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Artist in Focus: Xu Bing

Xu Bing

Artist Xu Bing painting in his studio.

The Character of Characters, 2012

The Character of Characters, 2012, by Xu Bing (Chinese, born 1955). Five-channel video animation installation. Acquisition made possible by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, R2012.54.

Xu Bing
The Character of Characters, 2012

Xu Bing is renowned for his artistic explorations of the role of language in human life. He was eleven years old when Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. Throughout most of his childhood he witnessed firsthand the written word’s power to manipulate masses.

In much of his work, he draws on the calligraphic principle of using words as art. In installations such as Book from the Sky (1987), Xu covers scrolls with an invented language (that appears real). In Square Word Calligraphy (2004), he blends the English alphabet with principles of writing Chinese calligraphy to create a visual hybrid.

In The Character of Characters, Xu Bing draws parallels between the repetitive, rigorous practice of calligraphy and aspects of Chinese culture, both contemporary and historical. It touches on such varied subjects as:

  • the genesis of writing,
  • the connection between Chinese calligraphy and painting,
  • the role of copying in art and society, and the trust native Chinese readers place in symbols—including the current Chinese love affair with name-brand luxury goods.