NORTH ADAMS -- Following the success of Xu Bing's "Phoenix" at MASS MoCA, a second chapter of the exhibition, featuring the artist's investigation of language, will open April 27 in the museum's Building 5A. Xu also will speak at the museum on April 26 about his work over the last 20 years, including the controversial Phoenix Project, which landed at MASS MoCA last December.
The centerpiece of the new installation is "Book from the Ground", a growing archive of the familiar signs and symbols one might encounter in an airline safety manual. Using only these icons and symbols, the artist has written book about a day in the life a Mr. Black, titled, "Point to Point.
The emergence of a universal language of icons in recent years reflects a rapidly globalizing and interconnected world, where new forms of communication have emerged.
"It's a very lovely, utopian idea," said Susan Cross, curator of visual arts at MASS MoCA "- but one which seems increasingly plausible. It is the answer to the story of the Tower of Babel, where everyone speaks in different dialects and can't communicate."
In much of his work, Xu seeks to bridge elements of Chinese and western cultures, often through language. When the museum started planning for "Phoenix", it wanted to find a way to reflect Xu's interest in language as a vehicle for artistic expression.
Xu's 1988 installation "Book from the Sky" featured scrolls, panels and books filled with elegant but meaningless printed characters. It was a satire on the authority of language in Chinese culture, and caused a stir in Beijing, where it was displayed. Due largely to the backlash he received from conservative Chinese critics, and seeking greater artistic freedom, Xu accepted an invitation for a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1990.
"Book from the Sky" was intentionally "illegible and in a way barred everyone from understanding," said Cross. "And ‘Book from the Ground' is almost its mirror opposite - proposing a language that everyone can understand, regardless of education. If you're just immersed in contemporary life, you can read it."
Cross said the new installation "recreates the [artist's] studio space, so there are work tables and computers and office supplies and books and tacked-up images of all these kind of symbols that he's been collecting from across the world.
The exhibit will feature several other examples of Xu's language-based work: selections from the "Square Word Calligraphy" series which he began in 1997, and which fuse together Chinese characters and English words; and a five-channel animated film, "The Character of Characters," which presents a history of Chinese characters and their influence on Chinese thought and culture.
In regard to "Book from the Ground," Xu's recognition of the potential for using everyday icons to tell a story came through a chance encounter in 2003. He had been collecting various informational images, like the simple human figures on crosswalk signs, since 1999. Then he noticed something different: a series of these icons on a pack of gum.
That revelation, he writes in the introduction to 2007 exhibition at MoMA, began a more concentrated effort on his part "to collect and organize logos, icons, and insignia from across the globe, and I also began to research the symbols of expression employed by the specialized fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics, drafting, musical composition, choreography, and corporate branding, among others."
By utilizing modern technology, Xu is able to expand the relevance and cultural implications of his work. The exhibit at MASS MoCA will allow visitors to use a computer program to translate entire sentences (in English or Chinese) into the language of icons.
A computer-oriented culture, Xu writes, has "further exposed the limitations of inter-language conversation. As a result, the language of icons, the Internet, and online gaming, consisting primarily of pictographs and images, has already emerged in great volume. This vocabulary is developing at lighting-quick speed, of its own accord, and is not bound by the geographical concepts of the past."
"Book from the Ground" is about globalization, Cross said, "but also about China because, again, he is embracing this wonderful tradition of writing, and thinking about how the Chinese character is a model for this more inclusive way of reading language - as picture." Because different Chinese dialects share the same characters, Chinese speakers around the world enjoy their own version of a universal language.
In an interview with the writer and lecturer Andrew Solomon, Xu explained that "Book from the Ground" is a project with no clear beginning or end.
"I'm interested in works without boundaries," he said. "If you only want to make a contribution within the field of art, you're not going to get very far, as there's really nothing new that you can offer. You need to create something that does some good for society, for humanity. If you can accomplish that, you will take pleasure in it, and the art ill gain force from the process."
Xu Bing's talk on April 26 is sponsored by the Williams College Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures and the Department of Asian Studies. The talk and reception are $8 general admission, free for Williams students, faculty and staff and for MASS MoCA members.