Bookmarking Book Art – Xu Bing

I count myself “magpie lucky”.

Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1913-14 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska Kettle's Yard exhibition, 2015
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Bird Swallowing a Fish, 1913-14
Kettle’s Yard exhibition, 2015

The Gaudier-Brzeska exhibition, the finale before Kettle’s Yard would close for years, had drawn me to Cambridge. I spent hours there. Exhausted, I was walking back to the train past the Fitzwilliam Museum. I had read somewhere that Xu Bing would have a small solo exhibition at the Fitzwilliam.

from Xu Bing, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014)
from Xu Bing, Book from the Ground: From Point to Point (MIT Press, 2014)

I own a copy of Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground: From Point to Point – a pictographic account of twenty-four hours in the life of “Mr. Black,” a typical urban white-collar worker – and I had seen Book from the Sky at the Odd Volumes exhibition of Yale’s Allan Chasanoff Collection. So I took a chance.

Book from the Sky, 1991 Xu Bing The Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Museum of Modern Art Photograph taken 31 January 2015
Xu Bing, Book from the Sky, 1991
The Allan Chasanoff Collection, Yale University Art Gallery

After first not recognizing my mispronunciation of Xu Bing and then hunting through some brochures, the attendants at the information desk directed me downstairs to a room of Chinese porcelain just outside the museum shop.  Among the glass cases of blue and white: Bird Language (2003), four brass and copper birdcages, containing toy birds that sing at the clap of your hands.  The mesh of two of the cages are composed of words in the Latin alphabet, the other two in Xu Bing’s faux Chinese calligraphy. According to his site, “The words are questions that people have asked Xu Bing about art, and his answers.”

Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003 Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel.
Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and “square word calligraphy”, gravel.
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003 Four brass and copper birdcages containing sound-activated toy birds, the cage mesh composed of English and "square word calligraphy", gravel.
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003

They remind me of Gaudier-Brzeska’s Bird Swallowing a Fish, just a question of timing and the juxtaposition of two artists fascinated with a union of the animistic and mechanistic? Maybe it is these few other degrees of separation: Gaudier-Brzeska’s catalyzing effect on Ezra Pound in 1913, Pound’s creative misunderstanding of Chinese calligraphy, Pound’s disputably indisputable influence on the author of “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), whose birds are “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling … set upon a golden bough to sing ….”, and now Xu Bing’s toy birds that require the body not the “Soul [to] clap its hands” and let the birds do the singing.

Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky must have been even more impressive in its Metropolitan Museum display (2013/14) than its partial form at the Yale Gallery (2015) as shown above, but that’s part of the pleasure of conceptual art. Whether billowing overhead on scrolls suspended from the ceiling and walls or juxtaposed in their bound book form with their wooden case, these hand-bound deliberately indecipherable, meaningless Chinese calligraphic forms printed from hand-carved wood blocks sing in the mind and soul. But what is that song? We have the impression of meaning, an impression conveyed by graphic gesture and the traditional containers of meaning. But there is a slippage between the impression of meaning and grasp of meaning.  Perhaps that is Xu Bing’s song.

The Khan Academy’s socio-political take on Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky — comparing it to Ai WeiWei’s performance art of smashing a Han dynasty vase — may usefully decipher the song for some. I think it misses a more profound point that Charlie Bennett approaches in his Aesthetica review of Xu Bing’s installation version of Book from the Ground (just closed on 28 February 2016 at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Arts in Manchester, UK). The interactive mixed-media installation recreated Xu Bing’s art studio, including double-page spreads of the book pinned up on a wall, over-sized blow-ups of the pictographs from the book and two computers for visitors’ use.

Book from the Ground is also the name of Xu’s language-learning software program, which attendees can access on PCs in the gallery space. When words are typed into the tool, they are transformed into Xu’s pictographic language. It recalls a previous work of Xu’s, Introduction to [New] English Calligraphy (1994), which combines installation and interactive art, as visitors of a simulated classroom attempt to write what seems to be traditional Chinese calligraphy. But in the act of copying out the symbols on display, they realise the characters are reconfigured Roman letters that spell out words in legible English. Book from the Ground goes further in questioning transcultural communication; it instigates dialogue across borders only by negating all cultural differences in a de-localised set of coded representations.

With its English and Chinese birdcages, Bird Language, too, echoes Introduction to New English Calligraphy. But in the viewer’s interaction with the latter, the meaning that emerges is not what the viewer “intends” by copying out pretty lines. The experience of “communicated meaning” or “almost communicated meaning” seems accidental or magical. Likewise in Bird Language, we know that the sensor activates the toy bird and suspect a connection between the “magically activated” songs and the word-mesh cages. We suspect meaning.  We know the artist’s hand formed metal letters to form metal words in two different languages.  We suspect that each cage forms a narrative. We suspect there are differences in the narratives from the difference in round and square cage, English and Chinese cage. For some, that experience of suspicion might be frustrating; for others, delighting.

