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Artist brushes up on his character

Updated: 2024-03-23 10:15 ( China Daily )
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The installation of Square Word Calligraphy Classroom, where visitors can sit down and try their hands at the art of Chinese calligraphy with English words at the Asia Society Texas Center. [Photo by MAY ZHOU/CHINA DAILY]

Besides the long history of Chinese characters, Xu says the popular "big character posters" during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) had a profound impact on Chinese contemporary art, including his own.

Xu also had the unique opportunity to browse rows and rows of books growing up because his mother was working in the library of Peking University.

"There were all sorts of books about the history of printing, typeface design, special editions and such. Although I was too young to read the words, I became familiar with the appearance of the books and characters."

That experience planted something in Xu's consciousness. "The form and function of words and books can be two separate parts. The function of words is a tool used widely and secularly. Anyone can use words to say the best of things or the worst of things. To me, the appearance of words carries more cultural significance."

Xu says his first major work, The Book from Sky, removes the Chinese characters' worldly function and retains its pure visual appearance. "In a way, Chinese calligraphy is about dressing up the Chinese character to its most beautiful appearance. Most of my work utilizes the appearance of words," Xu says.

In The Book from Sky, Xu created 4,000 words consisting of elements of real Chinese characters that don't exist. The characters were then carved into wood, printed onto monumental sheets and into a book format that resembles the style of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

First displayed in 1987 in Beijing, this work earned Xu international recognition and remains one of his most iconic artworks.

Xu later created another work, The Book from the Ground, which recounts a day in the life of an office worker by using symbols, icons, and logos of modern life without a single word. He thinks that symbols, such as emojis, can express some thoughts and emotions that our formal languages are unable to express.

"Contrary to The Book from Sky that nobody understands, The Book from the Ground is universal and can be understood by anyone in the world."

"Landscript" is another major category of Xu's work that is on display, in which Xu paints landscapes with words or sentences in calligraphic form. "In the tradition of the Chinese literati, poetry, calligraphy and painting are integrated as one. My work takes this concept a step further," Xu says.

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