“There is no opposition between the contemporary and the traditional … The two merge into one.”
b.1955, Chongqing. Lives and works in Beijing and New York City
One of China’s most celebrated artists, Xu Bing is fascinated by language. He has invented two of his own, one made up of nonsensical characters and another using the icons, emojis and pictograms that constitute a global lingua franca. His “New English” or “Square Word” Calligraphy is a system for rendering English words as Chinese-looking characters; its aim is to help Westerners see inside the soul of China and encourage all viewers to look at the world in new ways. In Spring, River, and Flowers on a Moonlit Night (2012), Xu Bing uses this script to present an English translation of a canonical Chinese poem (by the T’ang dynasty poet Zhang Ruoxu) in the format of a traditional calligraphic scroll. He hopes that when non-Chinese viewers discover they can read it, their attitude to calligraphy will be transformed—they will no longer feel like outsiders admiring an art form, and by extension a culture, whose inner meaning they cannot understand.
Dragonfly Eyes (2016-17) explores a visual “language” of a very different kind. It is a feature-length drama compiled from 10,000 hours of surveillance-camera footage that Xu Bing and his team downloaded from the internet and dubbed with actors’ voices. China now has millions of cameras monitoring roads, apartment complexes, banks, shops, bars, restaurants and hospitals. The film “treats the whole of China as a 24/7 live-stream cinema,” he says. “The world has become a studio, with every corner watched, recorded and streamed.” The result is a vast and growing video database that records 21st century life both more and less objectively than writing ever can. This is “the new narrative of our time”.