On further reflection, I think Xu Bing’s art challenges that modernist “union” of the animistic and mechanistic. With the sound-activation of digital birdsong and software-translation of words into pictographs, Bird Language and Book from the Ground (the installation) offer the slippery  intersection of the animistic, the mechanistic and the digital. Intersection is not always union, if by “union” we mean equivalence, meaning and clarity. “Made in China” birds are not swallowing or regurgitating brass symbols. Animistic and mechanistic input to digital translation or replication do not always yield union — equivalence, meaning or clarity. But in Xu Bing’s hands and mind — in their intersection with our hands and minds — they yield a suspicion of union. They yield art.

Detail. Xu Bing Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003
Detail. Xu Bing, Bird Language, 2003

Further reading:

Wang, Sue. “‘Xu Bing’: The Art View and Action Logic of a Fatalist”, 12 January 2018.  A lengthy piece on the occasion of the Xu Bing retrospective in Wuhan, his first large-scale solo exhibition in China since returning ten years ago. Beitler, Daniel. “Xu Bing Tests the Limits of Language in Unique Exhibition“, Macau Daily Times, 20 November 2017. From www.youtube.com May 25, 2017 1:55 PM This video recounting Xu Bing’s life and work so far (from his start in China to the 90s in New York then back again to Beijing) broadens the appreciation of each work and the connections among them across time and place.

Bookmarking Book Art – Michael Mandiberg

Michael Mandiberg, Print Wikipedia, 2015 Exhibition "From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!" by the Denny Gallery, 261 Broome Street in New York City, 18 June through 11 July, 2015.
Michael Mandiberg, Print Wikipedia, 2015
Exhibition “From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!” by the Denny Gallery, 261 Broome Street in New York City, 18 June through 11 July, 2015.

Print Wikipedia is a both a utilitarian visualization of the largest accumulation of human knowledge and a poetic gesture towards the futility of the scale of big data. Mandiberg has written software that parses the entirety of the English-language Wikipedia database and programmatically lays out thousands of volumes, complete with covers, and then uploads them for print-on-demand. Built on what is likely the largest appropriation ever made, it is also a work of found poetry that draws attention to the sheer size of the encyclopedia’s content and the impossibility of rendering Wikipedia as a material object in fixed form: Once a volume is printed it is already out of date. The work is also a reflection on the actual transparency or completeness of knowledge containers and history. (Denny Gallery)

Mandiberg  echoes a conceptual framework initiated by John F. Simon, Jr. and his “Every Icon” in 1996-97.  Every Icon is a grid of 32 x 32 empty squares underpinned by a Java applet that explores successively every combination of black and white squares that could occur within the confines of that grid. Changing from light to dark and back again, the black or white boxes “hop” progressively to the right. Over time (say a trillion years), the grid will will populate itself with shapes. Simon’s algorithmically driven “artist’s proof” speaks to the ephemerality, futility and power of art, which is the unavoidable, underlying theme of “Every Icon” and, for that matter, any instance of installation or performance art.

As Simon puts it,

While Every Icon is resolved conceptually, it is unresolvable in practice.
In some ways the theoretical possibilities outdistance
the time scales of both evolution and imagination.
It posits a representational system where computational
promise is intricately linked to extraordinary duration and momentary sensation.

In Mandiberg’s case – whether it is the complete  set or a print-on-demand segment – the realized print element of the Print Wikipedia demonstrates the work’s unresolvability in practice. Even if I hold out hope that the “art” (the algorithmic techne/craft) of Print Wikipedia lasts long, any artifact “resolved” by Print Wikipedia will always be out of date until the “final moment” of Wikipedia (whatever that might look like). Warning: the links from previous reviews of Every Icon are often dead, which is doubly ironic: the technical community always speaks of “links resolving to a resource”, so with those dead links, there is a further, unintended “unresolvability”.

Mandiberg’s work also echoes the conceptual framework initiated by Paul Soulellis and Library of the Printed Web. Like the volumes in Mandiberg’s Printed Wikipedia, those in the LotPW are created by print on demand.

“Special Collection” (2009), by Benjamin Shaykin. Photo by the Library of the Printed Web.
Special Collection (2009), by Benjamin Shaykin. Photo by the Library of the Printed Web.

In Soulellis’ words,

Library of the Printed Web is a collection of works by artists who use screen capture, image grab, site scrape and search query to create printed matter from content found on the web. LotPW includes self-published artists’ books, photo books, texts and other print works gathered around the casual concept of “search, compile and publish“.

