has composed them from the variant parts that make up Chinese characters.**
The coolness factor here is a bit hard to grasp unless you understand the way in which Chinese characters are made from parts of other Chinese Characters, but if you do get this, it seems pretty cool indeed. (Or shocking -- apparently his work was very controversial when first displayed.)
The Book From the Ground -- a project begun eight years ago and still ongoing -- is conceived as a sort of thematic sequel (sidequel? something) to the previous work. Here's how Xu Bing describes the origins of the project on its associated web site:
Book from the Ground is a novel written in a "language of icons" that I have been collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life... This project first began with my collecting safety manuals from a number of airlines... Then, in 2003, I noticed three small images on a pack of gum (they translate into please use your wrapper to dispose of the gum in a trashcan), and came to realize that in so far as icons alone can explain something simple, they can also be used to narrate a longer story. From that point on, through various channels, I began to collect and organize logos, icons, and insignia from across the globe, and I also began to research the symbols of expression employed by the specialized fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics, drafting, musical composition, choreography, and corporate branding, among others...
Xu Bing then connects this to earlier (in and of themselves false) descriptions of Chinese as a universal language:
In 1627, the French thinker Jean Douet, in an essay titled "Proposal to the King for a Universal Script, with Admirable Results, Very Useful to Everyone on Earth," first suggested that Chinese was a potential model for an international language. The word "model" is important here because Douet does not limit this "universal script" to the form of Chinese characters per se. He instead focuses on the universal potential of the system of recognition upon which the Chinese language is based. Today, nearly four hundred years later, human communication has indeed evolved in the direction predicted by Douet. We have come to sense that traditional spoken forms are no longer the most appropriate method for communication. And, in response, great human effort has been concentrated on developing ways to replace traditional written languages with icons and images. For this reason, among others, humankind has entered the age of reading images.
And lastly connects the project with his own previous work:
I have created many works that relate to language. This subject first took shape twenty years ago with a piece called Book from the Sky. It was called Book from the Sky because it contained a text legible to no one on this earth (including myself). Today I have used this new "language of signs" to write a book that a speaker of any language can understand; I call it Book from the Ground. But, in truth, these two texts share something in common: regardless of your mother tongue or level of education, they strive to treat you equally. Book from the Sky was an expression of my doubts regarding extant written languages. Book from the Earth is the expression of my quest for the ideal of a single script. Perhaps the idea behind this project is too ambitious, but its significance rests in making the attempt.
(Despite the length of those excerpts, the full essay is, in fact, much longer -- click through if you want to read more.)
Whether he's successful or not you can yourself judge. Certainly the above passage is comprehensible to me -- and, I suspect, will be comprehensible to many people who speak no English, so it's not that language that's clarifying it for me. (I have doubts about its universality -- it seems to me to be a sort of "language" of its own -- but I agree with Xu Bing that the attempt itself is worthy.)
I should forewarn anyone who wants to read more, however, that the web site's navigation is a bit counter intuitive -- I suppose Xu Bing didn't spend as much time clarifying that as he did trying to clarify his symbolic language. If you go to the web site and click on the "read" icon, you are directed to this page, which is called (in the web browser) "basic", which contains a six paragraph text (can I call it a text?) of which the above-quoted paragraph is the opening. This text is titled, appropriately enough, "". But there's no indication of any further text -- at first I thought that that brief passage was the entirety of the work. If you then click again on the "reading" icon, however, it takes you to this table of contents, which lists fourteen chapters (by number only), with a final page promising "to be continued". There isn't any indication (that I've seen) about the relationship between the initial text and the fourteen numbered chapters. I've only carefully read the former, so I may well be missing something, but a brief scan of the latter makes it seem like the original text is a sort of proof-of-concept sketch, which is then elaborated in (rather than continued in) the first chapter of the actual book.
Still, if you're looking to read more, you'll want to go beyond just the first page.
Since the table of contents lists only numbers, but the actual pages themselves have chapter titles (all in Xu Bing's symbolic language, naturally), I thought it might be of some small service if I were to provide a hyperlinked table of contents to the work as it exists so far:
Preface (?):
Chapter 1:
Chapter 2:
Chapter 3:
Chapter 4:
Chapter 5:
Chapter 6:
Chapter 7:
Chapter 8:
Chapter 9:
Chapter 10:
Chapter 11:
Chapter 12:
Chapter 13:
Chapter 14:
There it is, if you wish to read it. As with many tables of contents, I think you get at least a hint of the story's shape just from the titles. I can't recommend it -- again, all I myself have read is what I'm calling the "preface" -- which is interesting as language, but not so interesting as story. But it looks like the longer version may well improve on that latter score. Someday soon I hope to find out.
A post script: two categorical queries
Is The Book From the Ground a Oulipian work, i.e. a work of constrained literature?
I would say it is not. It is an experimental work, certainly, but not I think "constrained" in the sense that that term is used by the Oulipo and its adherents. I can imagine some disagreement on this point -- the Oulipo has done some work on altered languages, such as Jaques Jouet's "The Great-Ape Love-Song" (published in English translation in Oulipo Laboratory). Nevertheless, it seems to me that a newly-invented language -- particularly one not related to any existing language, but pictorial in origin -- while involving, as every task does, certain constraints, is clearly not constrained literature in any plausible sense.
Is The Book From the Ground comics under the McCloudian definition ("juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer"***)?
Again, I would say no. It's not that I am unwilling to apply McCloud's -- to my mind, extremely fruitful -- definition broadly. (In fact, I have been criticized for doing so in the past (see comments.)) But it seems to me that Xi Bing's work is clearly not comics in any plausible sense of the spirit of the term (again, in McCloud's usage).
Again, I can imagine some disagreement here: one might say that Xu Bing's work consists entirely of "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer", so if it is not comics, then does it not represent a plain counter-example to McCloud's definition? I would say it does not, because what Xu Bing is doing ultimately is repurposing what were pictures and other images into a symbolic language, i.e. by the time he's "written" his "texts" what he's working with are no longer images in the sense that McCloud intends.
That said, I think that you could make a plausible argument to the contrary, and either understand what Xi Bing is doing as comics (it is derived, as noted above, from airline instruction manuals and the like, which McCloud does specifically include in his understanding of comics), or tweak McCloud's definition to exclude it (which risks accusations of monster-baring, but may be the best way to go). Alternatively, you could understand Xi Bing as taking comics and changing it into a textual language -- see it not as comics, but as a derivation of one particular form of them. This might be the most accurate approach.
Did you include this entire postscript just as an excuse to tag this post with "ou-x-po" and "comics", since you thought Xi Bing's work would be of interest to those interested in those categories, despite the fact that it isn't, basically, either Oulipian or comics?
We said just two questions.________________
* I haven't seen any site which prints that in proper pinyin, i.e. with tones marked, or I'd reproduce that. Without tones, the pinyin doesn't give sufficient information to pronounce his name. (If anyone happens to know, please leave the information in comments! If it helps, his name in Chinese (according to Wikipedia) is 徐冰.)
** Be grateful I cut off the quote before he started talking about "deconstructive bricolage".
*** Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 9. - Stephen Saperstein Frug
Do you know what Oxford Dictionaries decided the Word of the Year was for 2015?
It was this:

A.k.a. “Face with Tears of Joy.” No letters. No sounds. Just an ebullient smiley face. Verily, something is going on language-evolution-wise. Emojis are everywhere. They’re in prime time TV commercials. They’re in movies, both indie and not (Sony Pictures Animation won a bidding war last summer for an emojis movie). They’re even in the checkout line (you can now buy emoji Pez and emoji fleece pillows). All of which may lead one to ask just how far these histrionic pictographs will spread throughout the culture. If emojis are words, can you write fiction with them? A short story? A novel?
Sure, there was Emoji Dick, a translation into emoji of that one dude’s book about whales. (Fred Benenson, the guy who oversaw Emoji Dick, outsourced the whole thing via Amazon’s slave driver Mechanical Turk web service, paying five cents per “Human Intelligence Task” to over 800 souls.) But what about straight-up original storytelling? Is this possible with emojis? The answer to that question can be found in a work published to minimal fanfare by MIT Press in 2014, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point, by the Chinese visual artist Xu Bing. MIT marketed and described it in their jacket copy as a “graphic novel,” but when you open Book from the Ground, you don’t feel like you’re looking at a comic, at anything related to Peanuts or Astro Boy or Tintin or Maus. You feel like you’re looking at a prose novel from the year 2500 AD.
Xu Bing is vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1999. He made a splash in the Chinese art world in the late 1980s with a project called Book from the Sky, in which he handcrafted over a thousand made-up Chinese characters and printed them onto scrolls and in books, placing them in a gallery as a kind of literary performance art. The characters looked like Chinese from a distance, but up close were incoherent and illegible. This made people very uncomfortable. These were the days of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the fall of the Soviet Union. Book from the Sky was criticized publicly as getting in the way of “socialist spiritual civilization,” and Xu Bing was branded a bourgeois liberal. In 1990, he went into exile and moved to Wisconsin.
Book from the Sky, which was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a couple of years ago and referred to there as “one of the most iconic works of contemporary Chinese art,” came out of Xu’s training as a printmaker and his bookish upbringing as the child of academics. His father, the head of the history department at Beijing University, drilled him in the practice of calligraphy, while his mother, office manager for the university’s library sciences department, let him play in the stacks. Xu Bing was born in 1955 and grew up during the Cultural Revolution. His dad was denounced as a reactionary and sent to prison, and his mother was forced into reeducation. Because he could read and could handle a brush, Xu worked in a propaganda office, doing penance for his “polluted” family members by cranking out posters and leaflets. In the mid-1970s, the Communist Party of China sent Xu to volunteer in the countryside for three years as part of Mao’s rustication program (like a mandatory intra–People’s Republic of China version of the Peace Corps). While there, he continued making posters and designed a quarterly magazine the villagers and the other rusticated city kids produced called Brilliant Mountain Flowers. (The title comes from a poem by Mao Zedong, “Ode to the Plum Blossom.”) When he returned to Beijing in 1977 — just as the Cultural Revolution was ending after Mao’s death in 1976 — Xu enrolled in the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Because it had been closed for a decade, there were 10 years’ worth of students trying to get in. Xu applied to study oil painting, but was accepted instead into printmaking.
When you combine this background as a graphic designer and these experiences of the Cultural Revolution and push all that in the direction of pop art and Dada (the awareness of which came into China in the mid-1980s), you get an artist like Xu who uses calligraphy and printmaking and language-in-general to toy with both his Chinese heritage and the looming hegemony of the English language and Western culture. Hence a project like “Post Testament,” wherein Xu printed and bound using lead type and leather a luxurious-looking tome, the text of which was an incoherent mash-up of the King James Bible and erotica pulp fiction. Or there was “A Case Study of Transference,” wherein Xu brought together two pigs, printed gibberish Chinese on the sow and gibberish English on the hog, put them in a pen covered with books and straw, and then let them fuck in front of an audience.
A Case Study in Transference

