Choice: Pigs on top

Two tattooed pigs make love in a pen full of books, watched by a giggling audience, which has heard about this underground art installation only by word of mouth. The animals' backs are printed with characters resembling Chinese and English letters, but which are, in fact, meaningless. Videoed for posterity, A Case Study in Transference is one of three intriguing installation art works by Chinese avant-garde artist Xu Bing showing this week at the ICA.

That carefully orchestrated pig coupling took place three years ago at a secret venue just a mile east of Tiananmen Square. After the brutal suppression of the students' pro-democracy demonstrations, the artist has since left China for New York, his self-imposed exile just the most recent example of how Bing's life and art have been shaped by Chinese political history.

Born in 1955, Xu Bing's academic parents were persecuted as "capitalist roadsters" during the Cultural Revolution and young Bing was sent to labour in the fields. Surprisingly, he regards this as "the happiest time of his life", a pastoral idyll where he escaped Maoist paranoia, led a life of "pure simplicity" and made his first art, "sketching the faces of the peasants he laboured with".

Years later, he applied these skills to more subversive subjects, such as the mammoth A Book from the Sky, an elegant installation composed of vast scrolls, meticulously printed with 4,000 characters. Each individually invented, hand-cut and printed by Bing, the "Chinese" calligraphy proves, on closer inspection, to be unintelligible.

Like the pigs, A Book from the Sky is a linguistic gag that stretches the gap between words and meaning. For Bing it was "a commentary on the centrality of print as a medium in China, and a meditation on the government propaganda reproduced in the newspapers".

Asked what he has against books, Bing replies, "Nothing, I just don't read them very much." One he will be perusing is the imminent pocket-sized publication of A Book from the Sky, which will see the installation "printed, bound and circulated like any other book". So, if you enjoy the word according to Bing, you'll soon not be able to read his sly brand of pulp fiction in paperback.

ICA, London SW1 (0171-930 3647) today to Mon, 12noon-8pm

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