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The Master Of Coded Language And Deceiving Text Gets A Retrospective

The printmaker and text inventor messes with how we read.

Remember in high school when you could identify almost all your friends just based on their handwriting? Unfortunately, due to the proliferation of text messaging, that doesn't really happen anymore. For one of China's most famous artist, however, his handwriting has made him one of the most notorious artists working with a pen and ink. Enter: Xu Bing (徐冰), a man widely known for text, language, and handwriting.


The artist is known as one of China's leading minds in art, and is credited as the inventor of Square Word Calligraphy, a part-code, part-alphabet that looks like Chinese characters, but is actually a manipulation of English letters. To celebrate the artist's expansive career, spanning nearly half a century, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) is currently showcasing 22 pieces of Xu Bing's work, including examples of his specialized and infamous text.

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Xu Bing's symbol-flipping, such as the above image, is a perfect example of how the artist draws in the viewer with a pre-conceived idea, before snatching it out from under them. A Vice writer once described confusion as "that feeling you get when you go to pick up a can of soda thinking it's full, but it's empty." Seeing this text-master's work is very much in line with this sensation.

His warping methods seem playful and tongue-in-cheek on the surface, yet the more you think about it, the more layers develop. Why is it so unsettling to see the alphabet shaped like Chinese calligraphy? What boarders or walls do handwriting and text set between the East and West? Where do English letters and Chinese characters intersect, and how much value do we place in our understanding of writing?

Xu Bing shared a studio with Ai Weiwei at one point, and both artists' work were harshly criticized by the Chinese government after the Tiananmen Square Protests. Xu Bing's Book From The Sky (1988), in specific, was renowned for his meticulous carving of thousands of invented words into wooden blocks before he replicated an ancient, Chinese printmaking style to fill old scrolls with unreadable markings.

Both artists left China for the United States in the early 90s, and have been celebrated by the world (including a MacArthur Grant awarded to Xu Bing) for defying the authoritarian regimes--an act that's paralleled in the way Xu Bing defies Chinese text structures and protocols. In an age where we focus so much on digital text, his focus on physical writing and how it can be interpreted is a blast of creativity that is as timeless as ancient printmaking itself.

Xu Bing: A Retrospective, will be on show at TFAM until April 20th.

Lead image via