Xu Bing was 11 years old when the Cultural Revolution began in China. He grew up in a land hostile to the printed word. Countless books were burned and reading was discouraged, unless it was Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. His parents were both employed at the University of Beijing, were deemed “reactionaries”, and imprisoned. Young Xu Bing was saved by words. He had demonstrated exceptional skill in calligraphy and typography, so instead of being imprisoned with his parents, he was put to work in a propoganda office copying characters on posters, signs, and leaflets.
During the revolution, Mao Zedong attempted to transform Chinese culture by mutilating the language. The language reforms had two objectives: To make the written language more accessible to common people, and to bring Chinese into relations with other languages. Xu Bing has described how difficult this was for him, as he had already learned thousands of Chinese characters and acquired a deep respect for his native tongue. By dictate, he was required to abandon many characters he knew and to learn new ones. Words were used as weapons during the revolution and it’s not difficult to surmise how Xu Bing’s mistrust of language may have developed during this time.
After the revolution came to an end in 1976, there was a resurgence of creativity in China. Western books and ideas flooded in. Xu Bing compares this time to, “…a person who was starving who gorges on too much food…the result was confusion and discomfort.” By 1985, the New Wave art movement liberated artistic expression and brought new opportunities for avant-garde art groups. Taking advantage of the new liberties afforded him as an artist, Xu Bing exhibited in the China/Avant Gard show in Beijing in 1988. Initially, his work was well received, but a few months later, the massacre at Teinanman Square resulted in renewed suppression by the government. Xu Bing’s work was singled out for criticism and “Book From the Sky” was denounced as nihilistic and obscene. At that time, Xu Bing considered it prudent to leave China and emigrated to the United States in 1990.
Now consider “Book From the Sky”. It’s a large installation composed of books, scrolls, and wall panels covered in a text that Xu Bing created himself. The viewer is surrounded by a text that can not be read. Chinese speakers become frustrated, finding themselves unable to decode the characters. Non-Chinese speakers will be fooled, thinking the text is real Chinese.
What does it mean? Do not trust words. They mean nothing.
“Book From the Sky” can be interpreted as an intentional strike at the west. In the introductory pages of his exhibition catalog (footnoted below) Xu Bing shares his opinion that our respect for language is a barrier that stifles new ideas. The title of this installation can also be translated “Book from the Heavens” and it does not take an extended leap of interpretation to see the subversive condemnation of sacred texts, as well. “Book from the Sky” asserts that heaven does not have anything meaningful to tell us. From his catalog we learn that Xu Bing is enthralled with the writings of Nietzsche and Wittgenstsein. Nietzshe is best remembered for announcing, “God is dead”, but in his essay “Goodness and the Will to Power” he also wrote,”What is more harmful than any vice? Practical sympathy and pity for all the failures and all the weak: Christianity.” Chew on the fact that one of Xu Bing’s favorite authors said Christianity is more harmful than any vice. Let that inform your understanding of his work. The philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, claimed that language is nothing more than a social phenomenon. The connection between Wittgenstein’s ideas and Xu Bing’s “Book From The Sky” is inescapable.
In the catalog of his work entitled, “Words Without Meaning, Meaning Without Words”, Xu Bing reveals ideas that seem problematic. Regarding “Book from the Sky” he says, “I want to remind people that culture restricts them.” Surprisingly, a few pages later he claims that, “People and pigs are the same, except culture has changed people.” According to Xu Bing, culture is the only thing separating us from uncultured swine. If that is true, it hardly seems desirable to cast aside our culture, however restrictive it may be.
Discrediting the relevance of language, he simultaneously draws us into language games. Let’s be honest. Without words we cannot talk about how meaningless his text is can we? He says words cannot describe his art and yet, here we are, using words to describe it. Unfortunately, Xu Bing has been defeated by his own game. Listen to what he says concerning the myriad interpretations of his own work that he’s offered over the years: “I find it more and more difficult to answer questions that the work raises. By offering many different readings, I found myself in a new predicament. It’s as if I turned a simple situation into a more complicated one, falling into a bottomless pit of questions, a culture trap.” It is possible that the trap he refers to is one of his own making. When you say something different about your work every time you’re asked, it’s hard to remember what it was about in the first place.
