“Chinese artist Xu Bing has ideas about how people communicate. Different people in different countries should speak one language. Xu Bing wrote a new language. It uses pictures not words. It looks like Egyptian script meets Madison Avenue.”
That’s the English translation of the script pictured above, the output of Xu’s software that translates words into icons meant to be instantly recognizable to anyone.
Art critic Leslie von Holten writes “Xu, the son of a librarian, had an intimate relationship with words while growing up, a privilege not common during China’s Cultural Revolution. At the time, Mao’s government was wrestling with words: characters were simplified, discarded, revived, revised, then discarded again. People were not allowed to read what they wanted. This cultural affront, Xu has noted, combined with his voracious appetite for reading led to confusion over the meaning of language.” “Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life,” writes Xu in his notes for accompanying show in Shanghai.
Xu, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant,’ has just published a book without a single word. Point to Point is an iconographic tale of eating, travel, romance and television channel surfing involving a yuppie known as Mr. Black.
“Still, anyone savvy enough to use the Internet is likely to breeze through his writing like a native speaker of the language, which doesn’t have an official name,” reports James T. Areddy in the WSJ.
Despite Xu’s promise, I have not had much luck in figuring out what he is writing. And I believe I am thoroughly entangled in modern life, at least since I sold the butter churn on eBay. But I can’t make hear or tail of Xu’s story. And I tried —actually puzzled through the first few lines, and I was able to match each ideographs to some of the text, but no way could I make it out on its own without some serious study.
What these characters really symbolize is the central problem with languages invented by your average genius. Which is that the rest of us have no idea what you’re talking about.
So, no ideo-grams please. I need idiot-grams. Made-up languages are a waste of time, like learning Latin.
“Icon as Language” has been a theme for Xu throughout his career.
This page provides an overlay of text translations for icon’s for a related project, Book from the Ground Up. Again, the icons make sense once you see the accompanying text.
My favorite part of the book, and the most iconic and understandable images contained are not those designed by the artist, but the Chinese underlined with an English translation that aid navigation on the site. Eventually every sign on the planet will read that way, either with digital augmentation or in actual print.
Language is a numbers game, a shared experience, best shared with as many people as possible. These one-man language shows. Already the infrastructure of bilingual Chinese and English messages shrinks Xu’s installed base to nothing. Which I suppose isn’t really the issue. It’s the concept, stupid, I have to keep telling myself.