Date of Award
Thesis - Restricted Access (SIA Only)
Master of Arts (MA)
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
—Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
The 1980s were a period of rapid transitions in China. The country was gradually recovering from the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, which halted almost all intellectual and artistic productions from 1966 to 1977. The policy of Open and Reform set the country on a new course which characterized the decade as a period of optimism, openness, and creativity. The country was eager to catch up to the West and was engulfed by a sudden influx of Western theories that were developed in the past three decades. Topics concerning all aspects of political, social, and cultural lives were hotly discussed in universities, amongst intellectual and artistic circles.
Xu Bing, the protagonist of this paper, was surprisingly not as enthusiastic as many of his contemporaries to participate in any art movements or intellectual debates which were prevalent at the time. Instead, he spent almost four years working on an immense project that would come to be known as the Book from the Sky (fig.1). For it, he designed more than two thousand faux Chinese characters, imitating the compositional structure and organizing logic of real Chinese characters without assigning them any apparent meaning. He then hand carved them onto woodblocks and printed them using the ancient technique of the moveable type in the format of string-bound books and large scrolls which were hung from the ceiling during exhibition.
The strenuous process of Xu’s production, the careful consultation with traditional format of page layout and printing, and his unwavering dedication over the span of four years all point to certain momentousness about the work. However, any normal attempt to interpret what is behind this appearance of seriousness and significance is thwarted because Book can neither be read as a picture nor a text. As a result, traditional strategies such as “visual analysis” or “close reading” have to be suspended and replaced by new ways of interpretation. One such way, as shown in chapter one, is to look at the peripheral, the conditions that gave birth to the work. Another way is to adopt a top-down approach, which considers possible theories and cultural traditions that serve as templates for the question at hand. In either case, my investigation into the meaning of the work pays close attention to the absent rather than the present, the large picture rather than specific incidents, the totality rather than the elements it comprises. In many ways, the analysis wishes to interpret interpretations more than to explain things, to inquiry how meaning is engendered more than to obtain meaning.
Chapter one takes a social-historical approach by looking at Xu’s personal experiences leading up to the conception of the Book, and the historical, social, and artistic environment that accompanied the creation, and offers an interpretation of the work based on these factors. It also gives a detailed account of how the work was made and its initial reception in China.
Chapter two problematizes the approach taken in the previous chapter by arguing for a different level of significance that cannot be confined in the historical and social particularities of the time. It seeks to expand the scope of the inquiry by gazing towards the past and locating the traditional sources of culture that have persisted throughout time. Specifically, the chapter introduces Daosim and Chan Buddhism as providing a foundational frame of reference for the artist, and compares the linguistic strategies used in these two traditions with their manifestation in Xu’s work.
Chapter three examines the validity of a popular interpretation of the Book based on Derridean deconstruction. It offers a brief overview of Derrida’s philosophy and advances a proposition that Book is analogous to the invention of différance. I try to answer the question of whether Xu’s work merely adopts a popular Western critical stance without adding up to anything by showing the unexpected convergence of deconstruction and aforementioned Eastern cultural traditions, and endeavor to perform my own “deconstruction” of the opposing dualism between the East and the West.
In some sense, the Book from the Sky stands on a threshold, between East and West, between culture as traditions afford us and the limit of culture. It plays upon the structure of hieroglyphic writing system as a unifying factor in Chinese history and poses the question of how greater integration not just within China but between the East and the West can be achieved through language. Or, can we still find answer in langue? Xu’s work provides some elusive circles of contemplation that mark the edge of various cultures, traditions, and understandings. This paper seeks to make tangible these circles.
Yuan, Zheng, "No Words: A Three-part Analysis of Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky" (2019). MA Theses. 47.