Book from the Ground at CFCCA: Art in emoticons

Steve Slack

It’s like one of Gollum’s riddles; how do you write a book with no words? We found out at this innovative exhibition of Xu Bing’s work at CFCCA.

Contemporary art has poor reputation in some quarters, often accused of being elitist and inaccessible. It’s certainly true that looking at modern paintings or video installations can sometimes be baffling if you don’t have a background in art history. The Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art’s (CFCCA’s) latest exhibition, however, has managed to break down some of those barriers.

Part of a stellar programme of exhibitions and events celebrating CFCCA’s 30th anniversary, Book from the Ground sees the internationally-acclaimed Xu Bing return to the gallery with a novel about a day in the life of a man called Mr Black. The idea of an art book, and by a Chinese artist, too, has the potential to set anyone’s obscurity radar off – how does one read it? Especially if your Cantonese isn’t up to much (as ours, we’re sorry to say, isn’t).

An entire novel driven by the idea that anyone can read it

Never fear: rather than using a language no one understands, Xu has created a new written script for his story, made up of symbols, logos, emoji and pictograms. It takes a moment or two to decipher, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really fun to puzzle out the signs and follow the story. It is, in fact, more accessible than most art; you don’t need any special training or education to decode Mr Black’s trials and tribulations, including trying to catch an aeroplane, and a rather scatological moment in the WC.

Book from the Ground is modern and relevant, asking questions about how we communicate today. Most people will at least have tried using emoji to illustrate messages (we have a boss who texts exclusively in emoticons), making up our own codes and ways of speaking through symbol. Bing has taken this to the next level, creating an entire novel driven by the idea that anyone can read it. What makes this display even more engaging for visitors is the chance to see behind the scenes of how Xu’s language and book were put together.

A recreated studio in the gallery is packed with reference books, old newspapers and bits of paper, cut out of magazines and leaflets. You can see Bing’s scrapbooking process as he gathers inspiration from airport signage, fridge magnets and the like. Seeing his scribbles and rough working makes you realise the work that goes into creating the simple, clean book at the end. As our friends over at Modern Designers know well, coming up with a clear, clean icon is actually much harder than you might think.

We visited with an artist friend who said that she’d never seen a studio as tidy, so perhaps there’s a bit of creative license at work here. But for us non-artists, it’s rather fun to peek behind the curtain and see what goes on in the creative space. It’s pleasing that the book and the studio recreation require only minimal interpretation. This really is a new language for the art world.

Culture Guides

Cinema

January brings a focus on women-centric cinema, classic revivals and international hits.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh: making the Glasgow Style at Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool

Exhibitions

On the brink of the new year, here’s a couple of the major exhibitions and smaller gems we’re looking forward to in 2019.

A World Inside A Book courtesy Suzi Corker

Families

January ain’t dull. Create with light, become forensic archeologists, sculpt with mud, step inside books and find a giant piglet with a coat made from dosh.

Literature

January, February, March, April, even May… we’ve plenty for you to look forward to live literature wise as 2019 unfolds – from performance poetry and soundscapes to readings from magazines, memoirs and award-winning short stories.

Music

Ranging from electronica to indie, this month’s music guide features some of the most singular voices in contemporary music.

Theatre in Manchester and the North

Theatre

Five-star musicals, acclaimed site-specific performances and two-week-long eclectic arts festivals? There’s nothing dry about January.

Tours and Activities

Explore the other side of Manchester’s performing arts, as this month, we highlight some of the best tours of the city’s theatres, venues and concert halls.

Things to do right now

Powered by culturehosts
Cheese Making at Food Sorcery
Activity 19–20 January 2019, from £100

Cheese Making at Food Sorcery

Mandy Barker: Hong Kong Soup at CFCCA Manchester
Exhibitions 12 October 2018–20 January 2019, FREE

Mandy Barker: Hong Kong Soup at CFCCA

Charwei Tsai: Bulaubulau at CFCCA
Exhibitions 12 October 2018–20 January 2019, FREE

Charwei Tsai: Bulaubulau at CFCCA

ReFrame at Manchester Art Gallery
Exhibitions 20 October 2018–20 January 2019, FREE

ReFrame at Manchester Art Gallery

Cinema 7 December 2018–20 January 2019, from £5

Slapstick Film Season at HOME

HOME at Christmas
Festivals 13 December 2017–20 January 2019,

HOME at Christmas

PUSH Festival 2019 at HOME
Festivals 11–26 January 2019,

PUSH Festival 2019 at HOME

LIQUID CRYSTAL DISPLAY at Site Gallery
Exhibitions 29 September 2018–27 January 2019, FREE

LIQUID CRYSTAL DISPLAY at Site Gallery

Craft Beer Tour Around Manchester
Food and Drink 1 November 2018–1 February 2019, from £30

Craft Beer Tour Around Manchester

Exhibitions 12 January–1 February 2019, FREE

Motion Sickness at STOCK Gallery

The Producers - A Mel Brooks Musical at the Royal Exchange
Music 30 November 2018–2 February 2019, from £10.00

The Producers – A Mel Brooks Musical at the Royal Exchange