Lest you think this guy is a transcultural nihilist, Xu has made other projects that thrust semantically in the opposite direction. For instance, there was his “Square Word Calligraphy,” where he developed a way to write English via the brushstrokes and square-shaped geometry of Chinese calligraphy. Xu set up in a museum a traditional-looking classroom, in which all the words on the chalkboards and in the instructional primers were Chinese-looking English. And in 2003, he started a project called Book from the Ground. Having been elevated professionally to the realm of the jet-set art star, Xu got into the habit of collecting the pictographic safety cards in the seatbacks of airplanes. He had an epiphany in 2003 while looking at a gum wrapper. There was a message in pictographs telling the chewer to dispose of the wrapper appropriately. Seeing this, Xu said,
I came to realize that in addition to single icons being used to explain something simple, several together can be used to narrate a longer story. From then on, I began to collect and organize logos, icons, and signs from all over the world … the rapid development of internet and digital technology has greatly expanded the field of icons. Thus, my project of collecting signs and icons has become an endless one.
First, Xu had the idea to create chat software that would translate English or Chinese into translinguistic pictographs. A setup like this — involving two facing computers with a curtain in between them separating the users — was displayed in a 2007 show called “Automatic Update” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He took the idea further and wrote a book with these icons (including, of course, emojis) and called it Book from the Ground: From Point to Point. It was published in Taiwan in 2011 and mainland China in 2012. A scene from chapter one, in which its protagonist wakes up and heads to the bathroom, reads as follows:


A translation of the above section goes (according to Book from the Ground: From Point to Point’s making-of metabook, The Book About Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground, also published by MIT):
Mr. Black gets up, shuffles over to the bathroom and sits on the toilet. He sits on the toilet for a long time. “En … er … ugh … en …” as much as he tries nothing comes out. “What’s wrong down there?” He ponders. Still waiting on the toilet, he takes out his smartphone and proceeds to go online. He checks his Twitter, Google, rss, and Facebook and suddenly, “Ah!” He feels something, he pushes hard and finally, a poop is released. He lets out a long breath of satisfaction! Finishing up with the toilet paper, he has a look at his creation and then flushes.
“Mr. Black” is how Xu Bing refers in interviews to the hero of this novel. Visually, he’s a twin of the guy on a men’s room door — dot for a head, shoulders square, circular nubs for hands and feet. Book from the Ground is 112 pages long and has 24 chapters, each for an hour in Mr. Black’s day. And this day consists alternately of banalities and slapstick. Mr. Black (who is a 28-year-old bachelor and white collar office drone) cooks breakfast, but burns his bacon and eggs and pours coffee on them to put the fire out. Mr. Black rides the subway to work, and his foot gets stepped on. Mr. Black, who works on the 89th floor of a skyscraper, gives a presentation at a meeting while his bladder’s full and as he runs to the bathroom afterward slips and falls on his ass.
When he gets to the bathroom, the scene looks like this:


