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

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)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy