Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Xu Bing's Book from the Ground

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am curious I have seen a few screenshot of the chat program. Is it included in the "Book from the ground" book or only available in the exhibition?