Xu Bing: New Writing for a New Era

Xu Bing continues to astound with his creativity and productivity.  Here is an article that I wrote about one of his latest projects, “Book from the Ground.”  The story was commissioned by the Asia Society’s terrific new website Chinafile and then picked up by The New York Times Chinese edition.  Here it is, in English and Chinese:

A New Tower of Babel

SHEILA MELVIN December 04, 2012

 用图标讲述城市白领自己的故事

SHEILA MELVIN 2012年12月04日

Xu Bing, the renowned Chinese artist whose many laurels include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and an appointment as vice president of China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, has long demonstrated a fascination with the written word.

著名中国艺术家徐冰获得过无数殊荣,包括一尊麦克阿瑟基金会“天才”奖,还被任命为中央美术学院副院长。多年来他一直向世人展示着一种对书面言语的迷恋。

His groundbreaking work, Book from the Sky, looked like Chinese calligraphy, but was actually nonsensical characters. Square Word Calligraphy, on the other hand, looked like Chinese but was actually English, while A Case Study of Transference was two live pigs—one inked with fake English and the other with fake Chinese—copulating in a book-strewn pen.

他的成名作《天书》看上去像中国的书法艺术,但其实是一些无意义的字。《英文方块字》看上去像中文,实际是英文,而《文化动物》则是两只猪——一只身上写着假英文,另一支写着假中文——在一个铺满书籍的猪圈里交媾。

Now, after years creating art that explores, and upends, the power of the written word, Xu Bing has authored a novella, which was published in early summer. Formally titled Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point, the tale recounts twenty-four hours in the life of a young white-collar worker in a major metropolis.

在对文字的力量进行了多年的探索和颠覆后,徐冰写作了一本中篇小说,于今夏出版。这本书定名为《地书:从点到点》,详述了一个生活在大城市的年轻白领一天24小时的生活。

 

徐冰的《地书:从点到点》节选。

The man, who remains unnamed, seeks to advance his career and find love, but, like many of us, spends most of his time tending the minutiae of daily life: he battles constipation, burns his breakfast, dreads his boss, drinks too much beer, and spends too much money. The main prism through which he experiences the world is electronic—he compulsively checks Twitter, Google, and Facebook, spends his day making PowerPoint presentations (when not surreptitiously checking email), and searches online for romance. At night, characters from video games populate his anxious dreams. This prosaic existence is interspersed by a few device-free moments of genuine humanity, as when he contemplates marriage, yearns for nature, visits a friend who is sick, comforts another who is heart-broken, and brings a bouquet of roses to a blind date.

这个我们始终不知道姓甚名谁的人在寻求事业的发展,还想找到爱情,但是和我们中的很多人一样,他要把大多数时间用在应付一些日常琐事上:他和便秘作斗争,早饭做糊了,害怕他的老板,喝太多啤酒,花太多钱。他主要通过电子设备来感受这个世界——他强迫性地刷Twitter、Google和Facebook,白天一直在做PPT(间或偷偷查一下email),在网上寻找爱情。到了晚上,游戏里的人物跑进了他焦虑的梦境。乏味的生活里,点缀着几个漫不经心中显露诚挚人性的瞬间,比如他盘算着结婚,遥想未来,探望生病的朋友,安慰另一个伤心的人,带着一束玫瑰赴第一次约会。

Like Leopold Bloom—the main character in James Joyce’s novelUlysses, which also takes place within a single day—the main character of From Point-to-Point is something of an Everyman. But, where Bloom is a hero, a latter-day Odysseus, Xu’s Everyman is an icon—that is, an actual icon.

和利奥波德·布鲁姆——詹姆斯·乔伊斯(James Joyce)小说《尤利西斯》(Ulysses)中的主要人物——一样,《地书》中的人物也是个“普通人”。然而布鲁姆是个英雄,当代的奥德修斯,徐冰的普通人却是个图标——真的就是一个图标(图标即icon,除电脑图标等日常生活中发挥标志作用的图画外,icon在西方艺术史中又有宗教偶像的含义,这里强调图标的本意。——译注)。

Indeed, if this plot summary sounds slim, consider this: From Point-to-Point is “written” without a single word—at least as they are traditionally defined. Instead, it is composed with hundreds of icons, or pictograms, that Xu has been collecting for years. WhereBook from the Sky can be read by no one, Book from the Groundcan be read by any one. It is, in other words, a remarkable effort to create a universal form of written communication that transcends cultural, linguistic, class, and educational backgrounds. In Xu’s words, “The illiterate can enjoy the delight of reading just as the intellectual does.”