Notice what image Xu uses to represent “urinal.” That’s Fountain by Duchamp. And as for why Xu switches mid-book from using yellow-faced emojis to streamlined black-and-white ones … that’s anybody’s guess.
Mr. Black’s personality is part Dilbert, part Little Tramp, part “Buddy Boy” Baxter. He’s romantic but obedient. Occasionally deceptive but generally decent. He gets excited to see he’s got email. He plays video games when he can’t fall asleep at night. He ends early a date with a girl that he met online so he can bring noodles to his friend in the hospital. He’s the 21st-century grandchild of all those brow-furrowed proletarians at the center of such wordless, woodcut, proto-graphic novels as Passionate Journey by Frans Masereel or Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward. But whereas the woodcut novel was an experiment that never caught on (it was a highbrow reaction to silent cinema, and dwindled when movies got sound), you wonder what Mr. Black’s fate will be. Is this a one-off art world gimmick? Or could there be something lasting here?
Proof that Xu Bing is not alone is a book called 102 Hours, which tells the story — albeit simplified and shortened — of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. A design firm named Tank created and self-published it as a fundraising project for a not-for-profit in Boston. It relies less on emojis and more on the men’s-room-door–type humanoid stick figure. And while it doesn’t work as a self-contained story (lacking the grammatical arrows, parentheses, and punctuation marks that make Xu’s book make sense), it’s nevertheless a second example of this new kind of storytelling, one that takes the frame structure of comics — its syntax of placing sequential images side by side — but replaces comics’ hand-drawn cartoons with stripped-down, computerized, repeatable icons that function more like words than pictures.

102 hours

In his treatise on the aesthetics of comics, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud defined the medium as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” McCloud wanted this definition to be specific enough to rule out cinema or single-panel cartoons (which don’t juxtapose images alongside each other) but broad enough to help comics evolve from their 20th-century tendencies (superheroes, funny animals, exaggerated anatomy, pen and ink drawings, newsprint, etc.). At the end of the second chapter, after he explains the psychology of the smiley face, he says:


And there’s Mr. Black! The flattened physique. The monochrome coloring. And in that brain on the left, just above the signs for the restroom, are the rings of the Olympics. It was at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo — the first Olympics hosted by a non-Western country — that a set of pictographs was created to communicate with the athletes and the spectators regardless of their native tongues. Those pictographs looked like this:


There’s Mr. Black again. Doing the clean and jerk. Wielding a saber. Kicking a soccer ball. The universal athlete. Now, emojis come from Japan. They were invented by a guy named Shigetaka Kurita who was working for a telecom company called NTT DoCoMo that was releasing in 1999 one of the world’s first mobile internet platforms. The screens of the phones they were working with could only fit 48 letters. Kurita says that AT&T had already been offering internet services to its cell phone users, but only via words, not pictures. For example, with a weather forecast, the AT&T service would say “Fine,” for a nice day, but Kurita wanted something more direct and visual. “I’d rather see a picture of the sun, instead of a text saying ‘fine.’” He proposed the idea of emoji (“emoji” is a portmanteau of two Japanese words: “e” for “picture” and “moji” for “letter or character”), was given the go-ahead, and had one month to come up with about 180 characters. Some of the early emojis looked like this:


