Last night I caught Xu Bing’s talk at Lesley University/The future site of the Art Institute of Boston.
Xu Bing is a Chinese artist, probably best known in the states for his unusual use of imagined calligraphy – either characters that have no meaning, or English letters morphed into psuedo-Chinese script.
Image from aur2899′s PhotostreamLast night, among other things, he showed a few images from his Book from the Ground project. The Book from the Ground is an attempt to use iconography to tell stories. You can read excerpts online. He talked a little about the goal of creating a book that everyone involved in modern life can read – inspired by the airport signage he saw around the world. His team is even creating software so that we can all talk to each other in icons.
This one project made me think a lot about film and the success of symbolism. If you see an old man and a young man on screen, looking at each other from afar, then running towards each other and embracing – you don’t need to know that they are a separated father and son. In fact, any other explanation would be downright subversive. Modern culture has flattened the symbolic landscape to the point where we all know the sign for “man” “alarm clock” and “airplane.” We don’t need a dictionary. Xu Bing talked about the decision that Coca-Cola made to stop printing its labels in other languages. “Coca-Cola” is now a symbol around the world, more than it is an actual word. He didn’t even mention IKEA, which uses a language of symbols and signs to give a universal set of instructions with every piece of furniture.
Much as I could type all day about symbolism, culture and iconography. . . I’d rather pose a real-world question: Are we genuinely moving toward a universal language of symbols, or are some sentiments too complicated, too culturally specific, to ever become universalized? If we are moving toward more universal forms of communication, is that always a good thing?