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WOID Bulletin



WOID BULLETIN

1)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has put a new acquisition on display, a
large illuminated fifteenth-century Gospel from Ethiopia. The double page
on view shows Christ's Entry into Jerusalem; the work has a coloristic and
narrative forthrightness reminiscent of similar full page illustrations in
the Book of Kells.
This work is on view in the Michael C. Rockefeller wing (African Art).

2)
Contemporary Chinese Art and the Literary Culture of China
(September 29, - January 15, 1999).
Lehman College Art Gallery, Bedford Park Boulevard West
Bronx (#4 train to Bedford Park Boulevard; one block west of the
station).
Tues-Sat, 10:00-4:00.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the road of
intentions gone astray can lead to letter heaven. The Lehmann College Art
Gallery is not in hell, by the way - it's only in the Bronx.

In theory, this show is about Chinese artists who "are bound by the common
theme of engaging some aspect of the literary culture of China." In
practice, it's about four expatriate Chinese artists who do fine work with
writing (another six artists - from the People's Republic of China - are
present symbolically, through photographs; their work does not come
across).

The ubiquitous Xu Bing is here, of course, with another one of his
drop-dead jokes: a series of ceramic chops set into the wall, which are
Chinese transcriptions of the pronunciation of each letter of the English
alphabet. Syllabic transcriptions - what else?

Then there is Zhao Suikang, who uses letters as the content of intricate
constructions. One work presents a series of vibrant neon tubes slashing
through a series of printed religious texts; In another, the sides of a
fish tank are covered with silkscreened passages in Arabic, Chinese,
English, French Sanskrit, Hebrew. Since the letters are superimposed on
top of one another the viewer is forced to detach each language from its
background. The eye is constantly forced into that background (water,
fish, or bottom of the fish-tank) in a deeply sensual way. That the
English and French passages are pieces of hot erotica doesn't hurt, though
it doesn't help, either: all of Zhao Suikang's works shown here smother
the alphabet in a kind of pattern of repetition, somewhere between a
practice sheet and a prayer wheel.

Longbin Chen's most succesful piece is a giant sculpted face, vaguely
reminiscent of rock-carved Buddhas. Walk behind it, and it is actually
made of New York telephone books, piled up and carved.

Last and best, perhaps: Xing Fei's takes on Chinese cursive calligraphy.
In one work huge scrolls of traditional Chinese calligraphy form a
background screen: they are written in the flowing, wispy "grass style" of
the eighth century. In front of them she dangles long coils of bent shiny
wire. The visual and conceptual tension between the meaningless, flowing,
shiny wire and the meaningful, flowing, white and black scrolls is
electrifying - and of course, there is the tension between the
two-dimensional wires placed in three-dimensional space, and the
two-dimensional script. In other works, Xing Fei manipulates the
calligraphy to create the illusion of depth (through shadow effects, for
instance), while the "real" coils float in "real" depth before them. Some
of these pieces are meant to sway in the breeze. I'm sorry I missed that.

That said, it was difficult at times to follow the dynamic between these
works and the literary culture mentioned in the show's title. Certainly
the link is strong with Xing Fei but in Xu Bing we're talking about
literacy, not literature. And Longbin Chen's work is only "literary" in a
negative sense: the recognition of what the work is (as writing) is at
right angles to what the work appears to be. A panel discussion had beem
scheduled on this topic, but it turned into a poetry reading from
contemporary Chinese poets. This is not the first time I've noticed the
curatorial impulse to give a slight logocentric twist to a show devoted to
visual language. Not a problem: the work shines through.

***************************************************************************
Paul Werner, New York City

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