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Lost in Translation: Xu Bing and the Politics of Language

As Museum MACAN celebrates its second anniversary, it wraps up its fourth blockbuster exhibition, drawing visitors into the brilliantly inventive world of internationally acclaimed contemporary Chinese artist, Xu Bing. Simultaneously seductive and treacherous, “Xu Bing: Thought and Method” is a retrospective that will have you feeling delightfully deceived this holiday season.

Book from the Sky, central to both the show and Xu Bing’s artistic répertoire, is a philologist’s dream come true. Walking into the room is like stumbling into the athenaeum version of Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders. Here you’ll find a floor-to-ceiling compilation of traditionally bound manuscripts, which appear to be prized classics taken from the Song dynasty. Featuring thousands of scrupulously carved and painstakingly printed characters, the installation seems to expose the untold narratives of a distant kingdom.

Spoiler alert: It’s probably the most sophisticated art prank anyone will ever play on you.

Image credit: Museum Macan

Xu Bing’s pictograph characters are completely indecipherable nonsense. Visitors who read hanzi (汉字) need only two minutes to realise his elaborate hoax. However, patrons less familiar with the written Chinese language, such as myself, presumably wouldn’t know the difference.

I could have spent the entire day gazing up in awe at the beautifully billowing scrolls of fabricated, unintelligible textwhich I had thought might at least be within the lineage of Chinese writingwith the assumption that there was a wonderfully elaborate message unfolding before me.

And that, my friend, is exactly the point. Somewhere on this planet Xu Bing is streaming CCTV surveillance footage of me and reveling in my simplicity.

But there is indeed a message here one that is elaborate, but hidden.

Image credit: Museum Macan

There are several layers to Xu Bings work. His preoccupation with language first of all, began at an early age. Xu Bing was born into an era just before Chinas Great Leap Forward, and he spent his formative years as the child of two academics in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Like most intellectuals during that period, his parents were suspected of having capitalist intentions. They were ridiculed by the Red Guard and often suffered public humiliation an experience that was undoubtedly traumatising for the young artist.

In a studio interview with Jason Kaufman, Xu Bing admitted that he had worked diligently to reverse his bad blood by actively taking part in the Revolution during his youth, at an age too young to understand the ramifications of his actions. His first painting had been a portrait of Chairman Mao, and Xu would later find himself working under the direction of Maos regime to produce propaganda that would, as Kaufman put it, lay the ground for communism.

It was here that Xu witnessed first-hand the systematic erasure of traditional Chinese literature and culture, through the states manipulation and oversimplification of the Chinese language. The residual loss of cultural identity that Xu has observed throughout the entirety of his career continues to permeate throughout China today. In Book from the Sky, Xu Bing asks us to contemplate the deliberate process of ethnocide, by presenting a tangible piece of cultural heritage that is devoid of context and rendered meaningless.

Of course, the erasure of language and cultural identity is certainly not an isolated event, nor is it limited to Chinese national history. The dissolution of indigenous heritage and cultural diversity is a worldwide phenomenon, brought forth by economic superpowers in the West and, most predominantly by English speaking North America. Xu Bing subtly points to this sort of cultural carnage through the development of another subversive project, which at first, offers a sigh of relief to upset intellectuals who might have felt swindled by Book from the Sky.

Cultural Carnage

In an interactive installation entitled Square Word Calligraphy, visitors are asked to learn a fictitious form of English that has been reconfigured to look like Chinese. I join the ranks in a retrofitted classroom to study this ancient art of writing or at least, I attempt to master a few brushstrokes. It is here that I not only discover the meditative pleasures of calligraphy but am reminded of the expansive influence that English, being the hegemonic language that it is, has on the world. With a flick of my wrist, I watch as ink exposes the elegant brushwork of a tradition transformed by Western thought and imperialism.

While English is the preferred tool for intercultural communication, it has also become an intrusive instrument akin to capitalism. It grants privilege, promises social mobility, and perpetuates the livelihood of a global elite; it also acts as the gatekeeper to certain systems of knowledge that have accelerated this modern world. But will we see the pendulum swing as the global economy looks towards Asia?

The Gatekeepers

An archived video loop of Xu Bing’s historically controversial performance, A Case Study of Transference, is screened in an alcove midway through the exhibition. Here, a boar stamped with nonsense English words and a sow covered in unintelligible Chinese text mingle inside of a pen. If this doesn’t remind you of current U.S—China negotiations so far, just wait.

Installation of A Case Study of Transference at its previous showing at Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China. Image credit: Xu Bing

Unexpectedly, the hogs start to mate.

Traumatised, audiences begin to ask themselves: first of all, is this allowed? Second of all, has there been mutual consent? And thirdly, is this even art? Suddenly visitors become testimonial witnesses to cultural rape.

The performance portrays a fight for global socioeconomic dominance that an illiterate male swine representing the West ultimately wins. I don’t need to tell you which public figure this might resemble. Xu Bing explains that there also exists another, later version of the performance, where circumstances are switched and China rises to the top, figuratively and literally.

Xu Bing’s keen observation of power dynamics through the wavering politics of access to knowledge is prolific. In an era of unnecessary trade wars that seek to stifle other nations in the interest of economic prosperity, perhaps there is no better way to discuss systemic power struggles than through meaningless words, empty promises, and a conversation between a couple of passionate pigs.


Xu Bing: Thought and Method is on view at Museum MACAN in Jakarta until January 12.


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