Xu Bing B. 1955
Xu Bing B. 1955

Details & Cataloguing

Contemporary Chinese Art (Part II)

Hong Kong

Xu Bing B. 1955
B. 1955

signed and titled

black and red ink on paper
450 by 400cm.; 177 1/8 by 157 1/2 in.
Read Condition Report Read Condition Report


Eslite Gallery, Taiwan.
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner.


Bates College Museum of Art, Maine,1999
ARCO, (Eslite Gallery), Madrid, Spain, 2002


Eslite Gallery, Xu Bing, Taipei, 2003, pp.52-53.

Catalogue Note

The text reads as follows:

Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse Tung.

... Through the creative labour of revolutionary writers and artists, the raw materials found in the life of the people are shaped into the ideological form of literature and art serving the masses of the people. Included here are the more advanced literature and art as developed on the basis of elementary literature and art and as required by those sections of the masses whose level has been raised, or, more immediately, by the cadres among the masses. Also included here are elementary literature and art which, conversely, are guided by more advanced literature and art and are needed primarily by the overwhelming majority of the masses at present. Whether more advanced or elementary, all our literature and art are for the masses of the people, and in the first place for the workers, peasants and soldiers; they are created for the workers, peasants and soldiers and are for their use...

... Our specialists in the fine arts should pay attention to the fine arts of the masses. All these comrades should make close contact with comrades engaged in the work of popularizing literature and art among the masses. On the one hand, they should help and guide the popularizers, and on the other, they should learn from these comrades and, through them, draw nourishment from the masses to replenish and enrich themselves so that their specialities do not become "ivory towers", detached from the masses and from reality and devoid of content or life. We should esteem the specialists, for they are very valuable to our cause. But we should tell them that no revolutionary writer or artist can do any meaningful work unless he is closely linked with the masses, gives expression to their thoughts and feelings and serves them as a loyal spokesman. Only by speaking for the masses can he educate them and only by being their pupil can he be their teacher. If he regards himself as their master, as an aristocrat who lords it over the "lower orders", then, no matter how talented he may be, he will not be needed by the masses and his work will have no future...

... We are proletarian revolutionary utilitarians and take as our point of departure the unity of the present and future interests of the broadest masses, who constitute over 90 per cent of the population; hence we are revolutionary utilitarians aiming for the broadest and the most long-range objectives, not narrow utilitarians concerned only with the partial and the immediate. If, for instance, you reproach the masses for their utilitarianism and yet for your own utility, or that of...

... even harmful to the majority, then you are not only insulting the masses but also revealing your own lack of self-knowledge. A thing is good only when it brings real benefit to the masses of the people. Your work may be as good as "The Spring Snow", but if for the time being it caters only to the few and the masses are still singing the "Song of the Rustic Poor", you will get nowhere by simply scolding them instead of trying to raise their level. The question now is to bring about a unity between "The Spring Snow" and the "Song of the Rustic Poor", between higher standards and popularization. Without such a unity, the highest art of any expert cannot help being utilitarian in the narrowest sense; you may call this art "pure and lofty" but that is merely your own name for it which the masses will not endorse...

..."The Spring Snow" and the "Song of the Rustic Poor" were songs of the Kingdom of Chu in the 3rd century B.C....

... Today I have discussed only some of the problems of fundamental orientation for our literature and art movement; many specific problems remain which will require further study. I am confident that comrades here are determined to move in the direction indicated...

Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art. By Mao Tse Tung. Calligraphy By Xu Bing.

Perhaps no contemporary artist has created a body of work more closely associated with the signifying potential of the Chinese character than Xu Bing. Trained as a printmaker, Xu's landmark Book from the Sky (1988-89) offered an earth-shattering deconstruction of the Chinese language in the form of nearly 4000 "invented" characters that consisted of non-existent combinations of otherwise recognizable radicals and phonetic elements. This work, presented at the National Gallery during the epoch-making 1989 China/Avant-Garde show raised poignant questions about the ties that culture, language, and history have exerted on a civilization then in a period of intense self-searching. Something in the tension between the monumental labor exerted by the artist to coin so many fake signs and the painstaking skill with which these invented signs were carved and used to print scrolls according to the most orthodox of Song-dynasty printing techniques angered not only the authorities, but a whole generation of literati.


Known to most Chinese intellectuals as the defining work of the 1980s, Xu Bing's Book from the Sky is offered here in a stunning set of four books collected in a wooden case. From an edition of 100 printed and bound in the months just after the 1989 exhibition, this work is perhaps the most elegant material form that Xu's iconic project has taken. Where scrolls from the original installation at the National Art Gallery survive in numerous, often uneditioned forms, this set of books¿identical in appearance and character to the books that covered the floor of that original installation¿offers a rare opportunity to collect an undisputed piece of this seminal work.


Shortly after the 1989 exhibition, Xu Bing emigrated to the United States, settling in New York where he still lives today. His Book from the Sky was among the first major works of contemporary art from China shown to Western audiences, creating in this new context of non-speakers of Chinese yet another set of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. The transition from Xu Bing's central position in a heated domestic conversation about the inheritance of Chinese tradition in light of a newly open artistic atmosphere to a peripheral position as an outsider in a New York scene with which he was not familiar was one of the major inspirations for Xu Bing's "New English Calligraphy."


This script, in which English words are written according to Chinese stroke-order and in the "square" confines of the boxes used to teach Chinese calligraphy, raises a number of intellectual and cultural quandaries. It represents in one sense a perfect evolution from the "Book from the Sky": where that earlier work presented characters which appeared as familiar but ultimately illegible to the Chinese reader, the characters of "Square Word Calligraphy" appear to the English-speaking reader first as foreign and indecipherable, but slowly reveal themselves as just another font for rendering English words. By writing in this way, Xu Bing creates a metaphor for the disjuncture he himself must have felt upon arrival in the U.S.: at first confused by the foreign-seeming surroundings, but later resigned to a life there that, upon closer inspection, actually did make sense.


