On a recent Monday morning, artist Xu Bing stands at a lectern at the Frost Art Museum. He’s teaching a group of fifth-graders from North Miami’s W.J. Bryan Elementary, a museum magnet school, a new language he calls “Chinglish.”
Xu’s unconventional lingo is a method of writing English words in rectangular arrangements to resemble characters of his native Chinese.
Brushing the sleeve of his dark jacket before adjusting his perfectly round glasses, Xu has the appearance of an owlish professor about to begin an esoteric manuscript class at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
In front of the artist, nearly 50 inner-city students sit on floor pillows or wooden stools at low rosewood tables lined with brushes, tiny bottles of ink, and rice paper calligraphy copybooks.
A blackboard behind the 59-year-old artist is covered with a tricky alphabet written in chalk. It’s the subject of Xu’s lesson, a project he calls Square Word Calligraphy Classroom.
Each student has an easel with examples of Xu’s puzzling language, which most of the adults gathered in the room find undecipherable.
“First pick up your brush and hold it like a chopstick,” the soft-spoken Xu tells the students while an assistant translates his instructions. “Then you must hold it at a 90-degree angle so you can feel the push and pull of the brush on paper.”
Aaliyah Aranha, an 11-year-old sitting in the front row, squeals with delight as she discovers how to decipher the words Xu had conjured.
“This is easy,” the girl says as she nimbly makes brush marks on the rice paper. As Xu kneels next to Aranha to continue his lesson, the children sit in rapt attention; the adults watch in bewilderment.
Once Xu demonstrates how he uses Chinese stroke patterns to render English letters into compact squares resembling Chinese characters, it becomes simple to understand his puzzle-like system of Chinglish.
Xu says he believes people can even deduce meaning by intuition without the use of the written word. “Of course you can. This question has a lot to do with Zen,” he explains. “Because the Zen philosophy focuses on ‘pointing directly to human mind’ and ‘Buddhist revelation through intuitive discernment.’?”
Soon the children are filling their notebooks with Xu’s characters. “These kids are used to making up their own words,” says Lissette Reigosa, a reading and language arts teacher at W. J. Bryan. “More often than not, they even use their cell-phone text shorthand when writing their assignments.”
The Chinese artist’s classroom is part of “Xu Bing: Writing Between Heaven and Earth,” a sprawling new exhibition at the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum. The show encompasses 5,000 square feet of the museum and features several of his iconic installations, all meant to invite a meditation on our perceptions of cultural identity and language.
Throughout his career, Xu has concentrated on the manipulation of language and typography. He earned international fame with his landmark Book From the Sky (1988), a soaring installation consisting of panels, scrolls, and books stretching floor to ceiling. The work was a labor of love; Xu spent years hand-carving the typesetting blocks he used to make the prints. Its inclusion in the Frost’s exhibition — it anchors the main gallery space — is a bit of a coup for the museum because the work is rarely exhibited in its entirety.
Xu’s work is undoubtedly influenced by his tumultuous upbringing. Growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, he spent his youth learning and unlearning traditional Chinese characters as part of sweeping government-enforced curriculum changes aimed at simplifying the language.
After his parents, who were both intellectuals, were denounced during the ideological purges of the Cultural Revolution, Xu was forced by his school to create propaganda posters. They were the same kind of posters that had been used to rally support behind the persecution of people like his parents. Those childhood experiences taught him that language and political messages were easily changed.
Upon earning an MFA in printmaking from the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 1987, Xu spent the next few years inventing an alphabet of 4,000 nonsensical Chinese characters for Book From the Sky.
For nearly four years, he dedicated himself to carving these 4,000 characters into wooden printing blocks that he used to craft hundreds of books. Xu used traditional Chinese typesetting and binding techniques to complete the tomes.
Asked if his work continues to invite new interpretations in our era of mass global communications, the artist says yes. “Rarely have people asked about Book From the Sky from this perspective,” Xu says. “It is certain that it has a deeper meaning in the contemporary context. A good piece of work will always incubate new meanings through time.”
While Xu’s labor-intensive work drew praise from fellow artists and intellectuals at home and abroad, Book From the Sky’s fake, purposefully unreadable text enraged government authorities.
Following the 1989 clash between the government and the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, the government cracked down on avant-garde artists, forcing Xu to leave his homeland. In 1990 he accepted an invitation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and relocated to the United States.
There he began working on Square Word Calligraphy, a system that involves writing Chinese characters that are indecipherable to Chinese speakers yet easily read by English speakers. He did this by forming English letters into the shape of Chinese hanzi. Xu’s work bridges vast cultural differences by balancing Eastern aesthetics with Western words. He named the result “New English Calligraphy,” a kind of precursor to his novel version of Chinglish. “Compared to languages, it is easier to communicate with art,” he says.
But if Xu is interested in finding commonalities between traditional Chinese calligraphy and written English, he is equally interested in exploring the relationship between traditional communication and technology. “Future communication is beyond the imagination of people nowadays,” he says. “Today people speaking different languages are still limited by languages themselves.”
Xu’s work might sound complicated, but it’s child’s play to W.J. Bryan’s fifth-graders. As the students wrap up their calligraphy lesson, the artist hands them T-shirts emblazoned with a slogan from Mao Zedong’s infamous Communist handbook, Little Red Book. Written in Xu’s trademark Chinglish, the characters spell “Art for the People” in Square Word Calligraphy.
As the students pose with their new shirts a few feet from Xu’s towering Book From the Sky, the Frost seems more playground than stuffy contemporary art museum.
“Xu Bing: Writing Between Heaven and Earth,” through May 24 at the Frost Art Museum, 10975 SW 17th St., Miami; 305-348-2890 thefrost.fiu.edu. Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
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