Kurita said, “I was working with the sense of creating a new alphabet. It was an attempt to create texts rather than a sense of making pictures.” He pulled ideas from a couple of sources. One was manga (Japanese comics) and their shorthand symbols such as a light bulb over a character’s head to represent inspiration or sweat beads on a forehead to mean stress or nerves. And the other was the pictographs of public signage, which came to prominence after the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad. The emoji system Kurita came up with became so popular that other Japanese telecom companies copied the idea. It was with the release of the iPhone in 2007 and the ensuing worldwide smartphone gold rush that emojis became The Beatles of digital messaging.
What’s radical formally about Book from the Ground: From Point to Point is how Xu Bing, despite his training in printmaking and calligraphy, didn’t draw his own symbols (unlike Book from the Sky, where he composed and carved into wood his own pseudo-Chinese). He wanted to see how thorough a story he could tell using only the icons that other people (like Shigetaka Kurita at NTT DoCoMo or the designers of the Tokyo Olympiad) had already drawn. He borrowed and reused visual symbols the way when you speak or write English or Chinese you borrow and reuse words that have already been defined and put into use by others. This is a kind of fiction writing that resembles prose and resembles comics but is neither the one nor the other. It’s a synthesis, and one which was made available at this historical moment because of the personal computer and digital graphics.
If you look at the history of comics, particularly at the turn of the 20th century, you’ll see how they became a successful mass medium through new reproductive technologies. Inexpensive color printing let newspaper tycoons use them as a marketing ploy. The phonograph and the motion picture let cartoonists see their drawings as a written version of a recorded action. Like in the 1880s and 1890s, we seem, culturally, economically, to be in yet another Gilded Age of predatory capitalism and exponential technological development. Some of this technology — especially the digital computer screen — can produce and reproduce images and language in ways that previously were impossible. One assumption about comics that’s still held today is they ought to be drawn by hand, using pencils and pens or brushes, and that every part of every scene has to be drawn anew. A consequence of this is how laborious — how slow, tedious, and repetitive — making comics can be. Hence the mythical more-or-less-a-decade necessary for the creation of so many memorable graphic novels: 13 years for Bone, 11 years for Maus, 10 years for Black Hole, 10 years for Building Stories, seven years for Fun Home. Hell, Michelangelo finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in four years’ time, that despite pausing in the middle for a 12-month sabbatical and stylistic retooling.
Despite MIT Press’s branding Book from the Ground: From Point to Point a graphic novel, Xu was not on a mission to revolutionize comics. In fact, the book is almost willfully uninterested in the history of the medium. References to Batman and Spider-Man and the Hulk show up but only through their incarnation in movies and video games, not in their primary form as the protagonists of comic books. Xu said of his ambitions,
I have created many works that relate to language. Twenty years ago I made Book from the Sky. It contains a text legible to no one on this earth, including myself. In contrast, today, I have used this new sign language to write a book that everyone can understand … I believe that the power of this work does not lie in its resemblance to art, but in its ability to present a new way of looking at things.
Writing with icons (such as emojis) could allow for a storytelling that mixes what’s good about prose (the efficient, denotative communication) with what’s good about comics (the array of visual data) and that regards a computer and digital culture not as a threat but as a necessary tool. It’s only by being willing to change and adapt and evolve that the novel — be it of prose or of comics — can continue to live up to the promise of its name. Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point is just that. The rarest of novels. One that’s legitimately new. - Tim Peters

Xu Bing's Book from the Ground

These are two books from Chinese artist Xu Bing.
The main book is the white one called Book from the Ground: from point to point. It's essentially a pictogram book. What's interesting is there's a story that's told through a series of symbols. It's almost like Egyptian hieroglyphics, a puzzle where you have to figure out the story.
And if you can't figure out the story, you can get The Book about Xu Bing's Book from the Ground which deciphers the symbols and story. This book also features interviews with the artists and showcases his other works.
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
See those soccer players on the third line? Those are actually soccer player silhouettes in vector graphics created by me. It's quite a surprise to see them here.
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground
Xu Bing's Book from the Ground

Earlier this year, I wrote about "The unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation". In that post, I had a long section on the artist Xu Bing's "Book from the Sky".
Now the artist has created a parallel "Book from the Ground". Here's what it looks like:

This is supposedly the Everyman Tale in icons. Forgive me, but even after studying up on Xu Bing's principles employed in creating his "Book from the Ground", I must confess that I cannot read off what he has written in English, which is theoretically supposed to be possible. I wonder how many Language Log readers are capable of doing so. Since Xu Bing has been engaged in this project since 2003, we may politely say that it is a "work in progress".
All of Xu Bing's experimental scripts probe the boundaries of the established conventions of writing. For example, in Square Word Calligraphy Xu arranged the letters of English words into quadrilateral shapes like Chinese characters. David B. Kelley went a step further and adapted Xu Bing's system of Square Word Calligraphy by replacing the Roman letters of English words with Chinese character components that resemble them.
Kelley's Square Word Calligraphy even made it into Omniglot, so somebody seems to have taken it (half) seriously.
There are many other artists in China who are exploring ways to transform and revitalize the Sinographic writing system, but most of them are whimsical or satirical, with few making any real pretensions to replacing or modifying the existing script. I'm quite certain that Xu Bing's "Book from the Ground" will never be refined to the point that it can replace existing scripts either. Consequently, when it comes to reforming the Chinese writing system, which has been a preoccupation of countless linguists, artists, and activists during the past century and more, for practical purposes reformers are forced to fall back on the two main approaches of simplification and phoneticization.
[A tip of the hat to Anne Henochowicz] -