As the artist himself has written:


Essentially, New English Calligraphy is a fusion of written English and written Chinese. The letters of an English word are slightly altered and arranged in a square word format so that the word takes on the ostensible form of a Chinese character, yet remains legible to the English reader. As people attempt to recognize and write these words, some of the thinking patterns that have been ingrained in them since they learned to read are challenged. It is the artists' belief that people must have their routine thinking attacked in this way. While undergoing this process of estrangement and re-familiarization with one's written language, the audience is reminded that the sensation of distance between other systems of language and one's own is largely self-induced.[1]


Much of Xu Bing's lesser-known work from the early 1990s also explores these themes of misunderstanding and interpretation as channeled through the vehicle of the printed text. Installations like Post Testament (1992) in which the artist printed hundreds of copies of a book in which the text of the King James Bible was alternated word-by-word with text from a romance novel, and Brailliterate (1993), in which Braille books were given printed English titles that had nothing to do with their content, played off of the vast possibilities for incomprehension that exist when two different registers of signification¿scripture and pornography, text printed and imprinted¿coexist.


But of course the New English Calligraphy is by far the best-known and most powerful result of Xu Bing's prolonged investigation into writing and meaning. In its original conception, this project entailed a classroom where museum-goers would become "students" studying this strange new script at specially designed desks and using specially produced workbooks. An instructional video featuring the young critic Karen Smith in the role of schoolteacher guided participants to create their own words. Later, Xu Bing worked with a Taiwanese software developer to produce a computer program capable of taking any word input in English and converting it into the script.


Xu Bing's Square Word Calligraphy is represented here by two excellent examples, both rendering selections from Mao Zedong's "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Art and Literature," the text that would guide the aesthetic output of the New China for nearly three decades. Lot XXX dates to 1998 and takes the form of a single panel, four and a half by four meters large. It is particularly important for falling so early in Xu Bing's phase of reconsidering the Maoist doctrines on which he was raised. This attention to Mao's Yan'an philosophy climaxed in 1999 with Xu Bing's red-and-yellow New English Calligraphy banner for the exterior of the Museum of Modern Art in New York¿a commissioned work which read simply, "Chairman Mao Says: Art For the People. Calligraphy by Xu Bing." Of course the Yan'an talks could provide fodder for years of work, and indeed Xu Bing's other four-scroll series (LOT XXX), realized in 2001, shows the endless possibilities offered by this single text.


For Xu Bing, text functions simultaneously as language and as object. Nowhere is this philosophy more apparent than in his American Silkworm Series of installations begun in 1994, the same year as the New English Calligraphy. Beginning that year, Xu Bing began to raise an annual crop of silkworms, which he would then incorporate into his works in the following manner:


The thousands of black egg-markings create a "printed text" evoking the strange script of some mysterious, secret language. At the opening of the installation, the eggs are already very close to hatching. In the days following, as the eggs hatch the text is altered and dissipated as the black dots gradually disappear and transform into thousands of squiggling black lines (the young silkworms) that proceed to crawl out from between the pages of the books, startling the viewer confronted with these strange volumes.[2]


While the series began using paper books and originally called for a long display period during which the silkworms would grow and hatch, it later evolved into another of the artist's many freely employed idioms. The three panels of text covered in silkworm cocoons offered as Lot XXX were realized several years into Xu Bing's silkworm experiments, in 2001. It is among the first in the artist's oeuvre to use a material other than the books with which the Silkworm works began.


In a nod to the writings of Chairman Mao that Xu Bing was then incorporating into his calligraphic works, these panels transcribe (in ordinary Chinese characters) Mao's well-known 1945 invocation of the Chinese story about the "foolish old man who removes the mountain." The original story recounts the travails of an old man in northern China, ninety years of age, who resolves to level the mountains that lie in the way of his daily walks. Repeatedly discouraged by his wife and neighbors who claimed that he lacked the strength for such a monumental effort, the old man only grew in his resolve. The key passage of the story, recounted in the Chinese classic Liezi, reads:


The Foolish Old Man of the North Mountain heaved a long sign and said, "You are so conceited that you are blind to reason. Even a widow and a child know better than you. When I die, there will be my sons, who will have their sons and grandsons. Those grandsons will have their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. But the mountains will not grow. Why is it impossible to level them?" The Wise Old Man at the River Bend could not answer him.


Speaking to the Seventh National Congress of the Communist Party of China on June 11, 1945, Mao Zedong invoked this story, famously asking, "If the entire mass of Chinese people came together to dig up these two mountains, is there any way they could fail?" Xu Bing here presents two panels of text in which these words from one of Mao's most famous speeches are written first forwards, then backwards. Read in reverse the words appear disconcertingly familiar, like strands in a narrative that threatens to say something but never quite manages to do so. The effect hovers on the edge of subversion but not in any overt way. While they flirt with political commentary, these panels are better seen as a linguistic meditation, which like so much of Xu Bing's work, challenges our relationship to the words, and by extension the stories, that shape history and memory.

[1] Xu Bing project description for the New English Calligraphy Classroom 1994.

[2] Xu Bing, project description for American Silkworms Project, 1994.

Due to the nature of this item it will be moved to a storage location immediately following the sale. Storage charges will be transferred to the purchaser account on the sixth day following the sale. Please contact a member of the department for further assistance.

Contemporary Chinese Art (Part II)

Hong Kong