Aesthetically, the installation is impressive. Line, light, shadow, and form combine together in an expanse of contemplative content. However, after researching the artist and his work, “Book from the Sky” raises serious questions.
How is the message in “Book From the Sky” any different from the propoganda of Chairman Mao? Mao deliberately debased the meaning in the Chinese language, and in doing so, damaged the culture. By suggesting that the west abandon its valuation of language, isn’t Xu Bing attempting to damage our culture, as well?
Most importantly, if we eliminate meaning in our language, what will we replace it with? Intuition? Oinking?
I’m not sure the west is ready for Xu Bing’s cultural liberation.
While working at an art museum, I have had the chance to observe thousands of people walk through the doors.
During my brief foray into the museum studies program at Johns Hopkins, I took a course in Museum Education and read multiple studies in which social scientists tried to categorize the folks that go to museums. Some of them make distinctions based on demographics. John Falk has taken a different approach and determined that museum-goers can be grouped into different “identities” such as: explorer, facilitator, experience seeker, professional/hobbyist, and recharger. There is also the odd museum-goer, like me, who enjoys museums so much that she volunteers, blogs about art, takes a job at the desk, exhibits her own work, and considers herself a member of all five identity categories. But I’d like to consider a different way of looking at museum visitors; a way that eliminates social distinctions and gets to the heart of the matter.
Here is my conclusion after 3 years: I think there are two types of museum visitors and the distinction does not depend on demographics or visitor needs.
I believe the distinction rests upon how visitors view reality. In other words, it is primarily a philosophical issue. Whether or not the concepts of reality are on the minds of museum visitors (probably not) they may be the primary thing that determines why they come to the museum and what they want to see.
Let me share some observations. In the early part of the year, the museum I am involved with had two temporary exhibitions. One was a 13th century illustrated bible from the court of King Louis IX, and the other was an exhibit of contemporary art from the 1990s. As usual, there were information cards for both exhibits at the front desk. As I welcomed guests and gave them the schpeel about the two exhibits, I noticed a recurrent reaction. Visitor’s clearly presented a marked preference for one or the other. They were either excited about the bible exhibit or they were eager to find out where the 90s exhibit was located. Throughout the run of the shows, many visitors took both cards, however, they would express interest in one or the other verbally or by facial expression. This allowed me to observe a clear preference time and time again. Rarely, a visitor would express interest in both.
Why would the majority of visitors present such a clear preference for one exhibit or the other during the run of these two shows? I submit that it is because the exhibits presented antithetical worldviews, specifically theism and atheism. The visitors who had a strong preference for the bible exhibit likely had a transcendent view of reality. Given that the bible is considered a sacred book by many, I think it’s possible that those wanting to view the illustrated bible of Louis IX held to a some basic religious beliefs such as a belief in God and moral absolutes. Conversely, the Art of the 90s exhibit was primarily composed of contemporary art bereft of moral content; and it focused on subjective issues such as identity politics and alternative lifestyles. The exhibits presented mutually exclusive worldviews and the choice between them revealed the philosophical bent of the visitor.
Clearly, there was a worldview in the bible exhibit that acknowledged a universal standard for mankind; in fact, it illustrated a strong belief system in which there was a law given by a divine creator, a law to which mankind was subject. In the 90s exhibit, the galleries were full of art that, either directly or indirectly, denied traditional values and embraced progressive social change. These two exhibits could not have been more divergent.
Can it be proven that the philosophical views of museum visitors was at the heart of these observations? No. But watching the marked preference repeatedly has led me to believe that this simple distinction has been missing from current studies on museum visitors. I think it’s highly likely that a visitor’s view of reality determines what art they want to see, regardless of age, income, ethnicity, or gender.
Does God exist? Are moral restraints merely human constructs of the past?
Keep these questions in mind the next time you visit a museum. I’d love to hear if these philosophical questions contribute to the decisions you make in an art museum.
I toured the museum last week with a group of 10th grade students. This painting was our final stop. Recently, I’ve been giving my tours in reverse, beginning with pieces in the modern and contemporary galleries first, and then finishing up in the European galleries. More on the reasons for that change later.
