Square Word Calligraphy Sign: Men · Nursery · Women

Xu Bing


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silk screen print
3 pieces, each 150 x 100 cm
Xu’s fascination with language was enhanced by his life in New York in the 1990s. He worked for years on an ambitious project to create a new writing system, a hybrid Chinese/English script called ‘New English Calligraphy’ or ‘Square Word Calligraphy’, restructuring the Latin alphabet to simulate the radicals by which a Chinese character is indexed and interpreted. Xu has said, ‘In ancient China the character shu referred to three things: books, written characters, and the act of writing. My works are mostly concerned with these.’ Art historian Wu Hung describes this aspect of his work: ‘…to Xu Bing, a book does not have to be made of paper and bound in a particular fashion, but can be anything that bears linguistic signs.’ In Xu’s New English Calligraphy, local and global are one. English letters are given a Chinese character form, so that English words are re-assembled into the square-grid format of a Chinese calligraphy workbook – an intercultural fusion. Xu created all the tools required for people to learn this new ‘language’, including copy books, computer programs, even entire classrooms where non-Chinese audience members discover that what initially appears to be unintelligible becomes, on closer inspection, the text of a familiar nursery rhyme. Playfully subverting audience expectations, Xu Bing challenges us to think anew about what we take for granted, including how language structures the human brain. Here he has fused three writing systems: Chinese, English, and the system of signs by which we move through a globalised world, in a new, computer-generated hybrid text. The silk-screen printed triptych, Square Word Calligraphy Sign: Men · Nursery · Women (2003), uses the familiar pictograms found in public restrooms worldwide, and with a little effort deciphering the ideograms beneath them, we can read ‘Men’, ‘Women’ and ‘Nursery’
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