The idea of a “photogram” is back to basics, and perhaps an appropriate response to the “post-truth” era of digital manipulation of images. With a photogram, you get a life size version of the imprint an object makes on photographic paper. I hunted down some black and white paper, and chemicals to have a go at fixing them – I don’t know enough about the technicalities though and ended up overexposing all that I made, and so ending up with “dark” photos, which are nevertheless quite interesting.
I didn’t take photos during the exposure-well, you can’t when it’s light sensitive- so just have a couple of snaps of temporary images:
It’s something that would take a lot more time and study than I have at the moment, and I think I’d need to attend a workshop in alternative photography to find out more.
Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden. My words echo Thus, in your mind.
Burnt Norton ll. 11-15
The rose garden in Burnt Norton, in the poem “The Four Quartets” is at the same time an illusion, a mirage, and a transcendental vision. Eliot’s Rose garden is multi layered- a construct in which author and reader are participants- even the roses are conscious. In the poem, much is expressed in the negative. There is repetition, and circularity.
An actual rose garden, real, phenomenological, is a temporal thing. The constructed, philosophical “rose garden” is a linguistic entity that conjures up a visual image. It comes with a lot of cultural baggage, such as Shakespeare’s- “a rose by any other name”, and achieves poetic immortality, like a Grecian urn. Is it immortal? Language changes: if another culture constructs a rose as a dungheap, its effect will be lost on that audience, and can only be reconstructed through study of the culture in which it was made. Yet, a rose is a powerful symbol in my culture- from its associations with Christianity (the virgin Mary), the Rose windows in churches, its amorous and sexual associations, its exotic scent Attar of Roses, its Eastern origins in China Tea roses, its analogies in poetry (oh rose, thou art sick… William Blake), its strength and thorny fortifications, its resilience against frost, yet its ultimate transience.
Can we say that a rose IS all these things? Yes, if a glass of water is an oak tree. “Until such time as it isn’t”? The relationship between the object and its associations is not arbitrary, but a complex network of analogical thinking, emotion, sensory perception, and memory. And for some, faith- that which makes the glass of wine the body of Christ.
This project, a “print from memory”, starts with a rose.
It is a rose I planted as a memorial.
The rose started to get sick, and as it has been tended, and as time has passed, it has seemed as if it has become the thing being memorialised: the two have fused, and the dead is in some sense still living. This is a personal experience, but can perhaps become my “objective correlative” for more philosophical thoughts and images that resonate as more than direct representations.
Experience- sketching. Sketching the rose from different angles at different stages revealed how it was constructed on a set of geometric principles but expressed itself in rounded, organic forms. It was both sharp and jutting, and curled and infolded. It suggested a linear construction, with branching structures, and flowing contours. Its bright yellow flowers also suggested pure colour and form.
There was movement, as the summer heat and sun was causing it to blossom and change almost visibly, turning itself out in a spiralling motion that recalled the recurring motif of the dance in Eliot’s poem. The dance in the poem becomes a motif of experience and creation, a microcosm of the turning world, which creates a still point. Spinning triangles. Whirling dervishes that achieve stillness.
The purpose of this piece, this set of prints, is to meditate on life and death, on aging, on meaning of words and symbols. To create a cycle of images that connect and narrate. To match technique/ process with ideas. To communicate a process of thought: a meditation on a rose.
This part references Eliot’s poem “The Four Quartets”, part 1, “Burnt Norton”, which begins with a description of the Rose Garden, where a transcendental moment out of time is experienced.
Into the Garden
Copper plate etching, with chine colle.
The first image is of lines and indistinct form. The roses are emerging from among the lines: I see this as a metaphor for human experience and meaning-making, in which observation makes patterns emerge. Thorns or roses may dominate. Lines are suggesting, or obliterating, not revealing. Shape, colour, form, reveal themselves to the beholder. There is a relationship between expectation and the perceived image. Is the rose given or interpreted?
The design of this plate came almost directly from the sketches I did of a withered rose bush and its grey thorny stems. Sketching is a visible process of making meaning. Shapes and patterns emerge. The stems intertwined and created a dense and confused mass, hard to articulate, and through which it was difficult to perceive a clear sense of direction. This seemed to fit the opening idea of messy experience and gradual focus and illumination. The yellow of the chine colle paper, a soft organic tissue, contrasts with the grey thorns, soft and hard, blurry and sharp, background emerging into the foreground in a soft glow.
