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.
Xu Bing had a previous work called A Book From the Sky, in which he created a “book” that looked like a beautiful book from the Ming Dynasty, but was actually crafted of 4,000 glyphs cut into woodblocks. Xu designed the glyphs himself to look like traditional Chinese characters, but they were, in fact, meaningless. For a westerner not familiar with Chinese characters, they looked authentic.
I mentioned Xu Bing’s Point-to-Point book in a post I made on Jul. 2, 2017 and again on Nov. 22, 2018. I recently picked up the book again, and considered it in light of what I was reading and writing about metaphors. Xu’s entire book was about metaphors: every symbol was both a pictograph (“a pictorial symbol for a word or phrase”) and a graphic metaphor.
But I’ve also been reading The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, about “…a surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature—and the remarkable connections it makes with humans.” And in reading it I was wondering about how we communicate with non-human/non-verbal species, especially those with high levels of sentience-intelligence-consciousness. Do octopuses communicate in metaphors? Symbols? Or anything analogous to our forms? Do other sentient creatures think about life, mortality, faith? Can we ever fully understand them and share ideas and thoughts?
But if we cannot communicate directly via language, might we be able to do so through symbols?
Humans have been able to successfully communicate with apes via sign language. Could symbols become the universal language that crosses species barriers? In its review of Point to Point, Aesthetica Magazine wrote, “Pictographic language, the dissolving boundaries in globalised communication and the anxieties of modern life are the themes explored by Xu Bing…” Could we develop a set of symbols and icons that both humans and octopuses can relate to? Can octopuses even see and interpret such symbols? Or are their eyes and brains simply too alien to process them in any way that would be meaningful to humans? But perhaps there is some common ground we can find to open a dialogue with them. On Xu Bing’s website it mentions the computer program that might be adapted for such a purpose:
Xu Bing’s studio also made a character database software that corresponds to the language of the book. Users can enter words either in English or in Chinese, and the program will translate them into Xu Bing’s lexicon of signs. It thus serves as an intermediary form of communication and exchange between the two languages.
On top of that book, I’m reading Maryanne Wolf’s Reader Come Home: Reading in the Digital Age about how reading changes the brain, and how our technology and internet has affected our abilities to read, comprehend, and assess information and data. Our ability to use and assess metaphor, as well as to communicate with other species, is at risk by our changes in reading (our shift from seep, text-based reading to shallow, digital-based reading) and how that is affecting (and weakening) our collective brains. But that’s a sidetrack path from the other books.
Meanwhile, back to Point to Point. For some time after I bought the book, I read and translated its symbols into prose as I worked out the story of Mr. Black. It’s not a particularly interesting story, composed of the mundane events of daily life; waking, showering, making breakfast, going to work, checking email, checking his phone… no spies, car chases, no aliens, not even a Godzilla movie. But it has soccer teams and players.
Having translated a large portion of it to my satisfaction some time ago, I put it down… only to pick it up (and the companion volume) again this past week because it seemed increasingly relevant to my other reading about metaphors, communication, and consciousness.