“Book from the Ground”

Hello May! My favourite month of the year for so many reasons…summer and sunshine is on its way, my birthday is round the corner, the end of the academic year is nearing…it’s a season of great fresh foods and drinks, and of being outdoors, energetic and super social. I’m playing catch up, constant catch up at the moment. There aren’t enough hours in the day right now to squeeze everything thing and I swear it always gets to this stage at the end of the academic year, just before summertime kicks in, in full force. It’s like a broken record where there becomes a whole list of things that need finishing…sending…submitting…editing…writing…creating…and of course dreaming. What’s life without dreaming? Last week we turned the cool air conditioning on for the first time in the office at AIVA as Shanghai hit 26 degrees…YES! A day filled with blissful sunshine immediately putting a smile on my face as I was staring up at the sky with my headphones in, music on loud, singing to myself, slight dancing hips with ballet legs moving, sunglasses on, sucking on raspberry ice cubes and drinking iced raspberry tea all afternoon whilst finishing off documents, plans and itineraries for the finally few weeks of teaching. My students only have three days left to finish their final project in time for end of year assessment. I’m not sure how the end of term has come around so quickly. Today, and over the past few days, the sunshine’s decided hide again…it’s colder, damper, greyer and more like an average British Spring day but this means less distraction, well to some degree…there are always too many distractions in this city.

It’s time to continue filling you in on all the exhibition openings from the past week or so…all the art that’s out there in Shanghai at the moment. A week last Saturday evening (yes it’s already been that long), during a major art crawl round the Leo Gallery, the ifa Gallery and at the Shanghai Gallery of Art, I chatted to familiar friends and faces whilst drinking copious amounts of free red wine, met new contacts and colleagues who I’ll speak about in another post, and, in part, discussed PhD land. The opening at the Shanghai Gallery of Art was of Xu Bing‘s renowned solo exhibition ‘Book from the Ground’Xu, shown third from left in the photograph below, is my third PhD supervisor and should, every so often, provide academic feedback to my thoughts, perspectives and current writing. He is, however, incredibly untouchable and difficult to pin down…well, he is one of the most prominent figures in the global contemporary art world, and in defining contemporary Chinese art (though questionable), so he is understandably one busy man. When I saw him that evening he said yes to conversations next time I’m in Beijing so I must schedule that in as soon as possible. This opening was, as expected, incredibly popular…

Xu is known for his re-interpretations of Chinese characters, Chinese calligraphy, printed text and visual language through his engagement with installation art in both Chinese and Western contexts. ‘Book from the Ground’ manifested as an idea back in 1999 when Xu started collecting safety manuals from airlines. It started more formally as a project in 2003 using diagrams that are employed as a primary means of communication by creating a novel written in a “language of icons”. He wanted to ‘explain complex matters within minimum words.’ This exhibition launched a new publication for ‘Book from the Ground’ where the book ‘tells stories through the icons common in our contemporary experience’ where it ‘continues Xu’s longstanding interest in the link between the written symbol and visual communication.’ I’m currently in the process of reading the new book and I almost want to write a translated version of it in words, his vision presented through my mind. As I’m very pictorially minded, it could be interesting to see how I read the symbols and construct a story in comparison to other people. It’s just whether to invest the time in doing this.

“Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life. We have also created a “font library” computer program to accompany the book. The user can type English sentences (we are still limited in this way, but the next step will include Chinese and other major languages) and the computer will instantaneously translate them into this language of icons. It can function as a “dictionary,” and in the future it will have practical applications.” – Xu Bing