What I mean to say here is that the process of sketching and the use of line and form is akin to thinking and perceiving meaning.
Technically, this one could have been done using drypoint, and I’m not sure that the use of copper plate was justified, as I didn’t quite get the difference in line quality and density I was after- something resembling pencil lines. The inking was done using graphite and black to try to create a sketched effect.
Technique: woodcut, watercolour ink, chine colle
This print is made using the mokuhanga technique I learned, using watercolour and glue to make a paste for hand burnishing. The print is made on Japanese handmade paper, pasted onto the page. (And there are a couple of air bubbles which have formed)
This image is primitive, roughly cut in child-like writing, mimicking the cry of a bird with the words “quick, quick”. It is meant to evoke childhood, innocence, trust and acceptance. From a narrative point of view, it represents an invitation into the rose garden.
Woodcut has an association with simplicity and honesty through its links to folk art. I’m just hoping that the shift in style from the first image is acceptable- I’m not sure if this jumpiness works. It works in Eliot’s poetry, which is a kind of collage of references, styles and quotes- creating the effect of a patchwork of experiences which nevertheless illuminate a single idea.
I was aiming to avoid the use of actual text, but through the shapes and style, and the use of language to mimic sound, I think this is a text-object: it represents a literal calling.
Technique: collograph on perspex, inked a la poupee
This image was made with gel, string and fibres, and an actual dragonfly wing. It is meant to evoke movement and life, stirrings- flight, lightness and airiness of plant and insect life. It may be reminiscent of Kandinsky’s abstracts, with their rhythmic lines and movements. Knotted string suggests seeds and growth. As a part of the narrative it is the stage of youth and fertility. But there are suggestions of dried seed husks too, and, as in a vanitas still life, the intimation of mortality. Dragonflies are short-lived, and herald a change in weather.
Stylistically, colour and line have now harmonised better than in the first image, and the colour is a background to the lines, so that in visual terms there is an evolution. There is a sense of here and now, of quickness and life.
4. The roses had the look of flowers that are looked at
Technique: drypoint and collograph on perspex
This is a fairly naturalistic sketch, using drypoint, of the rose bush. The image was then made into a collograph using gel and folded tissue paper, then drypoint etched again, to achieve the effect of a sketch with shading. The line “the roses had the look of flowers that are looked at” comes from The Four Quartets, Burnt Norton, and describes the scene in the rose garden, when the actual flowers glimpsed, before they become the “objective correlative” of a transcendent experience. It is a version of my observational drawing, and it describes what I thought I saw.
How has the print changed the image? The use of etched lines preserves the idea of drawing, while the addition of plate tone creates shadows. The use of a drypoint needle in a gestural manner after the contours of the collograph were in place dictated the movements of the lines so that they harmonised with the shapes. As a result, the scratched lines suggest movement, and the shapes start to take on a look of flames, with plate tone smudges suggesting smoke and ash, introducing the motif of fire, foreshadowing the resolution.
In the narrative sense then, this image moves forward from the last one by focusing in on the roses, giving them the look of flowers that are looked at, but also referencing their ending.
5. A Sign
Technique: combination, drypoint on perspex and linocut
This image is a drawing of a rose as a single line, cut into a Perspex plate using a Dremel tool. This is the black line part of the image. Somehow drawing in a continuous line made this a different image, more of an idea than the representation of the previous image, a unified concept, fluid. The words of the text “Oh son of God” references the religious symbolism of the rose, one thing becoming another. Likewise the text, oh son of God, references Magritte, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, using the same handwriting. It points to a lack of connection between image and text, and thus is purely a “sign”.
The lino cut, the red coloured background with cut white line, is a technically simple version of lino cutting. It is used here because it posits a cut line, a negative, as the delineation of the object, and so plays with the idea of the subtractive and the additive in image-making.
Together, the drypoint and the linocut become a combination of positive and negative, yet both are approximations: neither is an exact “fit”. The juxtaposition invites questions as to how they are related. (I was thinking of some of Ian Hamilton Findlay’s works involving image and text, where the text and the image seem to be disconnected, thus inviting the view to make a connection.) In my own mind, I am thinking about the slippages between language and visual representations which I have been discussing at some length in my essay on Xu Bing, the idea that when you understand the meaning you forget the words, that meaning resides somewhere in the interstices of thought.
