'I Still Remember' Yang Jiechang, 1998-2013

Rockbund Art Museum is currently hosting ‘From Gesture to Language'. This highly anticipated show breaks down the frontiers of language and culture, challenging the viewer to reflect on the role of text and image in shaping our collective consciousness.

The exhibition is organized in an unorthodox fashion, and perhaps the most exciting aspect of this is the imaginative use of anachronism; creating juxtapositions between works across cultural, temporal and geographical boundaries.

This is most apparent in the 18th century works by the French royal engravers, produced on the orders of the Qianlong Emperor, and based on sketches that were produced in his court by Jesuit missionaries, then transported to Europe. The prints depict various battles involving the Emperor’s army, and it is fascinating to see the subtle differences in stylistic emphasis between the Chinese and European versions of the same scene, whilst contemplating the vast geographic and cultural distances bridged in the work’s creation.

'Coloured Warrior' Zhao Xuebing, 2006

This use of anachronism, emphasizing transition and translation, is essential to the exhibition’s theme. Larys Frogier, Director of the RAM, describes the exhibition as a montage that aims to explore ‘combinations, passages, and transitions between different practices and periods.’

‘When you consider the topic of language, it is really about an endless process of reinvention and translation: words and images never have fixed definitions but the most exciting and open meanings they convey are based on the articulation you create between different paradoxical words, between opposite pictures.”

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Xu Bing’s monumental ‘Magic Carpet’. Xu is well known for his experimentations with literary signifiers. His 1988 masterpiece ‘A Book of the Sky’ featured a lexicon of thousands of fabricated characters that teetered on the edge of legibility, but were ultimately devoid of meaning.

"When you consider the topic of language, it is really about an endless process of reinvention and translation: words and images never have fixed definitions..."

‘Magic Carpet’ revisits this theme, but this time Xu combines the Roman alphabet with the aesthetic of Chinese characters, to create a poem in the form of a ‘magic square’ that can be read in numerous directions. It is a brilliantly conceived piece, and epitomizes the spirit of the exhibition in that it seeks to draw a connection between the visual and the textual.

Further juxtaposition is created through the variety of different media on display. For example, the intensity of Bruce Nauman’s ‘Good Boy, Bad Boy’ video installation is contrasted with the accuracy and technical skill of Liu Dan’s photorealistic rendering of a Chinese-English dictionary.

‘(Utilizing different media) was a very clear choice from the beginning of the project’ considers Frogier. ‘Artists from the past to nowadays used engraving as a practice to go beyond established media, to criticise the codes of aesthetics, so for us it is a very ambiguous and exciting practice to combine this with video, performance, painting and installations.’

'Magic Carpet' Xu Bing, 2006

The use of different media appears necessary considering the concept behind the exhibition, which is to peel back the material and practical aspects of the works on display to reveal their essence as a signifier. On this issue Frogier asserts that ‘it has nothing to do with a pompous or grandiloquent definition of art: it is only about the way art has this infinite power to activate a strong emotional experience.’

Other highlights include Martin Salazar’s dark and claustrophobic installation, inspired by the last phrase of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial,’ along with Yang Jiechang’s ‘I Still Remember’, an epic painting, in progress since 1998, in which the artist ‘processes memory’ by writing the name of every friend and acquaintance he has met over the years.

Despite the challenging nature of the theme, the curators have succeeded in putting together a coherent and thought-provoking exhibition that forces visitors to question the boundaries between art, text and symbols.