Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Word Play of Xu Bing

Xu Bing is an artist now living in Brooklyn, New York, who has let his imagination run riot with the interface between the Chinese and English writing systems. He has even managed to create an alphabet of Chinese characters and Chinese calligraphy from English literary works. On Xu Bing Interactives his art comes to life and takes flight, and immigrants tell funny stories based on miunderstanding words. His art explores many facets of word play with lightness and laughter, inviting the audience into his world of Chinese and English literacy. What a delight!

While I am not able to link directly to each piece in his gallery, they can be viewed here under 'My projects' and at Xu Bing Interactives

View living word at Xu Bing Interactives

On the floor of the gallery is written the dictionary definition for "niao", the Chinese word for bird. The "niao" characters break free from the confines of the literal definition and take flight through the installation space. As they rise into the air, the characters transform from a standardized Chinese text into the form of the ancient Chinese pictograph based upon a bird's actual appearance.

View A, B, C, ... at

The theme of this work is the awkwardness encountered in linguistic exchange between different cultures. It is comprised of thirty-eight ceramic cubes that represent a sort of transliteration from the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet to Chinese characters. The characters that have been chosen are such that, when pronounced, render sounds equivalent to the English letter they represent. The Chinese characters are carved on the upper face of the each ceramic block in the form of a printer's stamp and the Roman letter is printed on the side of the block. For example, the English letter 'A' is rendered by the Chinese 'ai', which means sadness. 'B' is rendered 'bi', which means land on the other side, on the other shore. Some letters need two or three Chinese characters to 'transliterate'. For example, 'W' is rendered 'da', 'bu', 'liu' which means big, cloth and six. This activity may begin with a becoming logic, but ultimately it leaves its subject, transliterated language, virtually meaningless and almost ridiculous.

View New English Calligraphy at

These pieces use a traditional form of Chinese Calligraphy Art to display a western piece of writing. The New English Calligraphy alphabet is us to create a piece that is Chinese in appearance, yet understandable to the western viewer. In essence, these texts portray the language or written English in a Chinese form that has never before graced the pages of English text. Poems by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost and others have been rendered along with logos, quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung and the titles of exhibitions, such as this one for the "Third Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art".

For the ultimate script tease view Monkeys at Xu Bing Interactives and wash it all down with Laughter.


Blogger CW said...

Hi from Perth Western Australia, I don't have anything of value to add comment-wise, except to say that I have found your blog very interesting (came here via languagehat) and look forward to reading more as you post :)

May I ask: do you speak/read Chinese and Tamil? (I grew up in Malaysia where I was educated in Malay, heard a lot of Chinese dialects (learned Mandarin at uni and have baby Cantonese), but never managed to learn Tamil.)

6:35 PM  
Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

No, I don't. One day I will get around to editing 'my profile'. I speak/read English, French, and some German. I have taken courses (or done field work) in classical Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chinese, Cree, and Panjabi. I have learned Tamil keyboarding in order to help Tamil ESL children in Canada keyboard Tamil. This has involved learning as much as I could about the Tamil writing system - that's it! Learning about the Tamil script has been a good exercise for me since it is a classical language and script and has a fascinating history.

9:10 AM  
Blogger CW said...

Thanks :) I always find it interesting to hear how and what other people have learned!

8:36 PM  

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