Eliot’s lines “Words strain/Crack and sometimes break under the burden,/under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/ decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/ Will not stay still.” (The Four Quartets Burnt Norton V ll. 13-17) are illustrative of his theme of the inadequacy of language to communicate thought.
From the narrative point of view, this print looks at the slippage between language and image, at the abstract nature of “the sign”, something that is invested with meaning in our society and culture in an arbitrary manner.
Technically, the lino printing is rather flawed, as there are marks of where the paper is pulled from the plate. To be honest I had never used a press for printing with lino before and possibly exerted too much pressure. Perhaps hand-burnishing would have worked better, but I’ve had poor results with solid blocks of colour.
Technique: drypoint on perspex, chine colle
“Words, after speech, reach/Into the silence” Burnt Norton V ll. 3-4
With words failing to capture “truth”, how is a sense of the numinous to be expressed? Eliot’s way of evoking the numinous, the transendent moment is, in the garden when, “..the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,/ The surface glittered out of heart of light,”
I wanted to re-present the rose in a way that made it silent, pure abstraction.
Therefore, this is an image of a church “Rose Window”: it represents the rose as pure geometry. It is exact, a representation of the idea of perfection, an analytical construct, referencing spirituality, and secret knowledge. It has lost all connection to a linguistic code. It is silent.
Here, the idea of “pure abstraction”, the pure language of the visual, as defined by early abstract artists such as Mondrian, is referenced in clean lines and measured shapes. The motif of the triangle is visible again, but now as a geometric statement, rather than the rough approximation of the first image “Into the garden” where the triangular shapes were sketches of observed reality, thorns on branches. Experience has become concept.
Technically, this image had to be clean- the lines drawn as accurately as possible, and the plate polished to a high degree. The Japanese paper was used because it was good for reproducing delicate lines.
In the narrative, then, this is the end of part 1, “Air”. This first section is named “Air” because of its movement from concrete to abstract, from the organic to the geometric, from the signified to the sign, to the symbol. The visual images portray a thought process.
This section relates to the second part of Eliot’s poem, “East Coker”. This part of the poem focuses on the physical reality of life, nature, of the passage of seasons, decay and death. The images too are more literal, representational, concrete.
This image started as a naturalistic sketch of the rose I planted, when it was diseased. I then abstracted the drooping petals into a more sculptural shape, and recreated the image using collaged text, somewhat in the style of a cubist painting, such as early collage works by Picasso or Braque.
Georges Braque Aria de Bach, 1913 Collage (black paper, imitation wood-grain paper) w/ charcoal and white chalk on paper
The text comes from Part 2 of The Four Quartets, and describes the process of aging, the sense of futility and powerlessness of the generation “between two wars”.
Here is the text:
East Coker, V ll. 1-18
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
The extracts I chose refer to inarticulacy, to indiscipline, and to “shabby equipment” which is “deteriorating”. The collaged text was handwritten and typed, printed on transparency and etched on the plate using photopolymer film, followed by etching in ferric chloride. Some of it is open bitten, but that seems to fit. The grey layers were etched in stages, using stop out. An etching needle was used to create drawn lines. This is a quite complex, and quite messy, image. I was trying to achieve different depths, with the written texts at an angle, overlapping as if on a desk. Technically this was not entirely successful. I didn’t achieve the levels of grey that I had hope for, and need a lot more practice on the timing of the ferric chloride immersion, and must pay more attention to the difference in timings between my chemical mixtures in Hong Kong and in France. I had planned this to be a much clearer layering of blacks/ greys.
The shapes and layout evoke a map of the middle east, specifically the Gulf area, and so add significance to the reference to the poet being “entre deux guerres”. In the centre, there is a black spider-like shape, from which all emanates. It is both doom and the possibility of regeneration.
2. Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Technique: Photopolymer intaglio on perspex
Ash on an old man’s sleeve
This image was made by drawing onto a transparency and exposing it on photopolymer film that had been laminated onto perspex, then cracking and splitting the film to make a distressed image. Plate tone is left to give an impression of age.
I’m not sure which one I prefer so have both here. The title “ash on an old man’s sleeve” is part of a line:
“Ash on an old man’s sleeve/Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.”
which I chose to reflect the subject matter and style, evoking decay, death and dealing with remains. It references the roses of the image in Part 1, so is here for narrative coherence. Stylistically of course, it is similar to the series I did earlier “Greying”, which used the brittleness of perspex and exposed photopolymer film to evoke fragility and decomposition.