实际上,如果这种情节概括显得过于简易,那么可以这样看:《地书》的写作没有用到任何一个词语——至少没有传统意义上的词语。它是用徐冰花了几年时间收集起来的成百上千个图标——或者说象形文字——组成的。《天书》没人能读懂,《地书》却是人人都能读的。也就是说,这是一次惊人的尝试,要用一种通用的书写形式来沟通,超越文化、语言、阶级和教育背景的局限。用徐冰的话说:“不识字的人也可以和知识分子一样接受阅读的启蒙。”

Xu, in conversation with me and my husband, and in an essay he wrote about the Book from the Ground project, explains that the idea came to him during the many hours he spent in airports and on planes, where he regularly encountered pictograms. He began to study airline safety cards, which he calls “humanity’s earliest examples of common knowledge texts.” Then, in 2003, he saw a pack of chewing gum that had written on it, in pictograms, “after use, please wrap in paper and dispose in trash can,” and was inspired to begin collecting enough pictograms to tell a larger story. He argues that we are only now realizing the true significance of the Tower of Babel—our languages have stagnated and are utterly unsuited to the global village in which we live. Philosophers have long dreamed of a shared language (and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some of Europe’s greatest minds thought this language could be rooted in Chinese) but in today’s world, it is increasingly a necessity as much as an ideal. And, thanks to global marketing images and icon-based computer commands, we are increasingly primed to “read” visual symbols.

在与我和我丈夫的谈话中,以及在一篇关于《地书》计划的文章中,徐冰都曾提到,之所以会产生做这个计划的想法,是因为他经常要待在机场和飞机里,被迫接触一些象形文字。他开始研究航空公司的安全须知卡,他称之为“人类最早的常识文本。”接着在2003年,他看到一包口香糖上用象形文字写着:“使用后请用纸包裹丢弃到垃圾桶中”,他因此而受到启发,开始收集足够的图标,用来讲一个长篇故事。他提出我们实际上到现在才意识到巴别塔的真正意义——我们的语言已经停滞不前,完全不适应我们现在的地球村生活。哲学家很久以前就开始设想一种共享的语言(在17和18世纪,欧洲的一些伟大思想家认为这种语言也许会以中文为基础发展出来),但到了今天,这样的语言已经不再是某种理想,而是一个越来越迫切的需要了。在全球市场推广图像和基于图标的电脑命令帮助下,我们越来越接近“可读”的视觉符号。

This all makes great sense and I certainly think the MacArthur committee got it right when it deemed Xu a “genius.” But for one who is as possessed as I am by the power of the written word,From Point-to-Point was a challenging read. I marveled at its beauty on the page but was frustrated by the absence of lyric and poetry, which are so anchored to sound, and annoyed by the clumsy manner in which my brain “translated” the pictographs into words and sentences I could comprehend. Simple though the plot is, there were also parts I frankly didn’t get because I didn’t understand the icons. (Fortunately, I had readily available translators in my eleven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, who instantly accepted the premise of a book of icons and had little problem following the story.) I also got a bit tired of story’s emphasis on bodily functions and bathroom humor, and the lack of big ideas—but, then again, I feel that way about much of contemporary fiction.

这些都是能自圆其说的,我也相信麦克阿瑟基金会授予徐冰“天才”称号是个正确的决定。不过像我这样一个在文字的力量前毫无抵抗力的人,读起《地书》来还是有些困难。我沉醉于页面的美感,但是词意和诗意的缺失让我倍感折磨,这两样东西都是紧紧依附于声音之上的。此外,我不断需要用大脑去把象形文字“翻译”成我能理解的词语和句子,这种笨拙的方式也令人心烦。故事的情节并不复杂,但坦率地说有些地方我还是没看懂,因为我无法理解图标的含义(幸好我有个现成的翻译,就是我的11岁的儿子和9岁的女儿,他们第一时间就领会了图标书的概念,对情节理解没有任何问题)。另外还让我感到腻味的是,故事过多依赖身体功能和厕所幽默,缺乏大的构思——不过,话又说回来,当代虚构作品有很多都给我留下这种印象。

Xu shares this frustration—he professes embarrassment at having to resort to standard written language in order to explain the premise of his pictographic script. But, as he says, the significance of this effort is in the attempt and all written languages go through lengthy periods of development. Book from the Ground: From Point-to-Point is a work in progress—it is also a genuine work of art.

徐冰自己也有这个困扰——他表示现在为了解释他的象形文本,还是不得不求助于标准的书面语言,这是很丢人的。但是他也说这个计划的意义在于尝试,任何书面语言都是要经历漫长的发展过程的。《地书:从点到点》是一本未完成的书——同时也是一件真正的艺术品。

This article was first published in English by ChinaFile, a new online magazine from the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.

本文最初2012年11月21日以英文发表于中参馆(ChinaFile),这是亚洲协会(Asia Society)中美关系中心最新出版的在线杂志。

翻译:经雷

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