Review of Xu Bing: Book from the Ground at CFCCA, Manchester

Pictographic language, the dissolving boundaries in globalised communication and the anxieties of modern life are the themes explored by Xu Bing in a mixed media display at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts this month. Xu Bing, a globally renowned Chinese artist, had his first solo show in the UK at the Chinese Arts Centre (as the CFCCA was then known) when it first opened its venue in Thomas Street back in 2003. To mark its 30th anniversary, the organisation has invited him back to present another UK premiere – Book from the Ground (2003-), a print and software-based work written in a “language of icons”, which is displayed in a recreation of Xu’s art studio.

In what he describes as an “unfinishable project”, Xu’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point is a text piece without any traditional words, which the artist began ‘writing’ more than 10 years ago. It was published as a book for Western audiences last year, and illustrates an individual’s day in life purely through logos, signs and emoticons, all taken from symbols we recognise and use every day. Numerous icons, such as the location symbol from Google Maps, emerged with incredible speed during the making of Xu’s work, and more symbols are likely to proliferate with the advances in digital technology, making Book from the Ground an ongoing and interactive project.

A television monitor in the gallery features footage of Xu Bing talking about his work at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Xu, speaking in Mandarin and accompanied by a translator, explained how From Point to Point illustrates that people in every moment of every day are educated in the reading of icons in this “new phase of pictographic language.” He said: “To read this book has nothing to do with your educational background, but instead the depth and breadth to which you’ve entered into modern life.”

Each chapter of the book represents one hour in the life of an ordinary office worker named Mr. Black, and is headed with a clock symbol. The reader – or rather, viewer – of the book on display can interpret from the images that Mr. Black accomplishes very little, but is constantly negotiating with routine minutiae. Logo brands from the Nike swish to the McDonald’s arches indicate his indecision in choosing what to wear and what to eat. Although Mr. Black is dissatisfied with his career and uneventful love life, he spends most of his day browsing social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. If there’s any message to be gained from Xu’s 112 pages, it’s that companies are creating a global, visual language but they also do very little to offset the anxieties of modern life.

Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.

The CFCCA’s lovingly detailed recreation of Xu’s studio has a desk, a corkboard, numerous books and vast amounts of print-outs of signs and symbols taped over the walls. Road signs, safety manual diagrams and visual DIY instructions are just a few of the things that inspired Book from the Ground, and some of them can be seen in the room, providing an intimate insight into the artist’s creative process.

This exhibition is the first in a six-month programme celebrating the CFCCA’s 30th anniversary. It is a rotating exhibition of high profile artists, all of whom have contributed to the CFCCA before during its three decades in showcasing contemporary Chinese art. The 30 Years of CFCCA programme was launched on 4 February 2016 to coincide with Chinese New Year.

Charlie Bennett

Xu Bing: Book from the Ground, until 28 February, Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Thomas Street, Manchester, M4 1EU.

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1. Installation view of Xu Bing: Book from the Ground, 2016.  Courtesy of Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art.