Technique: Collograph and etching on perspex
This image was made using torn cloth and string, as well as gel materials, on a perspex plate. It was done experimentally- I have not had too much practice at collographs, so this whole set was really an experiment with the technique, as I wanted to explore different kinds of mark-making using both raised and etched surfaces. It was meant to be abstract marks, but came out with quite a clear, to me, image of destruction, of a war-ravaged landscape, of survivors fleeing. When I look at it again though, I can also see something like a hunting scene. The animal/ human shapes may be interpreted as either in profile, alive, or as flat, dead. Either way, it evokes despair and hunger I think, and I added the word “North”for a couple of reasons- to suggest fleeing to less hospitable places, likely cold, and also as a piece of wordplay on “thorn”. As such it relates back to the images in air of roses, and thorns, and of summer- it is a contrasting image to “Summer” as the participants in this one seem to be ragged, bedraggled victims, fleeing- the colours, movements giving out contrasting messages to the earlier image.
I can’t really claim much in the way of planning in this one- it was intuitive. I really like the effects of the different lines though, and see a lot of potential for this type of collograph. Perspex works well for making marks , and the gel is very versatile. The only problem is that it has a limited life, and the gel peels off with too much washing and rubbing, so changing colours isn’t that easy.
4. I was with blood bedewed
Technique: Collograph with carborundum and etching on perspex
Thorn symbol on distressed background- runes- reference to passion of Christ- I was with blood bedewed.
I tried this one several times on copper, but decided to go with the collograph technique again. The torn up scsrim that I felt had been effective on the last one I reused, and this time I had an image in mind. The symbol in the middle, made with carborundum, is the runic symbol “Thorn”, and the runic writing etched at the bottom is translated as “I was with blood bedewed”. (This is a subject I have worked with before in my first Printmaking module.)
This is again, wordplay- the thorn obviously relates to the rose images in part 1, and to the rose theme in general, while relating this to a runic rendering of a poem about the “rood tree” and the crucifixion, makes intertextual links to the religious layers of meaning alluded to already, and to those in Eliot’s poem.
The notion of the “sign” is again referenced, with the fact that the symbol “thorn” looks like an actual thorn, and may be derived from that, much as Chinese characters in their earliest incarnations, were drawn form naturalistic forms.
The thorn in this image is also naturalistic as it seems to be snagging the materials around it- again these evoke insects or decaying vegetation.
The image in the middle might also be read as a primitive rendering of a human, a standing figure.
(I’m wondering if this should go in part 3 now, with its reference to the passion of Christ…)
5. What are the roots that clutch
Technique: Collograph and chine colle
“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ a heap of broken images”
Eliot, The Wasteland I The Burial of the Dead, ll 19-22
This image uses collograph, string, paper, gel, salt grains and earth, with torn newspaper, to represent a sense of a decaying civilisation, as suggested in the lines above from Eliot’s The Wasteland.
In the narrative, it follows from the previous image in that it transitions from the rood tree to the earth with its dead roots.
As a print, I like the linear quality and the texture created by the materials, while the chine colle newspaper is really embedded into the paper, as if trampled down. It is a quite literal represenation of “stony rubbish” except that the newspaper is a metaphor, implying a decadent civilisation as represented by its media.
6. My ruins
Technique: Photographic print, cyanotypes on stone/ tiles.
This was an experiment in making cyanotypes on broken shards of tiles and flat stones. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t, but as a result I had a pile of legible, semi-legible and illegible shards, that nevertheless were unified in their colours and have the appearance of the same origin.
The marks on the tiles are drawings of roses, words and lines of the poem, The Four Quartets, including the words “Rose” and “Thorn”.
The link to the text and the narrative is clear: I was interested primarily in experimenting with making prints on different materials, and this seemed a good way to explore the idea of a ruined civilsation, while also echoing Eliot’s “words strain/Crack and sometimes break under the burden”.
This was another use of the collograph plate, involving cutting it into shapes after it had been textured. This was planned and I had a clear idea of the composition I wanted, but I had overestimated the control I could have over how the plate would cut. In the event, it was quite brittle and snapped, so I couldn’t get the rounded shapes I was hoping for.
