A few years back, during one of our Toronto mini-vacations, I was browsing in the shop of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and I came across a small book that had no words, just pictures. No, it wasn’t a book with pictures of artworks or photographs: it was a story, told entirely through common icons, symbols, and emoticons. Pictograms, looking not unlike a modernized version of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
There wasn’t even a book title on the cover. There were no instructions, no guides, no hints, no translations. The reader had to figure out what the story was about by him- or herself. Translating it is not based on any particular culture or language; the “language” in it is globally understandable. On Xu Bing’s own website, it notes:
The book is written in a way that any reader, regardless of his or her cultural or educational background, can understand. As long as one lives within the contemporary society, he or she will be able to interpret the book.
It was Xu Bing’s Point to Point, part of his Book From the Ground project (created between 2003 and 2012; a project that is much more complex than just a book). As you might expect from an avid reader, I bought a copy. I was intrigued by the premise and took it as a challenge to “read” it myself. But I was also awed by both the audacity of the idea, and, as an aficionado of language, by the brilliance of it.
I was also struck by how ubiquitous were these symbols he uses; so much so that ‘translating’ the lines into prose was not particularly difficult; merely time-consuming. And that was mostly because we are used to seeing these symbols and emoticons as single-function graphics; not in verbal form or in the syntax we expect for sentences. The symbols lend themselves to prosaic, even dull reading, not abstract concepts, so the ‘story’ is rather unexciting by modern novel standards. It’s more like a diary: 24 hours in the life of the generic Mr. Black.
Mr. Black is Dilbert, without the cynical/sarcastic banter, without the jokes on cube life, without the cast of wacky characters, yet trapped within the same day-to-day corporate life.
ArtReview wrote of the book:
From Point to Point, part of Xu Bing’s wider project Book from the Ground, is a 112-page novel depicting 24 hours in the life of an ordinary office worker, Mr Black, from seven one morning to seven the next, as he wakes, eats breakfast, goes to work, meets friends, looks for love online and goes out on a date. The book has punctuation marks, but no text; in place of words there are pictograms, logos, illustrative signs and emoticons, all taken from real symbols in use around the world. The artist has collated these over a period of seven years and used them to devise a universal ideographic language, in theory understandable by anyone engaged with modern life.
At the same time I bought the book, I wanted to learn more about the artist who created it, how he accomplished it, and what he was trying to say about language and symbols. So I bought a second book to help me understand: Mathieu Borysevicz’s The Book about Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground. This explained the project and Xu’s processes, his computer work, and explored responses to his work.
In 2015 and 2016, Xu Bing created separate day and night (respectively) pop-up versions of his book, described on his website as “making this universally readable book more playful and amusing.” I have yet to get either, but I’m tempted.