Pictographic language, the dissolving boundaries in globalised communication and the anxieties of modern life are the themes explored by Xu Bing in a mixed media display at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts this month. Xu Bing, a globally renowned Chinese artist, had his first solo show in the UK at the Chinese Arts Centre (as the CFCCA was then known) when it first opened its venue in Thomas Street back in 2003. To mark its 30th anniversary, the organisation has invited him back to present another UK premiere – Book from the Ground (2003-), a print and software-based work written in a “language of icons”, which is displayed in a recreation of Xu’s art studio.
In what he describes as an “unfinishable project”, Xu’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point is a text piece without any traditional words, which the artist began ‘writing’ more than 10 years ago. It was published as a book for Western audiences last year, and illustrates an individual’s day in life purely through logos, signs and emoticons, all taken from symbols we recognise and use every day. Numerous icons, such as the location symbol from Google Maps, emerged with incredible speed during the making of Xu’s work, and more symbols are likely to proliferate with the advances in digital technology, making Book from the Ground an ongoing and interactive project.
A television monitor in the gallery features footage of Xu Bing talking about his work at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Xu, speaking in Mandarin and accompanied by a translator, explained how From Point to Point illustrates that people in every moment of every day are educated in the reading of icons in this “new phase of pictographic language.” He said: “To read this book has nothing to do with your educational background, but instead the depth and breadth to which you’ve entered into modern life.”
Each chapter of the book represents one hour in the life of an ordinary office worker named Mr. Black, and is headed with a clock symbol. The reader – or rather, viewer – of the book on display can interpret from the images that Mr. Black accomplishes very little, but is constantly negotiating with routine minutiae. Logo brands from the Nike swish to the McDonald’s arches indicate his indecision in choosing what to wear and what to eat. Although Mr. Black is dissatisfied with his career and uneventful love life, he spends most of his day browsing social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. If there’s any message to be gained from Xu’s 112 pages, it’s that companies are creating a global, visual language but they also do very little to offset the anxieties of modern life.
Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.
The CFCCA’s lovingly detailed recreation of Xu’s studio has a desk, a corkboard, numerous books and vast amounts of print-outs of signs and symbols taped over the walls. Road signs, safety manual diagrams and visual DIY instructions are just a few of the things that inspired Book from the Ground, and some of them can be seen in the room, providing an intimate insight into the artist’s creative process.
This exhibition is the first in a six-month programme celebrating the CFCCA’s 30th anniversary. It is a rotating exhibition of high profile artists, all of whom have contributed to the CFCCA before during its three decades in showcasing contemporary Chinese art. The 30 Years of CFCCA programme was launched on 4 February 2016 to coincide with Chinese New Year. - Charlie Bennett

Xu Bing: [TIANSHU]. (A Book from the Sky). [Beijing, 1991.] 96; 69; 61; 76 folded leaves, Chinese-style. 4 vols. 46x30 cm. Stitched, in a walnut-wood case.