My plan here was to suggest a burial site- a shape that suggested a buried corpse- the bones suggested by the texture of the plate. It was curled up in a foetal position. I had to adjust this and instead combined three shapes which I felt still evoked fossils and buried remains, but arranged them in a way that might also suggest something crawling crab-like out of the earth. The sun shape suggests a setting, decline, as well as perhaps copper, brass, objects that might be placed in a burial.
That is the end of the section “Earth”. This should have been an evocation of the physical, the material- and their decay and corruption.
Part 3 FIRE
This part relates to Part 4 of “The Four Quartets” Little Gidding, which forms the resolution. It ends in pentecostal “fire”.
In my end is my beginning
Technique: Combination collograph/ intaglio
The words “in my beginning is my end” repeat throughout the text, emphasising its circularity. These words evoke birth, death and inevitability, as well as summarising the journey the poet is on, which brings back to the beginning only to “know the place for the first time”.
This image is made by superimposing over the collograph from part one (The roses had the look of flowers that are looked at) an intaglio print made in the shape of a goblet, or grail, drawn with the repeated words from the poem “Ash on a old man’s sleeve is all the dust the burnt roses leave”.
The shape of the goblet mirrors the opening out composition of the flowers, marking them as equivalent- as they grow, they also decay: they accept their destiny. They seem to be sacrificing, making an offering. The image also evokes fire, as if the roses are burning from the single black drawn stem.
Technique: Photopolymer etching
Words again, the words, which are signs, ROSE and THORN, reappear. The texture of the print makes them seem to be formed of smoke or dust. Again, there is a reference to the funeral pyre or sacrifice. There is also the reference,again, through the connotations of roses and thorns, to the passion of Christ.
The image is indefinite, transient, formed of smoke. It is evocative of the “death of words”.
I will confess the effect here is due to the fact that my photopolymer film was damaged. I decided to use it anyway.
Technique: Intaglio etching, chine colle
This is an image showing the life cycle of a rose. It is done in the detailed style of a botanical text, dissecting the stages. It is a scientific image and would entail destroying the rose. At the same time, although the image is of a dissection and portrays the view of rational analysis, it is also rather sexual. It points to sacrifice as a part of regeneration.
This was done on perspex with an etching needle, traced from a botanical illustration. It was meant to evoke an earlier style of understanding nature- scientific curiosity in the service of understanding nature.
It was printed on fine Japanese paper to capture the detail.
4. What is is what is not
Technique: Copperplate etching, aquatint
This is a copper plate immersed in ferric chloride in stages to create an aquatint of different blacks/ greys, then finally immersed to the point that the copper was eaten away to create negative shapes. The image was of growth, a rose bush, with blossoms, but had to be fairly simple to undergo this kind of process, where any detail would likely be lost. Therefore my sketch simple portrayed intertwining stems, using levels of dark/light to suggest overlap, and simple blossom shapes. The copper I was using was relatively thick at 1mm, and what resulted was layers of erosion, which means that there are some grey shadows on the white parts, where there is still a layer of copper.
The white of the paper suggests frost or snow, making this an opposition to the summer roses of the first part.
The negative shapes are embossed, thus creating another level of positive/ negative imagery. The roses then are the negative shapes: they emerge, but at the same time are nothing.
I chose the title to express this inversion of positive and negative, and it also echoes much of the tone of Eliot’s poem, in which he frequently uses negative statements, in search for what words cannot express, the idea of finding the meaning after the words are gone. Again, this is a thought process that echoes in Xu Bing’s work, and resonates with Zen Buddhist thinking as discussed in my parallel project.
This can speak of death and regeneration, but points to a place that is neither, as suggested in the final part of the poem:
“This is the spring time/ But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow/ Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom/ Of snow, a bloom more sudden/ Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,/ Not in the scheme of generation./ Where is the summer, the unimaginable/ Zero summer?” Little Gidding ll 14-19
5. In my end is my beginning
Technique: Combination collograph, intaglio
This is the same print as the first one but with the intaglio plate inverted to look like a funeral pyre, implying that the roses are transformed and “reborn” as flames from the pyre. This is quite close to the ending of the poem.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
Little Gidding V ll. 1-3
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
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.
