The Chinese artist Xu Bing has long experimented to stunning effect with the limits of the written form. Last year I visited the Centre del Carme in Valencia, Spain, to see a retrospective of his work. One installation, Book from the Sky, featured scrolls of paper looping down from the ceiling and lying along the floor of a large room, printed Chinese characters emerging into view as I moved closer to the reams of paper. But this was no ordinary Chinese text: Xu Bing had taken the form, even constituent parts, of real characters, to create around 4,000 entirely false versions. The result was a text which looked readable but had no meaning at all. As Xu Bing himself has noted, his made-up characters “seem to upset intellectuals,” in a sly sendup of our respect for the written word.
In another room was Book from the Ground, a slim volume, displayed in a room of Xu Bing’s inspiration: symbols and emojis, gathered from around the world and from different contexts, from an airport to a keyboard. Xu Bing scoured the world to find universal images and the result stands in stark contrast to Book from the Sky: This book was designed to be read by anyone. The first page was slightly awkward to read, translating the pictures to the (in my case, English) word. But as I turned the pages, the meaning emerged more fluently, and I was drawn into its story of a day in the life of an office worker. It was as if Xu Bing was asking me to wonder what was happening in my brain as these tiny pictures on the page transformed into meaning, a narrative. How was the process of reading pictorial symbols different from reading letters based on phonetic symbols?
Xu Bing was illustrating what recent studies in neuroscience have revealed: People everywhere read words made from pictures, such as Chinese characters (known as pictographs), and words made from letters, in a remarkably similar way. It’s an insight that opens a window on how writing developed and how we read—and how we might tap deeper wells of creativity and communication. [Continue reading…]