Xu began to collect and organise logos, icons, and insignia from across the globe, researching symbols as a form of expression employed by the fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics, drafting, musical composition, choreography, and corporate branding, among others, where the Internet and the widespread emergence of a language of computer icons have greatly increased the scale and complexity of the project. He references the French thinker Jean Douet as part of his inspiration, who in 1627 in an essay titled “Proposal to the King for a Universal Script, with Admirable Results, Very Useful to Everyone on Earth” first suggested that Chinese was a potential model for an international language. As Xu states, ‘The word “model” is important here because Douet does not limit this “universal script” to the form of Chinese characters per se. He instead focuses on the universal potential of the system of recognition upon which the Chinese language is based. Today, nearly four hundred years later, human communication has indeed evolved in the direction predicted by Douet. We have come to sense that traditional spoken forms are no longer the most appropriate method for communication, and, in response, great human effort has been concentrated on developing ways to replace traditional written languages with icons and images. For this reason, among others, humankind has entered the age of reading images. The formation of nearly every language relies on two systems: phonetic and visual. Due to the wide range of phonetic systems currently in use throughout the world and the global trend of using evermore standardized goods, in addition to technological innovations such as the growing ease and speed of duplicating and sending visual data, it is thus natural (and necessary) to use images and pictographic icons as a means of communication. In truth, today’s “big village” has reignited the historical process of early linguistic development, beginning again with pictographs.’

Questionable in my mind that Chinese should be seen a model for an international language, a “universal script”…even though Mandarin is now the world’s most need to know language. We do seem to communicate less by words, and more by visual images in the form of pictographics, pictograms, symbols, icons, illustrations, as they are easier to translate, digest, understand and ultimately consume in our commercial rife culture. We all seem to have less time to communicate, or spare less time to communicate properly…one of my dislikes in life, which I why I invest so much time in letter writing by hand with an ink pen. I did question ‘Book from the Ground’‘s relevance in today’s current culture as technology has developed so much…is there even a need for a formal book as such? This now references the dichotomy between “real” and “virtual” books and languages. One faction to the show I did like was the site-specific animated projection on the rear wall of the gallery showed a moving illustrative version of the growing and changing skyline of Pudong, where behind the same physical wall of the gallery and seen through the windows you could see the “real” skyline of Pudong. To me, this presented a dualism of understanding…an understanding of the simplistic iconography representing of one of the most emblematic skylines in the world…versus the city’s architectural futuristic, “cyberscape” and somewhat brutal reality. There was no specific message, word, phrase, situation or story to be read from this, which was very much in contrast to the guided notion of the book. Here, you were to interpret what you wanted from your personal experience…create your own story as such. It was funny to see the Shanghai Tower animated, being built up section by section to indicate that it is still in progress. It is a building that is certainly going to redefine the city scene, the skyline and Shanghai forever, just like the Burj Khalifa has in Dubai.

Whilst waiting to talk to Xu, I had a brief and fantastic conversation with an American chap who turned out to be an arts and culture editor, and journalist for some of America’s top newspapers and magazines such as LA Weekly, New York Times and the Huffington Post. Michael Kurcfeld. He very kindly invited me along to a series of studio visits he was going to in the Taopu district of Shanghai on the following Tuesday afternoon…he felt I was someone he should know here in Shanghai in relation to contemporary Chinese art, which was nice to hear. I had a feeling I might have met some of the artists or seen some of the spaces before but it didn’t matter, I just loved the opportunity of talking to and spending time with (new) people in my field of research. He was great to talk to and the studio visits were very enlightening in conceptual, spiritual and philosophical ways…but I’ll tell you about that in the next blog post. I think he is going to be a good mentor in my arts journalism and arts writing development over the coming years. You can see Michael in the ‘Book from the Ground’ concession store below. This “shop within a shop” as such (well the gallery is technically a shop for the art right?) within the exhibition space sold various different types of related and quite witty products, such as t-shirts, shirts, jewellery, tableware, magnets, umbrellas, chocolates, tableware and of course, the book itself all manifesting the exhibition’s concept. It emphasised the translate-ability (is that even a word?) of symbol and icon-based language into a commercial product, into a commercial reality showing that language immerses our lives at every turn, that it can now be bought and sold, worn and used, and be given an everyday, daily function. I can wear language, eat language, use language, reading it at every turn. Sounds good to me as I live for language…amongst other things.


  1. too bad art critics can’t feel shakti, or qi … what they reward with their attention would be very different

    1. explain further…I fear this could be deemed insulting. I endeavour to find shakti and qi in what I do for enlightenment…discuss!

  2. The Book From The Ground website is not available for a long time. Does any know if they have a new website somewhere or is the project actually dead?… I am actually hoping the software used to produced those pictograms would eventually release someday…

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