The content in Benjamin Shaykin’s Special Collection consists of found pages in which a scanner’s hand was accidentally captured by the Google scanning system during the Google Book Project . This is truly “manually” found content. The content of Mandiberg’s work is algorithmically “found content” on a massive scale. While it may be that Print Wikipedia represents the “futility of the scale of big data”, I prefer the irrational hope that its print element, however tied to the digital, and the physical book art of the LotPW secure the consolation of “ars longa, vita brevis”.

Bookmarking Book Art – Large-Scale Installations, Update 20190909

The Parthenon of Books, 1983/2017
Marta Minujín
Kassel, Germany

In her note in BookRiot, Nikki Steele takes Brian Dettmer’s  TED talk remark that books are created to relate to our human scale and builds on it elegantly, if all too briefly, by bringing together the installation works “Literature versus Traffic”, “Scanner”, “Book Cell”, “Singularity”, “Biographies” and “Contemporaries”. She’s not the first to provide a Pinterest– or Flickr-style burst of “ooh, look at this”, but unlike her predecessors, she makes the point worth pondering: this art that is not on a human scale evokes wonder and awe.

This challenges and expands on Dettmer’s point that people are disturbed by book art because we think of the book as a body, a living thing. As John Milton said, “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself”. That was in the context of book licensing laws that led to the confiscation and destruction of unlicensed books. Still, Milton would probably react as angrily to individual works of book art, and he might view the installations as if they were on the scale of the massacre of the Waldensians in the Piedmont.

Dettmer’s justification of book art that books “also have the potential to continue to grow and to continue to become new things”, that “books really are alive”, leaves us still squirming on the hook when Steele asks, “what happens when artists explode the scale and take books much, much larger?”. If you think cutting up or destroying a book is sacrilegious, what is your reaction to the 10,000 splayed in the streets of Melbourne by Luzinterruptus or the equal number cast by Alicia Martín into frozen defenestrations in Madrid and elsewhere in Spain or the even greater number in Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books, installed for documenta in Kassel, Germany?

Miltonic eruption? Or Steele-ish delight, awe and love of the art?

Let’s raise the stakes and confusion. What if the books used in the single-volume work and installations were the Koran, the Bible or the Torah? Art and ethics are rarely happy bedfellows. Is there such a thing as “responsible art” that does not run afoul of the principle of the creative spirit or the integrity of art? Is art wholly without cultural, ethical or social contextual obligations?

This is why I like book art. It provokes just by coming into being. Its existence and appreciation are hard won.

Links on large-scale book art installations:

Tom Bendtsen

Vivianna Checchia

Melissa Jay Craig

Julie Dodd

Flux Foundation

Thilo Folkerts and Rodney Latourelle

Brian Goggin

Rune Guneriussen

Samuel Levi Jones

Anselm Kiefer

Matej Krén

Anouk Kruithof

Lacuna (Bay Area Book Festival and Flux)

Miler Lagos

Luzinterruptus

Alicia Martín

Marta Minujin

Math Monahan

Prabhakar Pachpute

Jan Reymond Rosace

Mike Stilkey

Rintala Eggertsson Architects

Johnny Rodgers

Rusty Squid

Liu Wei

Vita Wells

Wendy Williams

Bookmarking Book Art – Werner Pfeiffer and Anselm Kiefer

Werner Pfeiffer, Zig Zag, 2010 Laid into drop spine case: One folded sheet (20 x 20 cm.) which unfolds into a paper structure with various panels containing text printed in red and black, including instructions for use of the work. "The structure used in this book is a combination of two accordion folds. Both are first creased, then each segment is cut halfway through at the center and finally the two strips are merged together where the cuts have been made." Sheet laid into case. Limited ed. of 60 copies.
Werner Pfeiffer, Zig Zag, 2010 Laid into drop spine case: One folded sheet (20 x 20 cm.) which unfolds into a paper structure with various panels containing text printed in red and black, including instructions for use of the work. "The structure used in this book is a combination of two accordion folds. Both are first creased, then each segment is cut halfway through at the center and finally the two strips are merged together where the cuts have been made." Sheet laid into case. Limited ed. of 60 copies. Werner Pfeiffer, Zig Zag, 2010
Laid into drop spine case: One folded sheet (20 x 20 cm.) which unfolds into a paper structure with various panels containing text printed in red and black, including instructions for use of the work. “The structure used in this book is a combination of two accordion folds. Both are first creased, then each segment is cut halfway through at the center and finally the two strips are merged together where the cuts have been made.” Limited edition of 60 copies.

“The book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented.”  — Werner Pfeiffer, Book-Objects & Artist Books, online exhibition, Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Anselm Kiefer, The Rhine 1982-2013 Collages of woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac in a leporello structure
Anselm Kiefer, The Rhine 1982-2013 Collages of woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac in a leporello structure Anselm Kiefer, The Rhine, 1982-2013
Collages of woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac in a leporello structure

“The book, the idea of a book or the image of a book, is a symbol of learning, of transmitting knowledge … I make my own books to find my way through the old stories.”   — Anselm Kiefer, publication entry for Brünhilde schläft, in Toledo Museum of Art Masterworks (Toledo, 2009).

