Chinese Artist Xu Bing's Book Without Borders

UBIQUITOUS ICONS: The notebook in which Xu collected his symbols, as pictured in the companion publication 'The Book about Xu Bing's Book From The Ground', edited by Mathieu Borysevicz Mathieu Borysevicz

There are no words on the stark black-and-white cover of Xu Bing's Book from the Ground: from point to point, only two dots, two arrows and a picture icon of a man like the one on the door of a restroom. Open it to the table of contents and still there are no words, at least not in any recognizable language, just strands of small icons huddling in line like beads on a necklace. And so it continues–there is not a single word in the entire book, but page after page of what look like emojis. Taken together, the images tell the story of a white-collar office worker over the course of 24 hours.

"I hope this could be a book not limited by languages or history," Xu Bing explains on a winter day in his Brooklyn studio, speaking through a translator. Though he returned to live in Beijing in 2008 after nearly two decades in the U.S., he maintains this enclave in East Williamsburg behind an unassuming door covered with stickers and graffiti.

Xu is here only for the day, having just accepted a State Department Medal of Arts in Washington for his participation in the Art in Embassies program and his contribution to "cross-cultural dialogue and understanding through the visual arts." He is frequently traveling, flying all over the world to give talks, install exhibitions and receive awards.

About a decade ago, as he made his way through airport after airport, he began paying attention to the myriad signs featuring images as well as words, including the airplane safety cards that use diagrams to explain emergency procedures to multilingual audiences.

"This probably is first international-reader book. Anyone can read it," he says in accented English as his translator-assistant steps away to answer the phone. Xu sits bundled up in a gray coat and scarf against the chill that seeps in from outside, his eyes framed by round, black-rimmed glasses, his black hair flecked with white.

Xu Bing
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) greets honoree Xu Bing of China as he hosts a luncheon celebrating recipients of the Art in Embassies Medal of Arts Award at the State Department in Washington, January 21, 2015. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

His interest in pictorial storytelling was heightened by a bubblegum wrapper he happened upon–a series of three images connected by two arrows that instructed the chewer to put the gum back into the wrapper after chewing and throw it in the trash. This proved the inspiration for Book from the Ground.

"After that I think I can use those icons to write a book that can be understood by everyone," he says. It reflects cultural literacy and that of modern tools and technologies rather than traditional literacy. "You do not need to have any educational background, you just need to see how well you adapt and get along in the contemporary world," Xu says, explaining that the younger generation is likely to find his icon language easier to "read" because they've been exposed to these images for as long as they can remember on the Internet.

The book has been published in China, the U.S., Hong Kong and Taiwan so far, and comes out soon in France and Mexico. Since there are no words, the editions are virtually identical, some differing only by ISBN number.

"I think it can be seen two ways," says Robert Harrist, a professor of Chinese art history at Columbia University who has taught a semester-length course on Xu's work. "It's great that everybody can communicate now and stay in touch constantly through one medium or another, a kind of shared, plugged-in visual world." But at the same time, with the "flattening and evening out in communication so much is lost," especially when it comes to tense or nuance.

"The real surprising thing here and the challenge and the thing I love about it is he makes you ask yourself: What is writing?" adds Harrist, who describes Xu as "the greatest living Chinese artist, simple as that.... Everything he does is profoundly thoughtful."

PICTURE THIS: A page of 'Book from the Ground', which narrates a day in the life of an office worker Xu Bing

Book from the Ground is not Xu's first project to contemplate language and writing. He is perhaps most famous for Book from the Sky, which he created at the start of his career in China and which catapulted him and Chinese contemporary art onto the international stage.

Created between 1987 and 1991, Book from the Sky comprises scrolls upon scrolls as well as volumes of text printed in what seem to be traditional Chinese characters. But upon closer inspection, readers of Chinese will realize the text is indecipherable.

"He invented more than 4,000 characters which are illegible to anyone, including to the artist himself," says Lidu (Joy) Yi, a professor at Florida International University specialising in Chinese visual art and material culture. The characters, which Xu carved by hand into wooden printing blocks, "look so familiar and yet you don't understand any of them."

Unlike Book from the Ground, which is accessible regardless of language or national background, Book from the Sky is incomprehensible to everyone, even though "every character he invents is close to being a real character," Harrist explains. "He takes you to the brink of legibility and then makes it all fall apart."

After sections of the work were shown at the China Art Gallery in Beijing in 1988 and again as a part of the China Avant-Garde Exhibition at Beijing's National Art Gallery in 1989, Xu left China and moved to the United States. He worked as a fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studied paper-making and Western bookbinding in South Dakota and finally moved to the East Village in New York City.

In the U.S., Xu encountered his own struggle with language. "I didn't command English very well," he says. In the years after moving to a foreign country, he says, "my works express those feelings of conflict between two cultures and two languages." So another part of his work, Square Word Calligraphy, like Book from the Sky, looks like traditional Chinese characters, but in fact each "Chinese character" is a word in English, the letters arranged within a block rather than laid out in linear fashion from left to right. "It's like a language with a mask," Xu says.

"He's a contemporary artist and yet he always thinks through Chinese tradition," says Yi. "That's the forever enchantment for me."

Yi is curator of an upcoming exhibition of Xu's work at Florida International University. Titled Xu Bing: Writing Between Heaven and Earth, it includes versions of Book from the Sky, Square Word Calligraphy and Book from the Ground.

Looking at these three major projects throughout Xu's career, "you see this continuing meditation on language and communication," says Harrist. And moreover, they're a "model for understanding everything else he has done."

Xu's huge sculpture Phoenix, for example, appears at first to be two mythical birds. Closer up, however, viewers can see they are built of junk, debris from the construction site of the building where the birds were supposed to be displayed. Xu chose these materials after visiting the site and seeing the workers' hard labour and the poor conditions they endured as they were constructing a symbol of capitalism and wealth.

Phoenix has been shown at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, the Shanghai World Expo 2010, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City and will make a surprise appearance in Europe later this year. Like Book from the Sky, Square Word Calligraphy and Book from the Ground, Phoenix is not what it seems at first glance. "In every case there is the physical object you confront and it turns out there is more," says Harrist. "That is a pretty good paradigm for thinking about what art is."