This was the exhibition that I saw in Hong Kong in October 2014, referenced in my parallel project.
The title “Metamorphosis” referenced the process of silk worms spinning cocoons to make silk, and the constructive/destructive process was enacted in an installation of a mulberry tree populated with silkworms that evolved in the course of the exhibition, Meanwhile, at the end of the exhibition, there was another destructive/constructive exhibit that had the silkworms enclosed with a book which they proceeded to eat to fuel their metamorphosis, while at the same time leaving the characters on the pages to deform into moving “type”.
The exhibition explored meaning making through signs. Signs included Chinese characters, deconstructed and unevolved into their primitive imitative state, as representations of phenomena. The video on the evolution of the character for “one”, “The Character of Characters”, related history and culture, and the development of landscape, to the evolving meanings of the term “one” including clever animations that satirised mass production, and copyright piracy, as comments on contemporary China.
Xu’s on the tobacco industry was included- this has personal resonance due to his father’s death from lung cancer- a book made from pungent tobacco leaves, reconstructions of Chinese brands of cigarettes, and an installation of prints based on tobacco packaging stencils with their slogans turned into a poem/song made this section a multi-sensory experience.
Book from the Ground is a recent project that is a counterpoint to Book from the Sky- in this exhibition, Xu’s studio was recreated to give insight into the process of developing a new language of visual signs, based on the language of airports and streets, of new media such as emojis, as an exploration of modern iconography. Visual signs differ from oral ones in interesting ways, and work to the extent that we share global cultural capital. (This piece is not as profound as Book from the Sky though, and is in fact a bit gimmicky, I feel.. )
Xu is strong when dealing with the interplay of Chinese culture, text and meaning, which was evident in a work using the traditions of Chinese art- highly stylised and rule-bound- in a subversive recreation. As in Book from the Sky, with its appropriation of the ancient techniques of printing and bookmaking, Xu has had to learn the rules of this type of art and display his mastery of the tradition in order to subvert it and free it up to be an expressive form.
In the atrium were examples of Xu’s famous square word calligraphy, hanging as scroll paintings, and also cleverly worked into the design of wire birdcages which contained mechanical birds that responded to external sounds such as a hand clap. Square word calligraphy is Xu’s form of writing which has the appearance of being Chinese but has no meaning in that language, instead being a subversion of Roman script. People look at it and find no meaning, until at last they break the code, at which point they are swept along by cultural familiarity, as the texts are usually nursery rhymes, as if they suddenly find a childs voice from the past breaking out from the patterns, in what might be a rediscovery of learning to read for the first time. The birds cages, familiar cultural icons here, also respond to the audience’s interaction. The use of cultural appropriation here to play with ideas of language and voicelessness, and the idea of speaking only when bidden, while being caged, had obvious political connotations.
This exhibition was on a small scale but focussed a lot on materials, their associations, and processes of change and transformation, while text and culture were challenged, and Xu’s fascination with how language operates in the struggle to make meaning was clearly evident. For me, the most satisfying pieces were the video and the silkworms/mulberry tree/Book, which embodied a process of dematerialisation, and recreation, in a cyclical pattern that spoke of the continuous flow of life, death and rebirth transformed. The silkworms literally ate the text of the book as part of the process, but created unreadable moving signs as they went about their silent work of recreation.