Monday, 8 April 2013

"Good Poetry", and other thoughts and feelings about the Xu Bing exhibition.

Poetry and Art at the Ashmolean
to celebrate
Xu Bing - an artist of extraordinary character

Performances from Oxfordshire poets for Saturday 13th April.

Xu Bing is the first contemporary artist to be shown at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and has become a legend in his own lifetime. He left China for the United States in 1990 and in 1999 received the MacArthur ‘Genius Award’. His subsequent awards include the Fukuoka Asian Culture prize (2003) and the first Artes Mundi prize (2004). In 2008 he returned to Beijing to become Vice President of China’s foremost art institution, the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA). He has exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; and the Joan Miro Foundation, Spain, amongst other major institutions.

I went to his exhibition to see how he combines poetry with visual art. The exhibition is called “Landscape Landscript”.

It is radical indeed to look at poem-pictures through the lens of a character like Xu Bing. He is a trickster, half comic, half ironic, turning art and nature upside down and coming up with challenges to our concepts, both east and west. He is a global character. He offers us “Good Poetry” (see below), on a fridge magnet to take away from his exhibition. It does not feature on the gallery wall, however; nor does “Good Painting,” his other fridge magnet. I am inclined to believe he has created English Chinese characters especially for the exhibition. Some will choose a pencil or a drawing kit to copy his works.

I offer my own version of “Good Poetry” below. On Saturday 13th April, you can hear me read with three other excellent Oxfordshire poets, featuring a series of poems on the Xu Bing exhibition. These include Dr Jennifer McGowan, who offers us three poems based on her experience of the exhibition. Her poems are SŪZHŌU LANDSCRIPT, Life Pond and Big River. Sarianne Durie reads two: The Ice Book - about Xu Bing’s work and the exhibition generally, and Flower Sprouts Leaf   - related to his work with the children in Africa. I also share two other works inspired by the exhibition. Dr Giles Watson’s landscape poem, “A study in March.” completes our set of gallery performances for April.

There are two sets of readings:   12.30-13.30 and 14.30 15.30.
The tours start in the foyer of the museum.

I felt almost overwhelmed at the start of the exhibition. How could a poet with no academic pedigree, or knowledge of Chinese begin to grasp the complexity of Chinese writing culture? I had been inspired to visit by looking on-line at the awesome visual feast of his use of a piece of western prose about a still lake which  makes a sea of words across the ceiling, pouring down a stalactite to the floor. The Ashmolean has nothing to compare with this. It is focused on a historical perspective, and the fact that the Bodleian has a huge collection of Chinese manuscripts.

The exhibition takes us on a journey through Xu Bing’s life from his early work, which is western representational art of good quality, through to his latest project in conceptual and ecological art and poetry with children in the forest. His father was denounced during the Cultural Revolution and he was sent away to a mountainous province far from the cultural centres of China. He commented, “If you wanted to kill someone, you did it with painting. Painted script was as deadly as a bullet. He would focus his life and work around it.

He challenges us. There is no plagiarism in Chinese art. Copying the masters of the past makes things perfect. He explores in so many different ways the interactions that are possible between words and the world of art.

One of his solutions is to create characters which mimic the form of tree or mountain. We see these characters patterned on to landscapes of mountains in a way that is at once traditionally Chinese and at the same time radically new. He goes on to create a whole new world of nonsense characters which are somehow still Chinese.

At the end of the exhibition he shares his forest project, which is ignored by most of the reviews I have seen. For me it is the most exciting part of the exhibition.

When I was writing my manifesto on poem-picture making, I wrote:

 “From the earliest days of printing, a world of visual images with associated thought and feeling, juxtaposed with text has been part of the western way of enculturation, to help in the process of translating meaningless ciphers, squiggles on a page, into the stuff of inner experience, into understood written words, leaping from the page or screen into constructs of a mental world.

I will never forget the moment when words and images entwined and danced for me as I began to understand written text for the first time. It was like the moment when stumbling and sinking transform into skiing and swimming as learning transforms to achieving.”

Xu Bing has created his own wall art from the pictures of seven year olds in Africa and Asia, who add their first pieces of writing on to their pictures of a tree or trees. This is that wonderful moment when words, world and art all combine in the creativity that makes us human. He then auctions their art on-line to earn money to buy more trees for the forest. The children’s own works sit on the edge of the exhibition just round the corner from his fridge magnets. Xu Bing suggests each tree has a child’s secret soul inside it.

Who creates the art we choose to watch? Xu Bing says he copies the children’s trees very carefully. We would be asked to pay much more for the work of the famous artist than for the work of the seven year old children, though.

I am delighted to see English script and English words on the children’s paintings. Xu Bing truly brings East and West together into a new global conceptual world of creativity. He plays with us. He also laughs at us, benignly.

Nick Owen
I find good poetry                                                              GOOD POETRY
The Xu Bing exhibition                                               

Good characters
Never make plagiarism
In Chinese art

Of a master stroke
Imprints the soul

Can a westerner
Find lines of poetry
In the branches of a tree

Matrika Shakti
The word made flesh
Becomes a poem on the page

Art goes global
Text blends into landscape
Culture transcends image-in-nation

 © Nick Owen   2013-03-15

Some further comment on the exhibition taken from other reviewers

"As a Chinese artist, Xu Bing has focused particularly on the pictorial quality of the Chinese language which, he maintains, lies at the core of Chinese culture. His Landscript series uses Chinese characters for landscape features to compose landscape paintings which have the appearance of traditional Chinese landscapes, as developed since the Song dynasty (960–1279). In this way, characters for ‘stone’ make up an image of rocks; the character for ‘tree’ makes up trees; and ‘grass’ for grass and so on. Xu Bing has produced four new pieces for this exhibition which develop further his technique of using characters as brushwork. from "Artlyst""

The posters were shrill and angry, denouncing people by name, and accusing the targets of being "capitalist roaders." Xu's father, like many other intellectuals, saw his own name appear. "At that time, you really felt the power of words," Xu says. "If you wanted to kill somebody, you did it not by gun but by brush."

In a cruel twist of fate, Xu, because of his excellent writing skills, was chosen by his school to create propaganda posters similar to the ones that condemned his father. It was an experience that gave the student a sense of the darker aspsect of writing and words. His eye for balance and structure in composing Chinese calligraphy was now put into the service of something dangerous and alienating. This was a theme that would resonate clearly in his later works, including Book From the Sky, a work that's disturbing, says Perry Link, because Xu "suggests that austere writing might be a fraud, [subverting] value as much as fact."

For an artist whose tumultuous past could have easily been embittering, Xu regards his history--China's history--as something that has allowed him to forge a new path, separate from the East and the West. Leon Wender, owner of the China 2000 Fine Art gallery, has sold Xu's work in recent years; he says, "Xu doesn't need to do a twist on somebody else's work. He figured out something all by himself. He's on his own. And nobody can copy him." And Xu reflects by saying: "When I was living in the countryside, [my contemporaries from Hong Kong and Taiwan] were at Yale, or in London, in some art school, listening to a contemporary art lecture. But the problem is they just treat art in too formal a way. I treat it in a wild way, not in a fixed way. This is good--you can bring something special, something new into contemporary art. If you can find a correct way to face your background, your tradition, maybe you can change that background in a good way." Xu has not only changed the background, he has given the future a new voice and a new language.

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