When we stopped at this portrait, a few of the students voiced observations. The comments went something like this: “She looks poor, but the artist painted her as if she were important.”
I let them look a while longer and asked, “As if she were important? That implies she was not really important. Why do you say that?” They thought about that for a moment.
I sometimes see humor in situations like this. I imagine this young woman in the painting remarking dryly, “Yes. I’d love to hear what you think about me, especially when you know nothing about me and little about the time in which I lived.”
I’ve read that Ceruti acquired the nickname “little beggar” (pitochetto) precisely because of paintings like this one. He painted peasants young and old. He painted the tattered hems and the torn sleeves of the poor with their eyes looking directly at us. From this example and others I’ve seen, Ceruti’s “beggars” do not beg, but he does insist we look at them as equals, face to face.
With her jet black hair, full face, and rosy cheeks, she looks young and robust. She has not missed any meals. We look again.
“Why do you think the artist left the background plain?” I asked them.
Their answers vary:
“He ran out of other colors.”
“To match her eyes.”
“To make us look more closely at her.”
She sits at a three quarter turn in the style of nobility. And as we notice the sparkle of the wine bottle our eyes move to the sparkle on her hand….a ring!
The ring is important. It may be her only treasure and is prominently positioned so we will not miss it.
While looking at the ring on her finger I smile and suggest, “Well, she was obviously important enough for someone to pledge their life to her in marriage.” They look puzzled. I mention that wearing the wedding ring on the left hand is primarily a western tradition but some European cultures don their rings on the right hand.
“Does it make a difference when you think of her as a “Mrs.” instead of a “Miss?” They said it did, but they couldn’t explain why.
Not all of Ceruti’s peasants look happy, but this woman does. She has limited resources, but she has someone to care for, and someone to look after her.
“Can you be poor and happy?” I asked them. That question sparked a lot of discussion! The students then began to offer many thoughts on this and their class teacher seemed pleased that they were engaged with the work. The overall consensus was “yes”.
She is not wealthy, but neither is she out laboring in the fields. Her uncalloused hands speak of freedom from arduous and monotonous toil, that kind of drudgery that crushes the spirit. Life may be hard, but there is joy enough to pour the wine and toast the future!
The students remarked on the tear in her sleeve and the odd choker around her neck. They noticed she had small earrings on, as well. There was more to this woman than they had initially realized.
“Do you create art about things you don’t consider important?” There were murmurs at this question, some jokes about only being able to create work what the teacher assigned, etc..
As the tour came to a close, I asked them to think about all the choices Ceruti had. So many people in town to choose from. Perhaps he did not paint her as if she were important, but actually held her to be important. And we can strive to value others in this way, despite economic status or appearance. It’s an age old lesson that Ceruti continues to teach us today.
Young Peasant Girl with Wine Flask by Giacomo Ceruti, (1738)
Currently owned by the Blanton Museum of Art.
Recently, I created this small replica of one of the contemporary pieces at the Blanton Museum of Art called “Cord Painting 14″ by Regina Bogat. This was done in an effort to encourage discovery and interaction for a group tour for young children, ages 3 to 5 years.
It was time consuming, but worth it. I started with a small 5″ x 4″ white canvas. After painting it with two heavy coats of cadmium red dark, Using Bogat’s work as the model, I used a needle and poked rows of holes in the canvas, in an organized grid pattern (see photo) with 27 holes from one end to the other. Only the top third of the canvas was used. I matched the colors of embroidery thread to the actual piece, as best as I could. Knotting the threads from the back, I sewed them through and double-knotted the ends, snipping off excess thread. The threads were left at various lengths.
After all the threads were sewn through and knotted, I restretched the canvas back onto the wooden frame by hand, and stapled it back in place.
This was an excellent interactive addition to our tour. The small children loved to hold, explore, and play with the small piece as we talked about the larger work on the wall. We looked for favorite colors, guessed what the back looked like, took turns making knots, and used our imaginations to talk about what could be hiding behind the cords! Overall, the miniature art aided in maintaining short attention spans, encouraging curiosity, and gently redirecting the temptation to touch the art.
Here are the process photos!
Thanks for stopping by and have a blessed weekend. ~Scarlett