I am interested in the work of Xu Bing as a printmaker who has developed into a multi media installation artist, and whose work relates to Eastern and Western culture and Chinese and English languages, yet transcends both cultures, both languages, and creates an enigmatic silence, “The neigh of a wooden horse” (Liu, in Tsao and Ames 2011)
I’m particularly interested in how his work can be interpreted in three ways: intellectually, in the post-structuralist tradition; ideologically, in the context of the post-Tiananmen Chinese diaspora; and most interestingly, spiritually, in the context of Zen Buddhism. For the latter, I will focus particularly on process in his work, how process can mirror and even constitute meaning, and ultimately form a concept which becomes a revelation, or enlightenment. Specifically, I will quote from critiques which argue that Xu’s work manifest thought processes that place it firmly within the Zen tradition, while questioning whether that limits its accessibility or relevance.
The first artwork I’d like to discuss is “Five series of repetitions” from 1987, a woodcut series which takes the process of cutting a reduction print from a wood block and transforms this process of repetition and reduction into a powerful concept, by subverting the woodblock tradition. In this artwork, the process becomes the form, as the last of the series is empty, devoid of content.
Starting with the uncut woodblock, Xu Bing mirrors the process of cultivating the land, simple mark-making representing plants and ponds, and boundaries between fields, but as the series progresses, the plants start to disappear, and gradually all the marks are gone, leaving a white sheet. Rather than using the “reduction” print process to create layers, and depth, this shows the process of development, then loss, as a sequential narrative that could be an allegory of civilisation, or life itself. This piece of work, following the opening up of artistic expression in China, shows Xu developing the woodcut, which he had mastered and previously used in ways that served the doctrinaire purposes of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, as conceptual art, while still referencing the rural ways of life he had come to appreciate during his forced re-education through Mao Zedong’s “rustication” programme. There’s irony here that Xu was now intellectualising the woodcut, in Communist ideological terms an acceptable, non-elitist form of art, designed for mass production, that he had been forced to study. Patricia Berger (2000: 88-89) also sees in the work an allusion to a Zen narrative of a herdboy taming an ox, an analogy for taming the mind, which ends with both subject (herdboy) and object (ox) disappearing, signifying transcendence and unity of opposites, being and non-being. Thus, in this early work, Xu intellectualises and conceptualises process, and develops the artistic form of the cycle in ways that allude to dematerialisation and spiritual awakening in the Zen tradition.
Xu Bing experienced a period in Chinese history when culture and language were being reconstituted, forced to fit an ideology: traditional scholarship came under brutal attack, written characters were reformed. Like his peers, he had no formal education, and books were burnt. These processes would have supported the neutralisation of thought anyway, even without the onslaught of propaganda. Xu survived the taint of being a member of the bourgeoisie by being skilled in the art of calligraphy and illustrative woodcut. He became well known for his skill in writing “Big Character” propagandist posters, which denounced people as traitors. He reports (Erickson, B. 2001: 17) that he became like a “Buddhist copiers of old” who “did not need to understand the meaning of each sutra that they copied… to gain entrance into the next world.” One can see here the roots of the defamiliarisation of language, the severance from meaning, in this case surely stemming from a real need to dissociate from meanings which were ideologically distasteful and personally toxic (Xu recalls seeing his own father’s name in such a poster). At the same time, there is a sense of pleasure in the physical form of it, the enjoyment of the relationships of parts to the whole, the appreciation of its power, the resilience of literary tradition- all of which would eventually be conceptualised in works such as “Book from the Sky”. One can also sense in it the dedication to quality, to immersion in the process as a mechanic, the non-intellectual, as a means of gaining “entrance to the next world”, a reference to the discipline of Zen meditation, and the elimination of logical thinking.
Erickson notes that Book from the Sky is “as difficult to interpret as the famous Chan (Zen) texts”, and that “you must use Chan methods to gain understanding” (Ibid: 17-18). Its title, “Book from the Sky” is a direct translation of “Tianshu”, a Zen scripture, denoting an unintelligible text sent from heaven. In this context, Xu’s own comment that “Any explanation of Book from the Sky is superfluous because the work itself says nothing,” (Ibid:18) points to the paradoxical nature of the work, and its ultimate achievement of a deep spiritual silence and rejection of analysis in the tradition of western enlightenment based on reason.
