Throughout his career, Xu Bing has grappled with the power of the written word. His iconic installation Book from the Sky (1987–91) surrounds the viewer with thousands of Chinese characters that, upon closer examination, are invented nonsense words. He followed that with Square Word Calligraphy (1994), a system for writing English that looks like brush-written Chinese; for readers of English, Square Word Calligraphy inverts Book from the Sky, providing a breakthrough to meaning where none was apparent at first. In this new work, created specifically for Out of Character, Xu continues to engage with the written Chinese word, providing a sprawling and thoughtful meditation on the development of Chinese characters and their systematization as calligraphy. For this video, Xu created over one thousand individual sketches, which were blended digitally to generate this animation.
Xu Bing (Chinese, born 1955). The Character of Characters, 2012. Five-channel animated video with sound, 17 min. Commissioned by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco for the 2012 exhibition Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, with support from The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Lent by the artist