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.

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