Arts: Telling porkies

Xu Bing used the ancient art of calligraphy to subvert his country's Communist rulers in the days before the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Now exiled to America, he's still playing games with language. By Imogen O'Rorke
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The Independent Culture
Three hundred square metres of paper strips, thickly covered in Chinese calligraphy, drape the walls, floor and ceiling of the room, recalling religious sutras or pages of newsprint. On closer inspection, the 4,000 characters are found to be meaningless - an indecipherable language of the artist's own devising. The viewers nevertheless spend hours trying to make sense of them and, in so doing, become imprisoned by the room and their own frustration.

It was with this installation, entitled A Book from the Sky, that Xu Bing, the Chinese artist credited with leading the revolutionary "New Wave" movement in 1980s Peking, first made his name when the China Avant- Garde exhibition, of which the work formed the focal point, was shut down within days by the Chinese Ministry of Culture.

Three years in the making, A Book seemed to offer a clear metaphor for the deadlock in which the Chinese people found themselves, caught between tradition and the Communist regime, cheated for too long by meaningless pronouncements and empty promises. Two months later, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, it became in turn a cenotaph to the nameless victims of the freedom struggle.

Next month, A Book will be reconstructed at the ICA as part of Fortune Cookies, a month-long survey of Chinese art from across the world, and this weekend Xu Bing, who now lives, works and lectures in America, made his first visit to London to supervise its installation.

A modest, understated 42-year-old, Bing dislikes the pro-democratic political decoding of A Book from the Sky which Western commentators have been prone to. "People read too much into the political side. In my generation politics was always in the background. There are many interpretations. Nothing is so absolute," he says heatedly, lapsing back into Chinese in his frustration. "They simplify his work," says his translator. "There is meaning and there is nothing - like Chinese philosophy. Xu is very much a Zen thinker."

He does not deny that the work - which was vilified by government agents as "irrational, anti-tradition, anti-art and against society" (the highest compliment anyone could have paid him at the time) - was a work of cultural heresy. But he insists he is a patriot and traditionalist.

Bing has more reasons to hate the dictators than most. His mother and father, the chairman of the history department at Beijing University, were both prosecuted for being "capitalist roaders"; Bing also lost many of his pupils at the Art Institute of Beijing in the massacre at Tienanmen, where they had been responsible (under his instruction) for the Goddess of Democracy sculpture. But he refuses to condemn the regime. "Deng in many ways was good for my country," he says.

Bing spent three years in isolation in the countryside carving traditional woodblock prints. "It was meditation," he says, before offering an enchanting, gnomic tale about a mentally retarded man in his village who would pick paper rubbish out of the dustbin everyday, go to the river to wash it and lay it out straight in the sun. "All the villagers thought he was mad and his life was meaningless. No more than their own."

The interpreter suggests on Bing's behalf that A Book from the Sky should be read from a Zen perspective. The ancient Buddhists preached that all books and sutras are a waste of paper and the only truth is empirical truth. Bing was also heavily influenced by Sartre, Freud and Nietzsche and the early 20th-century philosophy that came spilling into China after Mao's death in 1977. "My experience of the world is that human life is meaningless," he says, echoing the nihilistic concepts in Sartre's Being and Nothingness. "People must just step back and appreciate the beauty."

Since he left China to escape artistic repression, Bing's work has become less aesthetic and increasingly theoretical. Square Words, an interactive language project also on show at the ICA in May, will be quite a challenge to the contemporary art consuming public, who will be invited to sit down in a classroom within the gallery and take lessons from Bing's video image on how to write New English Calligraphy, a language he has developed by squaring off English words. Bing says he hopes the skill will be of use to us in everyday life or in the translation of Chinese poetry. And he's not joking. He thinks calligraphy the highest of art-forms.

"I want my art to make fresh changes in people's lives," he says. "It was Mao who instilled in me the idea that art should be for the people." He sees his work as a thermometer of contemporary culture, yet will not take responsibility for its interpretation. As for our Young British Artists, he simply cannot understand how a shark in a tank can be good art. "It teaches nothing. Contemporary art is very boring. It appears anyone can call anything art. As a result, the artist loses responsibility."

Yet Bing's most bizarre installation, A Case Study in Transference, is a piece even Damien Hirst might be proud of. For this performance, recorded three years ago at an underground event in Peking, Bing purchased two pigs (the Chinese symbols of fertility), covered the male in English script and the female in Chinese, waited for the female to come on heat, and then let them both loose in a pigpen scattered with books in front of a live audience. There was nothing ambiguous about the events that followed. "It was about the love affair between two cultures," proposes the artist - himself the product of 35 years under Mao/Deng rule and seven under Bush/Clinton.

In A Case Study, the two pigs look a big sheepish when they first enter the ring to the cruel cheers of the crowd (one reason why two Spanish and Canadian galleries refused to show the work) but, as they start happily going about their business trampling the books underfoot to a mostrous flapping of ears and honking of snouts, it is the audience, hilariously, who blush with embarrassment.

"It's a brilliant moment," says Bing. "Animals teach us so much about the purity of living and make humans look stupid."

For him, the two pigs represent the intercourse of cultural ideas: the thrusting male embodying the aggressive single-track philosophy of the West, the female representing the Ying Yang approach of the East. After 30 minutes, the male collapses from sheer exhaustion, while the female, fresh as ever, tries in vain to rouse him.

"The female ultimately has more stamina," says Bing, richly amused at his cultural innuendo. "When your culture is gone, burnt out, mine will still be here."

Recalling the Billy Name: FactoryFotos exhibition that has just opened downstairs at the ICA, with its now rather jaded images of self-destructive hedonism and vaingloriousness from Andy Warhol's factory days, I think I can see his pointn

Xu Bing: 'A Book from the Sky', 'Square Words' and 'A Case Study in Transference': 24-26 May, ICA, The Mall, London SW1 (0171-930 3647)