Image and Text

I came across the School of Art and Design’s podcast series online the other day. I was excited, because there had been a lecture on Thursday night that I couldn’t attend because of my teaching obligations. The lecture was by Chaz Maviyane-Davies, a Zimbabwean graphic designer and co-curator of The Graphic Imperative. Unfortunately, the videocast of his lecture wasn’t online yet.

However, an earlier lecture by Xu Bing titled “Between Image and Text” caught my attention. Xu Bing is a graphic artist who works mainly with print-making. His work explores the communicative balance between images and text.

I’m not sure if Xu Bing himself feels this way, but the speaker who introduced him seemed to believe in the limitless ability of the visual to communicate more clearly than the verbal (which she states to a greater or lesser degree). She had first seen one of his scrolls on display at UW Madison (Wisconsin). Xu Bing had spent three years carving 4,000 wooden character-stamps to make the scroll. A non-Chinese-reader would look at the scroll and see nonsense, but assume that a Chinese-reader would find meaning in it.

However, the characters Xu Bing had carved were, in fact, nonsense. They were fake. They did not exist among the thousands and thousands of real Chinese characters floating around in reader/writer repertoires.

So, what does a piece like this say?

The introductor (is there a better word for “one who gives introductions”? I think I made this word up.) suggested that it conveyed the fallacies of ‘official languages,’ because of their manipulability.  First of all, what’s an ‘official language’? A spoken or written code with the backing of an army? In that case, Xu Bing’s work could be taken as a statement against the verbal manipulation by the Chinese governmental propaganda machine during the Cultural Revolution.  “Look, the characters you produce are nonsense, just as my characters here are nonsense!”

I think the piece can be taken to indicate even more so the manipulability of all forms of communication, graphic, verbal, or otherwise, and their dependence on cultural context.  Xu Bing himself brings up the fact that each individual will interpret the piece differently, depending on their understanding of the Chinese writing system.

Non-Chinese-Readers will see Chinese characters, a writing system largely based on graphic icons (ie: the radical that indicates ‘question’ is the shape of an open mouth asking a question. The radical indicating ‘woman’ is two intersecting lines representing a woman holding a child).  Maybe they will assume (as the introductor did) that it is a myth or a poem, based on what they know of Chinese literary tradition.  Just because the characters are based on graphics, doesn’t mean everyone understands them in the same way.  You still base your interpretation on your own cultural context.

Chinese readers might just assume that the characters are traditional, an older form of writing.  Or they might interpret it as a political statement, again depending on their experiences with and understanding of Cultural Revolution propaganda.

Other pieces I found interesting:

Book from the Ground“(2006)- An effort to ‘naturally’ create a ‘universal language’ of graphic icons. *Cringe* Universal? Just because they’re pictures doesn’t make interpretation of them ‘universal’!  From the website: “Icons are ubiquitous symbols providing information without words, antidotes to misunderstanding in the enveloping sphere of world languages in the global electronic network.”

But…. People interpret pictures in as many different ways as they interpret vocal inflections! The little picture of the book might mean “book” (ie: any book) to one person, but could index a specific book to someone else, depending on what books they read, where they encounter books, how many books they’ve read.  Airport icons taken out of context are meaningless, unless someone has seen them in an airport before (in which case, they’re not out of context because that person associates them with ‘airports’). Show them to someone who has never been in an airport, and you’re likely to get a nervous giggle and a shrug.

This seems to go against what the piece I mentioned earlier was trying to say…!

Art for the People” (1999)- I love this one. Look at the banners. Chinese characters, right? Look closer. See it? Once you see it, it’s tough to see the characters again…. Think twice about what ‘the visual’ is saying!

Reading Landscape” (2001)- Yay landscapes! He has several ‘landscape’ pieces, but this one I found most interesting. The characters for ‘tree’ are shaped roughly like trees (trunk, branches, leaves).  Xu Bing uses them to paint a landscape scene on the walls of the gallery. So, the characters meaning ‘tree’ represent the physical form of ‘tree’ in the representation of the landscape. Hee hee.

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2 Responses to “Image and Text”


  1. 1 Greg Laden January 30, 2008 at 10:51 am

    This post is now listed on the Four Stone Hearth Blog Carnival:

    http://tiny.cc/mWiJP

  2. 2 Jonathan Jarrett February 2, 2008 at 5:18 am

    As a result of the Carnival link I wind up seeing this post, and agree that it’s interesting—and the Xu Bing banners are great. The Book from the Ground project seems to be trying to hit what Eliot called the ‘objective correlative’ and though I don’t think I’ve ever believed in it as strongly as he did at the very least there is a case to answer, but I think you are right that it is fundamentally based in shared cultural assumptions which greater awareness of other world semantic systems has taught us to doubt. At bottom then we’re hitting questions of whether there is anything unifyingly human other than biological taxonomy. Which is too heavy for this time of day :-)


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