A tour de force of conceptual, graphic and bibliographic art. This superb production, by which we mean the creation of the entire limited edition of one hundred copies of «A Book from the Sky», is arguably one of the most important Chinese art works of the century.
   [Hanshan Tang Books of London has stocked copies of the «Tianshu», with reference code: XU0TS2.]
Between 1987 and 1991, the young Chinese graphic and fine artist, Xu Bing (born, Beijing, 1955), designed a 'vocabulary' of 4,000 characters which appear, in terms of their graphic form and structure, to be Chinese, but which are entirely illegible in terms of their linguistic signification. None of them appear in Chinese dictionaries, and they do not relate to any other living or dead, spoken or unspoken language on earth. During the same period, Xu personally carved (in reverse) the pear-wood type from which he eventually hand-printed his «Tianshu» or «Book from the Sky».
Although this artist's book directly flouts those conventions which allow us to read the meaning of linguistic signs, it lovingly adheres to all the material-cultural conventions and forms of traditional Chinese book-making and bibliography.
   Extraordinarily, from the point of view of Chinese fine book production, «Tianshu» was printed by wooden moveable type. Although the Chinese invented moveable type in the 11th century AD, long before Gutenberg, because of the large numbers of Chinese characters required for a working font, it was not adopted as the preferred method for composing and printing books. Printers found it easier to continue with the practice of carving whole blocks of characters from which each sheet (equal to a western 'opening') was printed. Fine early editions printed by moveable type do exist. The most famous recent example is the monumental encyclopedia, the «Gujin Tushu Jicheng» (printed 1713-22), a copy of which is in the British Library. However, this was printed using copper type. The contemporary production of a fine, traditional style Chinese book in wooden moveable type may well be all but unique.
   Equally extraordinary is the fact that, although he was already an extremely accomplished graphic artist, known for his woodcuts, Xu Bing taught himself - with support from his librarian mother, and the surroundings and collections of Beijing University and Library - the printing technology and bibliographic expertise which he required for the execution of Tianshu. When he came to print the book at the Caiyuxiang Guji Shuchang at Daxing, he had to show the craftspeople there how to go about composing and printing a book in moveable type. Workers and managers at the factory were, he says, thrilled by the results (despite the incomprehensibility of the content). Indeed, one of the challenges of printing from moveable is even inking, since the type may vary minutely in height. «Tianshu» shows remarkably even inking, because of the artist's care in carving and also, perhaps, because the Caiyu factory was experienced in reprinting books from old and worn blocks.
More Detailed Description
Each volume of the book is printed on folded leaves of zangjing  paper (This is paper intended for the printing of religious, especially, Buddhist 'classics;' some copies - to which we have not had direct access - are printed on yubanxuan  a more yellow xuanzhi. The binding is of the highest quality, although the style is that of a important canonical or literary work, rather than an artistic or imperial indulgence (there is no imperial yellow and no brocade).
   Each of the four volumes is stitch-bound in the six-hole pattern reserved for the best books, between blue-dyed paper covers with title labels. The volumes have covered corners (baojiao). Each sheet is folded along the central line of the block with the sheet edges bound into the spine in the most common form of traditional Chinese binding, but the six-hole stitching and the extra lining of each leaf (with a blank sheet bound inside the folds), the covered corners, etc. all indicate the top-quality binding which has been employed. The fold of the leaf is at the opening edge of each volume and is, therefore, huakou  or 'decorated' with the various levels of running title, single upper fish-tail, volume and leaf 'numbering,' horizontal block rules and a series of single 'non-characters' (one for each chapter) in the position where the surname of carver would be found. Everything is in place.
   The type-style of the work is that of a Ming period songti. However, the character count across columns and rows has been chosen to suggest earlier (religious) models from the Song or Yuan periods. There are 17 characters per column and 9 per row on each page. The dimensions of the printed area (the 'chase' or 'form' in this case equivalent of the face of the block in a block-carved book) are 32.5x47 cm, although where there are upper marginal notes (meipi), these extend above the top horizontal rule. Inside each volume there is a cornucopia of traditional Chinese book-design features often modelled on specific rare books which Xu Bing consulted (but formally altered or subverted). According to the artist, these have been arranged 'rhythmically' across and within the four volumes. Broadly, volume one is straightforward, mostly standard text with little in the way of commentary but with distinct divisions and headings; volume two has a greater diversity of typographic forms, suggesting (medical?) reference works; volume three has forms suggesting various literary genres (poetry, 'three-character classics,' biji  in the final sections), religious (sutras) or philosophical works; and volume four, after returning to a run of standard text with upper marginal notes, ends with a variety of appended glossaries and vocabularies - a character dictionary (where the upper marginal notes go wild), a glossary of selected compounds, and a word list. At the same time all the preliminaries and main parts of a complex work with multiple commentaries and apparatus are represented in their traditional formats, using varying sizes of type and design - Chinese-style solid-block 'bullets', systems of indentation, heading characters in reverse (white-on-black) type, characters which clearly represent ordinal numbers (perhaps the only construable characters in the entire text - although there are reports that one elderly scholar claims to be able to read two of the non-ordinal characters), and so on. Various well-known standard sections of a major work are easily recognized because of the typographic arrangements: prefaces (xu)  for the entire work and also the separate volumes, tables of contents (mulu)  the headings of which match up to chapters and sections of the book; main text (zhengwen), marginal notes (meipi, printed in smaller type above the top horizontal rule of the block), commentary in half-size type doubled between the vertical lines of the main text and following each sentence which deserves such explication (jiazhu). Finally (but far from exhaustively), the book also has a traditional colophon (ba)  cut out of the vertical column rules in a rectangular box on the last page. The last four 'characters' in the work, within this cartouche, are a beautiful arrangement in smaller type 'sealing' the colophon with a vague suggestion of the real character for 'to carve.' All in all, the book offers the form of a major work, a 'Classic' or 'Collectanea' of Heaven, a work with a long exegetical history which has deserved and received the close attentions of many scholars for a millennium or more.