Like Anselm Kiefer, though eight years older, Werner Pfeiffer grew up in the shadow of Nazi Germany.  The works of both artists are rooted in the book and its peculiar place in that culture. Pfeiffer’s book-objects consist of deconstructed, dismantled library discards that are reassembled with glue and coated in gesso.  “Gagged and tormented” (with nails, screws, rope and various physical distortions), the works are “symbols of pain, of torture, of suppression which are inevitably brought on by the censor’s act”, the real remnants of which Pfeiffer recalls from his earliest childhood.

Pfeiffer’s artist books on the other hand run the gamut of foldouts, scrolls, flexagons, walk-in environments and rely on traditional bookmaking craft: handset type, letterpress printing, sophisticated binding as well as original print techniques such as wood cuts or linoleum blocks and etchings on archival papers. The emotional range of Pfeiffer’s art is also wide — humorous, playful, piquant, simultaneously angry and sorrowful, concerned. The overriding concerns are straightforwardly explained in the text to the online Cornell University exhibition.

The first schoolbooks I can remember, leftovers from the previous regime, were heavily “edited.” They were books with words and sentences blackened out. Chapters were deleted; entire pages were missing. This was information declared unsuitable for a post-war generation, a generation who six months earlier had been practically obliterated by the events now deemed unfit to be read about. Part of what they had lived through, their own history, had been blocked out, hidden behind those black marks.

Measured by the perceived fears an innocently bound codex seems capable of instilling, the book is one of the most powerful weapons ever invented. And yet we find ourselves at a threshold where its power and influence seem to be waning.

… As in the past, we find at the core of our current socio-political realignment the process of communication…. The new cultural footprint is a set of digits and their application, made possible by the microchip and the speed of electricity….

My book-objects have their origin partly in this ambiguous realm, a period of change as radical as it is dramatic. Superimposed over this perceived uncertainty is my personal concern about censorship. By making books which are deliberately mute I try to raise questions. Words are lost; they are no longer important. The books take on new forms; they become provocative statements. No longer instruments for reading they become sculptures, they become Book-Objects.

As with all superior sculpture, Pfeiffer’s works make the hands twitch to touch and manipulate them. In a few exhibitions, that interaction has even been encouraged. There is something inherently haptic about his book art (for example, Zig Zag and Abracadabra) and his book-objects (for example, Drawing Blood), which can be enjoyed vicariously in these videos: Youtube 1, Youtube 2, Youtube 3 and Youtube 4.

Kiefer’s materials are more varied, more monumental than Pfeiffer’s, and his concerns are decidedly not straightforward. Considering his sprawling studio complex at Barjac, in southeastern France, and its towers and installations, to say that Kiefer’s oeuvre extends beyond book art is an understatement. But for Books on Books, his most moving works — even those in which the book’s material presence is greatly subordinate — remain tethered to book art. The ache to touch Kiefer’s art, however, is different from what you feel with Pfeiffer’s. What little playfulness there may be in some of Kiefer’s earliest pieces is overshadowed by monumental works evoking an urge and dread at the same time.

You feel it walking up the stairs in the Royal Academy, looking up and seeing the sculpture Für Fulcanelli – die Sprache der Vögel, its great wings of beaten lead spread and rising above you.  Between the wings, the body is made of a stack of elephant and double elephant folio books lying flat (or rather gathered folios made of lead like the wings). Interleaved with the closed and open books are rusted metal folding chairs with wooden seats and backs, the kind found in city parks. Thick metal wedges that appear to be wood are inserted at various points to balance out the angular, tilting pile. Separate and lying before this huge bird is a carved wooden snake, elongated and heading right to left as you view the work. The pages of the books curl and fold and roll up as if sodden or aflame. Some are rusted. The bottom-most book has lead binder boards, water stained and looking like marbled paper. Not all of them have binding boards, but all are spineless. You want to touch but know that if you do, your fingers will come away with some alchemical residue of history that will not come off and may burn the skin.

Pfeiffer’s works from a major exhibition in 2011 at Cornell remain on view online. Another major exhibition followed in 2012 at Vassar College.  A new exhibition is scheduled for February 2015 in Toledo, Ohio. More about it in The Blade.

A major retrospective of Kiefer’s art at the Royal Academy of Art concluded in December 2014, coinciding with an hour-long BBC program. An interview with the artist and several podcasts are available on the RA’s site, and the rich and extensive exhibition catalogue provides articles exploring the complex themes of Kiefer’s art.