In Western intellectual terms, the Book of the Sky can by seen as an iconic work of structuralism, a rich text-book illustration for the separation of sign and signifier (de Saussure, F. 1916). It can be related to post-structuralist thought, asking us to reflect on the way language, culture and tradition represent, reproduce and legitimise our understanding, making us see our readings of texts as unstable, in a state of constant evolution, with no fixed “true” meaning. It can stand as a critique of the tradition of logocentrism, “the word made flesh”, arguably the central project of Western enlightenment philosophy, by problematising the “word” as “nothing but an empty pictograph that has lost its sound.” (Bei Dao, quoted in Tsao and Ames, 2011) and postulating that signs have no empirical grounding in reality, that “there is no outside the text” (Derrida, 1976: 158).
Was this a conscious rejection of Western enlightenment thought along deconstructionist lines, an attack on the process of intellectualisation? Xu’s own words (Note 1) seem to deny this. The western art establishment, on the other hand(Note 2), has tended to see the work as representative of an alien culture for the purpose of stressing political ideological readings. Western interpretations of “Book from the Sky” usually start with references to the Cultural Revolution, to the cheapening of language in propaganda, to the destruction of culture, and the death of meaning. The work also speaks of the time before the revolution, being highly reverential of traditional Chinese literature and book arts, which the Cultural Revolution was not. “Book from the Sky” was the result of research and relearning of techniques that had been lost, and painstaking repetitive work in carving characters to recreate the process for creating important works of Chinese literature. As a paean to tradition, a work of dedication to healing ruptures with the past, could it be anything other than a critique of the present? The privileging of form over meaning, the demonstration of the power of literacy, the silencing of culture and history, could this be other than a sharp denunciation of Communist Party politics? The Chinese establishment did turn on Xu Bing, but, ironically, accused him of being overly intellectual, of failing in the Socialist enterprise of making art “for the people”.
Supporters in China claimed it was an example of a Chinese artist finding his way to make art that was independent of Western traditions. Kuan Hung Chen (Tsao and Ames, 2011) argues for a religious interpretation of the work, bringing out both its seriousness and playfulness as part of Chinese cosmology, in which wordplay and paradox feature highly. He justifies the religious aspect by relating to the feelings of awe visitors experience, which he explains as an encounter with the void. April Liu (Tsao and Ames, 2011) claims that Xu Bing’s work is inspired by Zen Buddhist philosophy “at the level of process and experimentation” and she locates Book from the Sky firmly within Zen thinking.
Zen scriptures generally convey a distrust of language as a means of transmitting wisdom, seeing language as a way of trapping the mind in habits of thinking. Particularly resisted is the formulation of binary or dualistic language, of distinctions between subject and object, and separation of mind and body: these words are characterised as “dead words”. “The real origins of truth cannot be found in a literal, logical answer but instead must be searched for in the living word” (Xu Bing, Artist Statement quoted in Liu, Tsao and Ames, 2011)) The teachings of Zen masters often involve absurdity and paradox, which the student should ponder to reach comprehension, “seeing” rather than “knowing” the answer. “Living words” are those that do not categorise, or predicate, or mediate experience. in short, they do not “tell”. They are often playful and paradoxical, such as “the neigh of the wooden horse”. They are also often tautological, resisting definition or paraphrase. Liu points out the difference between Chinese and European linguistic structure, that the duality of subject vs object is hardwired into most European languages, whereas it does not exist in Chinese and other related languages, again emphasising the Chinese cultural origins of Xu’s thought. Liu argues that Book from the Sky is a collection of such “living” words.
Roger T. Ames (Tsao and Ames, 2011) makes the case for a multivalent reading of the work, as an experiment with language and an “invitation to search for meaning”. He relates the evolution of Chinese script- basically picture forms- as having a close connection to understanding the world and its processes of change, claiming that according to classical scriptures, “the phenomenological world in classical China is an endless flow” and words and images are “triggers” rather than repositories of meaning. He quotes Zhuangzi (Note 3) “The reason for words is to capture meaning, but having captured the meaning, you forget the words,” suggesting the abstract nature of language and how it can accommodate fluidity.
