The Character of Characters

UCCA: As you enter this room on your right, you will find another series of works centered on writing. The piece on the outer wall is named Lost Letters. Xu Bing completed this work for the Asian Fine Arts Factory in Berlin in 1997. It records traces of the factory’s history as an underground publishing house of the German Communist Party, as well as the artist’s considerations of text, history, and memory. To him, “Writing is one of the fundamental elements of our notion of human culture. To interact with writing is to interact with the root of culture.” Similarly, understanding the origin and development of Chinese characters means getting at the core of Chinese culture.

The hanging sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon and the series of preparatory drafts shown here are the product of a word game Xu Bing plays with the word “monkey” in several different languages. Continuing to the back wall, you’ll see two pieces that resemble classical artworks, Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll and one of Xu Bing’s “Landscripts.” These works are meditations on the culture of Chinese characters, in particular the common roots of Chinese painting and calligraphy.

A trip to Nepal in 1999 rekindled Xu Bing’s interest in pictographs. On this excursion, he picked up his sketchbook once again. As he looked to a mountain, he would draw using the Chinese character for mountain, thereby making a series of landscape paintings composed of characters.

Xu Bing: At the time, I could forget about discussions of style and brushwork in calligraphy and painting. I felt I’d reached the core of our culture, its most unique part. Everyone knows about the shared origins of calligraphy and painting, but what they mean is a stylistic relationship. Yet what I felt was a semiotic connection between them. I composed landscape paintings with words: a mountain, an expanse of water, a tree. I found that together, those characters seem like the drawing techniques of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting from the Qing Dynasty. To me, the Manual was like a dictionary filled with component parts from renowned artists and their works. Students learned to paint the same way they learned to write, through rote memorization. Once these symbols were internalized, students could use them to “write” everything in the world. The core component of Chinese culture is the categorization of the world into symbols. This is why Chinese painting stresses copying from books rather than drawing from nature. These basic drawing techniques of texture and mark-making are all symbols that rely on memory, not depiction. This is how our culture was passed down.

UCCA: Here you’ll also see the hand-drawn animation The Character of Characters, which tells the stories of different Chinese character compositions as well as how these pictograms have changed throughout history. It explores the relationship between the writing of characters and Chinese culture.