Artistic/Critical Significance
Xu Bing is associated with the mainland Chinese 'New Wave of Fine Arts' movement which came to prominence in the mid-1980s. It was in 1987 that he earned his Master of Fine Arts from the Central Academy in Beijing and exhibited his earlier large-scale work, 'Five Series of Repetitions,' a formalist exploration of woodblock printing which extended his mastery of traditional woodblock techniques into the avant-garde practice of the New Wave. However it was «Tianshu» which transformed him into a major figure of this new Chinese arts movement as well as establishing him, in the longer term, as an artist of international reputation.
   When the unfinished work was first exhibited in Beijing during October 1988 at the China National Gallery, it caused a sensation. Chinese intellectuals and artists have been obsessed with the relationship of their (potentially/problematically) modernist practice to the Chinese tradition. Here was a work in which the material-cultural forms of the Chinese literary and scholarly tradition are strictly, even lovingly, observed while the system of meaning underlying those forms is just as strictly denied. The Tianshu is a striking, beautiful, superbly-crafted, unreadable paradox, while at the same time it is an eloquent contribution to a debate which continues to rage amongst Chinese intellectuals and artists.
   The importance of the work has been widely recognized, by western critics and scholars (see, for example, recent references and illustrations in Craig Clunas's «Art in China» pp. 220-22, and Michael Sullivan's «Art and Artists of Twentieth Century China», p. 288) as well as their Chinese counterparts. It is interesting to consider the different ways in which the work, as displayed or handled, is 'read' by its Chinese and non-Chinese audiences.
   Educated Chinese readers can see immediately that the words of this fine book cannot be read, but they often believe - because its characters and their 'framing' are, formally, so convincing - that it must be legible to someone, that it is, perhaps, in an as yet undeciphered script (such as the Tangut or Xixia script, which the «Tianshu» characters vaguely resemble), or that it is a secret or lost language, or a personal language of the artist. Sometimes, therefore, they need to be reminded or 'reassured' of the fact that this book really is unreadable. It should be stressed that this is not a Chinese «Finnegans Wake», this is not, for example, a deliberate confusion of tongues, or of portmanteau words. The visual effect on Chinese readers may be similar to that on Western readers simply looking at the text of «Finnegans Wake», but in «Tianshu» there are no construable linguistic elements. The 'familiarity' of the characters is all a matter of (calli)graphic form, although because of the 'high art' tradition of Chinese calligraphy (which, of course, underlies traditional type design) these formal meanings come closer to artistic meaning-creation than would the graphics or typography of a similar exercise in a Western bibliographic context.
   Most non-Chinese readers know in advance they cannot read the book; and they don't expect to have this ability. How, then, does the gallery installation of «Tianshu» differ, for them, from the gallery installation of a perfectly legible, equally fine, rare Chinese classic? Once more, a would-be 'reader' of the «Tianshu» has to be reminded that any actual reading is impossible. Silently, the book addresses the cultural distance between, shall we say, a literate, educated Chinese audience and a non-Chinese audience, or, indeed, a non-literate, uneducated Chinese audience. Both these classes of viewers, those who are distant from the established, material culture of the «Tianshu» because they are disadvantaged within their own society and those who are distant because they are (linguistically, culturally, physically) outside the 'Central Kingdom' are reminded of this distance when they are informed (they have to be told!) that the «Tianshu» is unreadable; when, paradoxically, they are made to realize that not even those who are 'inside' and at the 'centre' cannot read it.
   Much more could be made of the work in terms of contemporary critical theory than is appropriate here, except to suggest, briefly, that Xu Bing's book may be one of the greatest examples of 'applied grammatology' ever produced.
Exhibitions and Collections
«A Book from the Sky» has been exhibited at installations in many galleries, throughout the world. The first time it was exhibited in the West was at the Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison November 1991-January 1992, together with a major retrospective of Xu Bing's work; the most recent was at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, during May 1997. Copies of the book are in the collections of The British Museum, the library of Harvard University, Queensland Art Gallery and in a few public and private collections in Japan.

*Note on the 'title,' place of publication and date. Above we give, as it were, the 'gallery title' of the work. Its actual title is, of course, impossible to transliterate, or to transcribe in any Chinese font currently available to us. See the reproduction of the title page for the actual characters in question. Also, in a nice, ironic touch, on unsigned copies, a simple round-cornered cartouche on the reverse title-page is left blank. This is the place where a printer or publisher's colophon may traditionally appear (especially on more modern books and facsimiles). However, this book comes from the Sky, from Erewhon, from nowhere. On signed copies - in practice this means all copies which are sold and have left his possession - this cartouche bears Xu Bing's signature.
 Much of the information in this entry is based on interviews and discussions with the artist undertaken by John Cayley during Xu Bing's visit to London in May 1997. -

Xu Bing is an internationally acclaimed artist whose work has been shown and collected by museums and galleries including the National Art Museum of China; the British Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Modern Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Museum. He is a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and is currently serving as Vice President of the Central Academy of Art, Beijing. Based in Beijing, he maintains a studio in Brooklyn.


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