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Video transcript

I'm in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Allison yang we're in an installation by the Chinese artist Xu Bing called book from the sky Chinese characters are above us they're below us and there on either side of us pages containing columns and columns of Chinese text are surrounding us on the walls hanging from the ceiling and also on the floor in the open book pages from volumes that he is hand bound in the form of traditional Chinese book arts so on either side of this gallery are thousands of Chinese characters printed on this beautiful paper below us of sea of waves made up of open books and above us a beautiful billowing sky three long pieces of paper scroll like stretched across the ceiling filled with Chinese characters two Western viewers it's not immediately clear what the text says what this piece might be about and it reminds me of other works around the Chinese art galleries in the metropolitan museum of more historical calligraphic arts but to a Chinese viewer the meaning is also illusive this is because Xu Bing has actually invented over 1,000 new characters so these are not real characters because traditional Chinese characters are composed in a modular way meaning that different components are brought together to form a character in a block form Xu Bing actually uses some real components and some that are invented in combinations that are entirely new to create a character that looks extremely familiar to somebody who can read Chinese so we're surrounded by literally tens of thousands of Chinese characters that don't actually mean anything she actually discarded any characters that he came up with that looked too inauthentic jibing didn't render all of these characters with a brush by hand rather he carved wooden blocks harking back to the ancient Chinese system of movable type which is far older than Gutenberg system in the West we're looking at a very early form of mass production that relates to the contemporary moment in which print media have played a large role in to bings upbringing he was a young man during the Cultural Revolution a period when intellectuals were vilified when the very notion of the individual was distrusted when everything was about the Guru everything was about the state shipping was actually very talented as a child in writing and in calligraphy the skill was identified by teachers and harnessed in service of the state so like many other young intellectuals he was sent to the countryside where he was put to work creating banners by hand for things like holidays weddings and funerals where he would be asked to combine modern and traditional forms of calligraphy and when shipping was in art school he was trained in the arts of propaganda as was expected of anybody involved in the arts at this time in China so it's fascinating with that in mind to look at this overwhelming display of block printing it admits no actual word the piece also makes me think of a lot of other works of contemporary Chinese art which used the act of destruction in order to create new meaning a way way of dropping Han Dynasty earn other artists repeating a text in layers that eventually obliterate its meaning so we can't locate meaning in what we read so where do we look for meaning we're asked to move from the symbolic representation of the words to the characters themselves and the accumulation of those characters as well as the vehicle through which they're delivered so we're reminded of the way that text is used for propaganda purposes during Mao's regime and the inundation of posters and banners that would have surrounded him just like these texts surround us here but the irony is that this was produced not during Mao's lifetime but in a period after when China was flooded with Western literature and yet the artist has nevertheless created characters that are empty of meaning he has observed two phases of the consumption of texts in his lifetime the first being from the regime through the use of propaganda and the second when China opened up to receiving and translating Western philosophy Theory literature and art history this was consumed by youths who were hungry for information I'm struck by the way the books on the floor created a series of waves they almost seemed like the sea and the banners that hang from the ceiling functioned very much as the sky the title of this is book from the sky and the panels on the walls seem like landscapes this is an interesting observation in light of the medium that we're looking at now considered woodblock printed text to be one of the most non elitist forms of art and communication because it was direct and because it could be mass-produced and widely disseminated whereas scholar painting earlier in Chinese history often depicted the landscape and the natural environment but very subtle political messages were sometimes conveyed in these compositions and these were more elitist form of art so here we have subtle references to landscape but represented through text emptied of meaning