To Understand The Meaning Of Chinese Censorship – Xu Bing Retrospective

On 12/03/2014 by Site Default

When Xu Bing first moved to the United States, he didn’t speak English. In that respect, he was like many Chinese immigrants. But Xu was an artist, and his approach to learning the language was unorthodox. He transliterated the Roman alphabet into Chinese characters for Mandarin words that had the sounds of our letters, and made a set of ABC blocks in ceramic. Though their utility as learning aids was questionable, they perfectly encapsulated his sense of foreignness: Read literally, A meant sorrow, B meant other, and Z meant thief.

Xu has since returned to Beijing, and has become one of the most prominent artists in China. A highly important midcareer retrospective at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum shows that he is also one of the greatest.

, by Xu Bing, 1991. Courtesy of Xu Bing and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

<A, B, C…>, by Xu Bing, 1991. Courtesy of Xu Bing and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

The power of his work was evident from the outset, even before his time in the U.S. In the late ’80s, he hand-carved several thousand Chinese characters into blocks of wood, with which he printed a book. His text looked highly learned, especially since the characters were wrought in the classic Song form, and the printing and binding were meticulous. However nobody could read his Book From the Sky because all of the characters were invented and completely devoid of meaning.

Xu first exhibited his Book From the Sky as an installation at the China National Art Museum in 1988. It was one of the first contemporary art exhibits to be permitted in an official Chinese institution – a rare lapse in China’s policy of artistic censorship – and the work ingeniously reflected the consequences of cultural totalitarianism. Book From the Sky was inscrutable to the point of being beyond criticism. Yet it was also prophetic: Language not freely expressed will atrophy to gibberish.

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