- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 17, 2001

The narrow gallery holding Xu Bing's monumental "Book From the Sky" both constricts and intrigues in the artist's first solo show at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Mr. Xu, a veteran of Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, China's later reform period, and a traumatic move to the United States in the early 1990s, creates art that explores age-old concerns of expression and understanding.

The artist made the space claustrophobic to heighten the tensions of the complicated "Book" installation, which dominates the exhibition "Word Play: Contemporary Art by Xu Bing." The Sackler installation is a new adaptation of the artist's "Book," which he made in Beijing from 1987 to 1991.

Three 57-foot-long hand scrolls swoop down from the ceiling. On the floor, Mr. Xu arranged 217 open "books" printed on paper bound with string in the traditional method. Their indigo blue covers imply they are scholarly historical works of revered standing in the hierarchy of the Chinese literary tradition.

Mr. Xu laid them out in repetitious rows on a low platform that covers the 77-foot-long gallery space. The artist carved the "characters" himself. He made walnut boxes to "store" the books at each end of the support. The books essentially are traditional in all aspects of production and design. He rendered the words in "Song," a popular style of print in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

But Sackler visitors may well have the same reaction to "Book" as Beijing audiences did in 1988. The Chinese found it difficult to realize that the texts were unreadable. They also questioned why Mr. Xu would spend so many years creating meaningless texts. (The Sackler displays the brushes, knives and other instruments the artist used to produce the books. The museum also mounted photographs that detail the steps in the construction and the reaction of visitors during the Beijing display.)

"Book" typifies Mr. Xu's preparing an audience to expect meaning that is rooted in the commonality of language and then delivering unexpected and undecipherable images. He keeps visitors on their toes, which is his intention. "Word Play" is just the right title for the show's obtuse, often ironic expressions.

"Book From the Sky" was popular in Beijing, but political and art conservatives in China castigated the installation for what they called the "meaningless" and "bourgeois liberal" images. Mr. Xu then led the new wave art movement, and installation work was just starting to take hold in China.

Since Mr. Xu's self-exile, the University of Wisconsin gave him the position of honorary fellow and a major, one-person show at its Elvehjem Museum in 1991. Recognition of his status as a significant international artist became evident when competition around the world began for exhibitions of his work.

The MacArthur Foundation honored him with its so-called genius award in 1999. Installation art became more accepted in China after Mr. Xu left, and he now divides his time between New York and Beijing.

Mr. Xu's art is not confused for him and not for us, if we give ourselves enough time to understand it. He wants to make sense of the chaos that has characterized most of his life, and he does this by confronting language, one of the most feared obstacles for Westerners facing Chinese culture.

"The complicated lives and cultural experiences of my generation of mainland Chinese have verged on the absurd. Society has constantly pressured us with extraordinary difficulties. We have had to face them and find effective responses," Mr. Xu writes in "The Art of Xu Bing: Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words," the excellent book that accompanies the exhibition.

Mr. Xu created the "Square Word" script, which combines elements of East and West, Chinese and English, to show that language can act as a delightful bridge between cultures.

For many Westerners, the Cultural Revolution is the name for just another torturous period in a distant country in a part of the world they don't understand. Mr. Xu's father was chairman of the history department at Beijing University, and his mother worked in the university's library science department. Crowds of students humiliated the older Mr. Xu by parading him through the streets wearing a dunce cap and plaque labeled with insults.

The elder Mr. Xu was sent to prison, where hard labor was supposed to reform him. The Red Guards also harassed the rest of the family. Mr. Xu, the artist, indicated it was almost a relief when the guards sent him to the countryside in 1972. He had just graduated from high school and was skilled as a woodcut printmaker with an expertise in newspaper fonts. He taught the peasants printmaking, produced a newsletter with them, pursued his fascination with calligraphy and worked in the fields.

The government was changing the writing system and trying to simplify it. "We were forced to learn new ways of writing characters," Mr. Xu writes in "Words Without Meaning."

Returning to Beijing in 1976, the artist entered the May Seventh College of Arts in Beijing as a peasant. Only peasants could enter this Cultural Revolution institution created under Mao's wife, Jiang Qing.

Fast forward to the revolution's end that year and the newly reinstated Central Academy of Fine Arts. Mr. Xu wanted to study oil painting but was directed to the print department. The Chinese had promoted printmaking since the 1930s. They considered it nonelitist in its multiple images and wide distribution possibilities.

Mr. Xu earned his master's degree at the prestigious academy and became one of the youngest artists to teach there. He also began to realize that words could both hurt and help him.

The artist created "Book" during the time he regarded language as dictatorial and divisive. Works such as "Book" and "Ghosts Pounding the Wall" (1990) show his mistrust of language at the time and his desire to show it as destructive. In the late 1990s the artist became more comfortable with words and communication. Among the images he created are the three enormous horizontal sections of "Landscript" (2001) that occupy a single room, also large.

For several years, Mr. Xu had thought about painting landscapes with words. During a trek through the Himalayas of Nepal in 1999, he crystallized the idea in a series of notebooks on display in this exhibit.

The roots of many Chinese characters are pictographs. The artist decided to depict scenery through these characters and combined early pictographs with modern notations to build up convincing landscapes. He wrote identifying characters in place of landscape elements and combined painting, poetry and personal chronicles.

Mr. Xu painted the landscripts in soft blue-greens on textured Nepalese paper for kinetic images reminiscent of unrolling traditional hand scrolls. Once again, Mr. Xu reminds us that language shapes our ability to experience the world.

"The Living Word," another Xu site-specific installation, is a humorous and colorful play on the Chinese word "niao" for bird.

"Breaking free from the dictionary's confines, 'niao' takes on life. Bird characters rise from the floor, starting with a standardized and lifeless contemporary form. Proceeding upward, they evolve toward the ancient Chinese pictograph for 'bird,' with an obvious head and wings. At the zenith of their flight, the bird nature of the forms becomes even clearer: The written word approaches visual fusion with its meaning. Birds soar, careless of the words with which humans seek to define them," the nearby exhibit label reads.

Mr. Xu believes that words can heal differences and delight aesthetically. He has done much to demystify Chinese culture and share the pleasures of calligraphy. In bringing these to a wider public audience, he looks back to his early training and Mao's instructions to "serve the people."

WHAT: "Word Play: Contemporary Art by Xu Bing"

WHERE: Smithsonian Institution's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 13


PHONE: 202/357-2700

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