Interview: Xu Bing

Conceptual artist Xu Bing has compiled a system of emoticons for everything

Xu Bing talks Sam Gaskin through the language we didn't even know we knew.

Running a finger under each line as he goes, Xu Bing reads from his 112-page novel, From Dot to Dot. We zoom in on the earth, closing in on an unnamed city where morning birdsong is drifting into the protagonist’s dreams. His alarm clock goes off and he goes to the wardrobe. He takes some time deliberating over what to wear, important given he’ll be stuck in it for most of the book’s 24 chapters, one for each hour of the day. The novel’s ‘day in the life’ structure is not unlike James Joyce’s Ulysses, but far from Joyce’s overburdened, interminable prose, it’s written entirely in icons.

Cheerful and sagacious-looking, with owl-eye glasses and wavy grey hair, we meet Xu Bing in a back room at Shanghai Gallery of Art (SGA), just beyond the plaster dust and whining drills where his show is being installed. One of China’s leading conceptual artists, Xu received the MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’ in 1999, and is currently the Vice President of the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Xu tells us that the idea for the novel, the centre piece of his Book From the Ground exhibition, started to form when he began collecting safety cards from airplanes in 1999, picking up over a hundred without a particular end in mind. It was only in 2003, when he saw three graphics on the back of some chewing gum packaging – lips and a dot of gum, the dot placed in its paper, the paper thrown in a bin – that he wondered if he could express a much longer story in icons.

From Dot to Dot is the most recent work in a career that’s long been concerned with words and their inadequacies. ‘My generation has a really awkward relationship with language’, he says.

Xu, 57, remembers learning traditional characters at primary school one semester, simplified characters the next, and then reverting back to traditional characters when initial attempts to simplify the language were deemed unsuccessful. Language, he discovered, was not something so sacred that it couldn’t be challenged.

In 1977, aged 22, he began his studies at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1981 and receiving a Masters in print making in 1987.

Upon graduating, Xu immediately targeted language in his work. From 1987-1991 he created Book From the Sky using an alphabet of 4,000 nonsense characters that he says, ‘No one could read, not even me’. He carved the characters on wooden blocks, movable type that he used to hand print pages which he bound with traditional six-hole stitching. ‘Visually, Book From the Sky looked like a real Chinese book, a holy book, telling you really important information and stories. It was beautiful and attracted readers, but they couldn’t read it, so it also pushed them away.’

Xu left China in 1990 for New York City, a move that he says was ‘necessary at that time’ for someone interested in contemporary art. There, he created Square Words (1994-96), a kind of inverted pinyin that makes English words look more Chinese by arranging them in Chinese style formations. ‘Square Words came from living between cultures,’ he says, ‘when the English writing system really bothered me.’

Both Square Words and Book From the Sky offered a sardonic semblance of comprehensibility to readers of Chinese, but Book From the Ground is different. It’s genuine, even millenarian in its attempt to create a simple, universal language.

‘I began by cutting out icons and pasting them in a book, making a kind of a dictionary [see picture, inset]. We gathered icons from different fields – mathematics, chemistry, physics, architecture, electronics, music, dance, corporate logos – but there are too many to physically collect all of them. New icons are being created every day.’

The ability to read ‘Iconish’ probably depends on a certain socio-economic level – if you haven’t driven, flown or used the internet, you could miss a lot – but Xu says it carries relatively little status baggage. ‘This book is different from those in the past. The ability to read it isn’t about where you’re from or your educational level. It only depends on your involvement in modern life.’

Of course, Iconish has its limits. It has difficulty explaining abstract concepts – it would be hard to talk about the ideas behind the book in the language of the book, for example – but Xu Bing is optimistic about its potential. ‘Any language leaves lots of space for readers to insert meaning, even Chinese and English, two very fine, mature languages. And it’s not just languages that mature – readers do, too.’

The Book From the Ground exhibition at SGA includes a Tower of Babel book display (copies of From Dot to Dot are available for 48RMB), a shop selling icon-inspired products, a mock-up of Xu’s studio, and an animation showing The Bund dissolving into icons. You can also use terminals equipped for instant translation between English or Mandarin and Iconish, a chance to expand the young language with phrases that have never before been rendered in icons.

‘We never want this project to stop,’ Xu says.