Xu Bing (b. 1955). Book from the Sky, ca. 1987–1991. China. Installation of hand-printed books and ceiling and wall scrolls printed from wood letterpress type; ink on paper. Lent by the artist. © Xu Bing
«Before we encountered Xu Bing's Book from the Sky, we passed by Ai Weiwei's Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo—and almost missed it. The pot, located in the ancient Chinese galleries, looks ordinary except for its iconic logo. This was where we started to learn that the contemporary Chinese art scene is born from the synthesis and refutation of tradition.»
Xu Bing's piece alludes to the constant innovation of Chinese language since its inception. From pictorial symbols on oracle bones in the Shang dynasty to its more recent simplification under Mao, the language is constantly morphing. Chinese characters evoke pathos through style, a concept that Xu explores. By acknowledging this, Xu imagines a new language that resembles Chinese characters from afar yet is, when viewed up close, totally made up. For instance, Xu converts simple Chinese strokes into the English alphabet, composing English phrases and sentences (like "Ring around the Rosy" and "Xu Bing New York") in what appear to be Chinese characters but are not.
The piece enables visitors to the Met to experience the spontaneity and fluidity of Chinese calligraphy and uncover the subversive nature of Chinese art. This is a three-piece installation, complete with three floating scrolls, a hanging scroll on each side, and an array of books in the middle. What stuns us is that none of the characters is legible in Chinese; Xu created over twelve thousand fake characters.