Square Word Calligraphy

UCCA: After moving to the United States, Xu Bing’s interest in and sensitivity toward writing only grew. He turned his creative attention to the English language, as well as questions of cross-cultural and linguistic transference. The calligraphy classroom you see here is his most iconic work from this period, Square Word Calligraphy.

Xu Bing: When I moved to the US, language and communication became immediate problems. They form an awkward relationship with your life: your thinking is mature, but your speech and expressive abilities are those of a child. Your roots are deep in the Chinese language, but you are required to use an unfamiliar vernacular. I have always been interested in words; in China, I made work that dealt with Chinese characters. After going to America, I kept thinking about if it would be possible to use English to make things. I tried many experiments. This attempt to grasp the unique attributes of different languages helped me understand cultural distinctions. These differences were my motivation as I imagined how to “graft” them onto one another.

After I came up with the idea for an English Square Word Calligraphy, I tried my hand at writing it. To be honest, my first attempts weren’t much to look at, not because I lacked calligraphy training, but because I was the first person to try to write this way. When writing, I would think of English letters while keeping in mind the particular brushwork of Chinese calligraphy. I had never used my mind and my hand in this way before. But this ugly calligraphy did record the history of a person’s thoughts as he struggled with, and reconciled, two different systems.

UCCA: Since the creation of his new writing system, Xu Bing has often used it in his calligraphic works. Its popularity grew as he exhibited it around the world: schools have started classrooms for his calligraphy, and there are even companies that have used it in job interviews, testing the applicants’ mental versatility. Xu Bing enjoys how Square Word Calligraphy can be easily written and reproduced outside of the art world.

Xu Bing: This piece is a response to linguistic and cultural conflicts. Yet in truth, it’s not just about cultural exchange, communication, and the meeting of East and West. I was really interested in changing people’s innate modes of thought by hinting at a new perspective.

UCCA: Apart from the classroom, as you walk into the back corner you will see other language-based works from around the same time. On the far wall is A, B, C…, the first piece Xu Bing made after moving to the US. Nearby is Post Testament, a book that combines the Bible with a popular novel, alternating words. These early experiments are an important artistic foundation for many of Xu Bing’s later works, reflecting his varied interests and interdisciplinary vision.