Updated: Jan 25, 2020
Chinese characters have widely been used as a medium to express the specific cultural identity of many international contemporary Chinese artists. The potential of characters and words have been broadly explored through different paths. This medium, however, in many cases can be a problematic element, indicating stereotypes and a postcolonial dilemma, which requires critical reflection on its application.
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This article investigates the application of Chinese characters by international artists with Chinese identity, such as Xu Bing. Through the research different attitudes toward cultural negotiations can be seen in a diverse range of practices. This understanding will ultimately equip the making process of my work for the 2018 Bundian Way Environmental Studio at Australian National University that is informed by Australian land, Indigenous culture and Chinese identity.
This research focuses on Xu Bing’s work The Living Word (2001) (fig.1) and investigates it as a starting point, by which my own making is informed. It is an installation transformed from 2D draft on paper (fig.2) to a 3D installation in space, consisted of a series of Chinese character “bird” (niao 鸟) “flying away”. It starts with the simplified form of the character created under Mao’s policy in mainland China, alongside with its dictionary explanation. Then, it gradually “devolves”, while flying up (fig.1), into the standardised form, the traditional form and finally “disappears” in the ancient form. The rainbow colour speaks about the illusion of unreal dream as well as a hope of bright future, which makes a subtle political comment on language development and its political nature.
The work of "birds" makes reference to Xu’s earlier development called Landscape Landscript (1999) (fig.3), once shown in 2013 in Oxford. In this series, he was attempting to read the landscape through pictorial Chinese characters so the landscape became a transcript. In turn, the words formed a landscape, an image, instead of a passage comprehensible as the defined language.
This “landscript” was also constructed into an installation later in 2001 (fig.4). Both works, the bird and the landscape, employ the principles of print making, a theme Xu investigated during his master in the printmaking department of Central Academy of Fine Art: restricted mark making and plurality (repeated marks or repeated action of marking through time). In these works, the characters became the pattern that was marked on paper and in space, and the same character was repeated each time with a purposeful or accidental twist. Obviously, for this whole period, Xu had been exploring language by breaking its linguistic boundary.
The Living Word (2001) (fig.1) exemplifies the exploration of liminal language through contemporary art, indicating a dilemma in transcultural communication. Liminal language, or the liminology of language, means breaking through the confines of conventional or linguistic language to go beyond the threshold and open up the spaces of meaning. The “bird”, for example, intended to break free from the very limits of “language” to become a “pattern” or “image”. By doing this, the “bird” became something that is comprehensible for a broader audience, potentially everyone, because it is no longer a linguistic signifier. It is a pattern that can be visually analysed by audience from any language group, which transcended the limitation of inter-cultural\multicultural\transcultural translation. Therefore, it becomes an experiment for transcultural communication.
However, this experiment is problematic because there is a dilemma which is commonly faced by most international Chinese artists using “traditional” medium. As artist Gu Wenda said:
“This is difficult for non-Chinese audiences unfamiliar with Chinese culture to understand. They think we are using traditional Chinese elements when we are not. At the same time, conservative Chinese intellectuals criticise us for revisionism. This is a dilemma we face because of the isolation and the ensuing level of incomprehension between different cultures.”
Gu himself had made a work using language element called Temple of heaven (1998) where he collected the hair from the floor sweepings of barber shops all over the world to make the walls and ceiling with unreadable scripts.
The liminal purpose to eliminate cultural boundaries is present, and not less problematic than Xu’s work. In all these cases, while the characters turned into patterns and became visually accessible for other non-Chinese cultural identities, the character itself became something like a “culture camouflage” – a pattern that wore the appearance of Chinese but was in fact de-contextualised. The dilemma is apparent. If international contemporary Chinese artists do not use Chinese elements, then their works can easily lose identity and even became a “Western” work. However, if they do use Chinese elements, they will have to make it comprehensible for international audience, meaning that a liminal, transcultural practice is essential – the Chinese element then become something meaningless that is neither Chinese nor non-Chinese. This phenomenon, by no means a mere coincidence, is a metaphor of the identity confusion of migrants such as me: in Australia, I would be considered Chinese; and in China, Australian(ised).
