Critics’ Picks

Xu Bing, The Living Word 3, 2011, laser-cut acrylic, paint, dimensions variable.

Xu Bing, The Living Word 3, 2011, laser-cut acrylic, paint, dimensions variable.

New York

Xu Bing

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
July 19–October 2, 2011

For its second annual contemporary art commission, the Morgan has fittingly chosen to work with Xu Bing, who has a long-standing fascination with the written word. The Chinese-born artist was a gifted calligrapher at an early age, and it is worth noting that his mother was a university librarian. At the same time, growing up during the Cultural Revolution and coming of age during the tumultuous 1980s in China—both periods during which one could be imprisoned for one’s choice of words alone—made him deeply aware of the limitations of language, and wary of its potential for perversion by the state.

Xu’s site-specific installation at the Morgan, The Living Word 3, 2011, perfectly blends his delight in and his critical suspicion of words. This particular version of the installation, first shown in 2001, includes, in simplified Chinese characters favored by Mao, the dictionary definition of bird. Placed on the floor or suspended in midair, the laser-cut acrylic forms literally resemble a flock of birds taking flight; as they rise up the entry court of the Morgan, they become ever more brilliantly colored. The ascent’s drama is heightened still further by the fifty-foot glass walls of the Renzo Piano–designed court.

As the characters rise, they also change from simplified to standard to ancient forms of the word bird. The much older pictograms based on nature, at the top of Xu’s installation, appear more vibrant and alive than the more contemporary characters at the bottom, which look relatively rigid and even somewhat lifeless. The work’s critical edge is softened somewhat by the awe-inspiring and colorful rise of characters; but though Xu’s art is more Conceptual than it is overtly political, his compatriot Ai Weiwei’s ongoing troubles with Chinese authorities seem to bring a somber reality to Xu’s installation.