I think it is this level of abstraction that makes Xu Bing’s works transcend cultural origins. They work because they question language and culture, and they “show” rather than “tell”. When I watched his video “The Character of Characters” at the “Metamorphosis” exhibition (Note 4) two years ago, a stop motion film using the Chinese character for “one” to illustrate the evolution of the civilisation and culture, the interplay of image and language was so well done and the story-telling so clear, that although I know I was most likely missing some clever wordplay, there was such richness in the images that everything was clear and accessible, amusing, enlightening, and ultimately satisfying. Like a lot of his work, there was circularity, beginnings and endings meeting. The whole exhibition was bookended, literally, with reference to book arts and words- starting with a mulberry tree which grew and withered from start to finish of the show, to the book with silkworms wriggling on its pages and become random “characters” then spinning their cocoons and destroying the words, and the substrate, while creating another new set of threads, the show enacted the process of flux and change, creation and recreation. The visual signs transcended any cultural or linguistic differences. Included in the show was a mock up of Xu’s studio during his work on Book from the Ground, a project aimed at creating a universal pictorial language. These “living words” aim to go beyond cultural boundaries as a new kind of “hypertext” based on our global connectedness.
The ideas of circularity, flux, the investigation and distrust of language, intercultural and inter textual links, and, most importantly, the spirituality that I see in Xu’s work are also highly present in the poem The Four Quartets by TS Eliot, which has been the inspiration for a series of prints I’ve been working on in one of my final projects. This poem, one that I read, and studied, as an undergraduate, and which has echoed ever since, has been taken as a statement of the poet’s conversion to Anglicanism. However, on rereading it, I now find that it is far more akin to Zen thinking, and since Eliot was a student of Eastern religions, I am surprised that this reading was not given more prominence earlier. These two influences have greatly inspired my thinking and artistic practice.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Berger, P. (2000) “Pun Intended: A response to Stanley Abe, ‘Reading the Sky’.” Cross-Cultural Readings of Chineseness. Wen-hsin Yeh, ed. Berkeley: Institute of East
Asian Studies, University of California. pp. 80-100.
de Saussure, F. Course in General Linguistics. Eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Trans. Roy Harris. (1983) La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
Derrida, J. (1976) ‘The exorbitant question of method’. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press. pp. 157-164.
Erickson, B. (2001) The Art of Xu Bing: Words without Meaning, Meaning without Words. Electronic Book. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler: Asian Art and Culture.
Gao, M. (2003) Xu Bing. Taipei: Eslite Corporation.
Morley, S. (2003) Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art. London: Thames and Hudson.
Ricks, C. and McCue J. (Eds.) (2015) The Poems of T.S.Eliot. London. Faber and Faber.
Tsao H. and Ames, R. T. (Eds.) (2011) Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art: Cultural and Philosophical Reflections. New York: State University of New York Press.
Pilrig, R. (1975) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Electronic Book 2004 edition. London: Vintage Books.
People said that they found it interesting to have Xu Bing and Derrida “installed” in the same space. I remember saying to Derrida: “Although so many people have used your theories to interpret Book from the Sky, I had never read any of your books at the time I was working on it. If I had read them, maybe I wouldn’t have bothered to continue. It would have been clear that there was no point in making anything ever again.”
2. For example, Morley, S. (2003) Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art puts Xu Bing in his “Creolization” chapter.
The artists of the post-Tiananmen Chinese diaspora, such as Xu Bing, Ai Wei Wei and Gu Wenda, had developed their art in China in the relatively open environment of the 1980s, but soon found themselves in conflict with authorities. Tsao and Ames (2011) critique the tendency of the Western art establishment to see these artists as representatives of an alien culture, in order to interpret their work as criticism of China. They see this essentially as self-serving, criticism of repression in China being, in turn, flattering to Western democracy.
3. Zhuangzi or Chuang-tzu is an ancient Chinese document (476-221 BC) setting out Daoist philosophy.
“I am often speechless when confronted with Zhuangzhi’s thinking: that everything I could say would be superfluous. The notion of the “unity of the self and the material world” will always push one’s thinking into this place of ambiguity. ” Xu Bing, catalogue notes, “It Begins with Metamorphosis”.
“Curated by Yeewan Koon, It Begins with Metamorphosis: Xu Bing is the first major solo exhibition in Hong Kong featuring some of the latest works by this renowned artist. It will highlight how metamorphosis marks the beginnings of the process of ideas and methods, and provides a focused look at Xu Bing’s art. Often using unexpected materials including tobacco leaves, debris, and silkworms, Xu Bing mediates on the transformative power of materiality as he challenges societal values, and explores the shape of memories, histories, and destinies.” (Extract from exhibition catalogue.)
The Character of Characters (2012) Animated film installation. 16 minutes 45 sec. Commissioned by the Asian Art Museum of San Fransisco for the 2012 exhibition “out of character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy” with support from The Robert H. N. Ho Foundation.