To explore the idea of liminal language and the incomprehensible reality in transcultural communication, I made the Book of “Person” (ren 人), “Land” (tu 土), “Tree” (mu 木) (fig.5), de-contextualising the characters into marks in landscape that are made by not just human but also nature, taking the meaning away. In the final installation, two “books” made of sand and bookcase-like containers will be made. The book of “person” is with sand from Severs Beach and water, so when participants write on it the “person” disappears with the action being finished. The book of “land”, is with dry sand from Davison Whaling Station, so when people mark it as “land”, the new marks will destroy the old ones. Both metaphors were inspired by the journey through Bundian Way and the stories, cultures, histories and people that are connected to it. Therefore, I will have a poem about the eternal love and ephemeral encounter between tide and the coast as a metaphor of the relationship between cultures, between the past and the future, between human and nature. All sand, referencing to the indigenous land, will be returned to sites.
This liminology attempt to equip transcultural communication, is further, about postcolonialism. By de-contextualising the Chinese character, Xu and Gu can be seen as refusing to act the role of the “other”. However, I would argue that this is not their intention because Xu has manifested many times in speeches and writings the different philosophy of the East and the West and how the eastern mind and Chinese traditions are the basis of his art. Thus, at least Xu was not positively responding to postcolonialism.
However, to make their art of Chinese elements comprehensible for audiences from other cultures does not mean that they are manipulating their own culture for the pleasure of any imagined western audience either. Although, the reorganization of cultural signs is an old tactic, it can only be seen as a cultural and economic colonization when the action is by the coloniser, and is thus not our concern here. In fact, the responses and reality of dilemmas are an honest and unintended reflection of a postcolonial contemporary society where all the discourses (e.g. defined disciplines of science, maths, art, philosophy, etc.), systems (political, economic, ownership, etc.) and structures (state institutions, corporations, etc.) developed since modernity are of European-centric nature (meaning these ideologies did not exist in the non-dominating cultures before modernity), including the art market and art exhibiting mechanism.
On the other hand, Song Dong did Printing on water (1996), a performance stamping the water with a seal inscribed with the Chinese character “water” (shui 水) in the Lhasa River in Tibet. The futility that you cannot just stamp a word on water to define it and the ephemeral water defines and runs by itself, is a comment on P.R.China’s colonisation over Tibet – a reminder that colonisation was also done by dominating cultures other than the West and modernity period.
In conclusion, this research investigated the idea of liminal language in transcultural communication and its incomprehensible reality, mainly through the work of Xu Bing. Then, the transcultural dilemma and postcolonial issues were also critically analysed. The research can inform and justify my experiments and making process of this certain work, as well as my future art practices with a transcultural identity.
April, 2018 in Canberra
(This article was submitted as an assessment piece for 2018 Environment Studio Balawan Elective, a course run by Amanda Stuart and Amelia Zaraftis (Sculpture), SoAD, ANU. All Rights Reserved.)
All the images are from original sites of the galleries or organisations mentioned. Please contact the author for any copyright issue.
 April Liu, “The Living Word,” in Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections, ed. Hsingyuan Tsao and Roger T Ames (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.), 128.
 “Xu Bing: The Living Word,” The Morgan Library & Museum, 2011. https://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/xu-bing (accessed 5 May, 2018).
 Bing Xu, “对复数性绘画的新探索与再认识 (An Essay on the new exploration and recognition of Plurality in Painting),” 1987, http://www.artlinkart.com/cn/artist/txt_ab/761erC/84eiAzl (accessed 5 May, 2018).
 Liu, 120. Also see Wang Youru, Linguistic Strategies in Daoist Zhuangzi and Chan Buddhism: The Other Way of Speaking (London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003), 175–186. 9.
 Ibid, p128.
 Ibid, p118-119.
 “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” NGA. https://nga.gov.au/insideout/index.cfm (accessed 5 May, 2018).
 Liu, 143.
 Bing Xu, 我的真文字(My Real Words and Characters) (Beijing: Citic Press, 2015). Also see 雅昌讲堂（1）：我所接触最早的艺术观念（Artron Lecture Series (1)：My Earliest Art Concepts）(Beijing: Artron, 2015), http://video.artron.net/20150927/n780982.html# (accessed 5 May).
 Liu, 135.
 “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” NGA. https://nga.gov.au/insideout/index.cfm (accessed 5 May, 2018).