Xu Bing: The Future of Art and New Media

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.

Butterfly Dreams at Contemporary Museum 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?

3 Replies to “Xu Bing: The Future of Art and New Media”

  1. Ooh! I know the answer to this one! Or at least can provide a semi-coherent linguistic perspective. In linguistics symbols, as you would expect, are easily recognizable iconic representations. Signs are abstract and don’t have any relationship to what they represent beyond the relationship people agree on.
    Sign languages are in some ways more iconic than spoken languages (everyone understand the ASL words for 1 through 5), but research has shown that children learning sign language are unaware of any iconicity and instead learn signs (as in ASL) as abstract representations rather than symbolic ones. For a universal language of symbols to truly become a language I think the symbols would have to become signs (as in the linguistic definition) because that’s how the human brain uses language.
    I do think it’s possible that a more universal language of symbols could develop, and I think that’s potentially useful, but I doubt it would ever become a primary form of communication such that it needed to express things that are too complicated or too culturally specific.

  2. So what you’re saying is that there’s a huge difference between a pictograph of a man and everyone acknowledging that a round thing with a 4-limbed thing means “man.” Yes? No? This is all really interesting to me.

  3. Sorry, I didn’t realize you’d responded. But basically yes, although it’s also important that people stop seeing the round thing with a 4-limbed thing as a pictograph, and instead just consider it an arbitrary symbol that means man.

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