Xu Bing: The Living Word
|When||1 Dec 2012|
1050 Independence Avenue Southwest
Washington, DC 20560
July 19 2011 – October 2, 2011
A reflection on language and the nature of writing has been at the core of Xu Bing’s art since the beginning of his career in China during the mid-1980s. It is therefore particularly fitting that the Morgan, a library as well as a museum, should present his spectacular installation, The Living Word, a poetic evocation of the relationship between the written word and its meaning.
“In The Living Word,” Xu Bing explained, “the dictionary definition of niao (bird) is written on the gallery floor in the simplified text created by Mao. The niao characters then break away from the confines of the literal definition and take flight through the installation space. As they rise into the air, the characters gradually change from the simplified text to standardized Chinese text and finally to the ancient Chinese pictograph for ‘bird.’ The characters are rainbow colored to create a magical, fairy-tale quality.”
The elegance of the shimmering characters that gradually metamorphose into birds as they ascend masks the subversive nature of the work. While the modern, simplified Chinese characters are fixed to the floor, their form and meaning set, earlier forms of scripts embody an increasing sense of freedom as one moves back in time, from traditional calligraphy to the original pictographs based on images of nature. Xu Bing said that he chose the bird to suggest “escaping the confines of human written definition.”
The title of the installation points to the Buddhist inspiration that informs Xu Bing’s work. “Buddhists believe,” the artist wrote, “that ‘if you look for harmony in the living word, then you will be able to reach Buddha; if you look for harmony in lifeless sentences, you will be unable to save yourself.’ . . . My work and my method of thinking have been my search for the living word.”
Xu Bing created the first version of The Living Word in 2001 for an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. In a second version, a year later, he replaced the Chinese characters with the English dictionary definition for “bird.” At the Morgan, Xu Bing designed a third version specifically for the soaring space of Renzo Piano’s Gilbert Court. Using Chinese language, The Living Word 3 includes more and larger characters than the previous two versions. A selection of Xu Bing’s preparatory drawings for this installation is also on view.
Xu Bing was born in Chongqing, China, in 1955 and grew up in Beijing. After spending two years working in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, he enrolled in 1977 at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where his studies focused on drawing and printmaking. He gained international recognition in the late 1980s with Book from the Sky, a monumental installation composed of books and scrolls printed with what appear to be traditional Chinese characters. The texts are illegible, however, because all the characters were invented by the artist, exposing the unreliability of the written word as a primary vehicle of communication. Xu Bing moved to the United States in 1990, where his work has continued to focus on written language. In 1999 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for “his originality, creativity, self-direction, and capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy.” His work has been exhibited in China, Japan, Australia, the United States, and all over Europe. In 2008 Xu Bing was appointed vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing; he now divides his time between Beijing and New York.
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