Milstein students get a glimpse of artist Xu Bing’s character

Students in the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity were treated to a special Q&A session Sept. 26 with Chinese artist and A.D. White Professor-at-Large Xu Bing, whose animation “The Character of Characters” is on display at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Part of the campuswide Cornell Council for the Arts 2018 Biennial, the Xu Bing exhibition consists of a 17-minute animated video using five projectors to create a single landscape, related works by the artist and a collection of scrolls that demonstrate the meaning and evolution of calligraphy throughout Chinese history.

“As someone who been studying Chinese for many years, I always thought of the characters as representations and depictions,” said Milstein student Bliss Zheng ’22. “Xu Bing’s presentation really emphasized that for me and it was interesting to think of these ‘characters’ like characters in a book with personality.”

Without vibrant colors or narration, the film clearly depicts the role of language – in particular, the “building blocks” of Chinese characters – on the historical and the modern, increasingly technological China. The film begins with a single stroke across the screen, the Chinese character for the number one. Xu explained that this is a reference to a Chinese proverb that translates roughly as “everything comes from one.”

One aspect of Chinese culture Xu emphasizes in the film is the importance of memorization and precision in Chinese calligraphy. Xu told the Milstein cohort that in traditional Chinese education, students would be highly regarded if they could recite 300 traditional poems, even if they could not write many of them.

“What I found most intriguing was Xu’s ability to provide multiple meanings behind a particular character,” said Chloe Kanders ’22.

Viewing a fundamental Chinese character as a form rather than a symbol, one can interpret its meaning in a multitude of ways, she said. “For example, one character was initially depicted as a human arm, then the flesh was removed to reveal the muscle and then the arm was reduced to its bone. Xu Bing explained that this evolution – or devolution – of the human arm symbolizes the foundations upon which Chinese language is based and how language and characters possess a deeper meaning than their face value.”

Following the discussion, the group viewed the trailer and a video for Xu’s film “Dragonfly Eyes” (2017). All of the footage for the film was shot through surveillance cameras in public areas; there were no actors or actresses and directors and producers wrote the script after selecting and manipulating the footage. Xu said the average person is recorded on 300 different cameras every day without their knowledge. The film deals with the concepts of surveillance and an individual’s independence in a technologically driven and monitored world.

“I was really inspired by how Xu Bing was able to transform something as seemingly modern and mundane as security camera footage into a completely original art form,” Jasper Weed ’22 said.

The Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, launched in 2017 with a $20 million gift from the Milstein Family Foundation, is a collaboration between the College of Arts & Sciences and Cornell Tech. The first undergraduate link between the Ithaca and Roosevelt Island campuses, it offers a multidisciplinary experience by combining a liberal arts education in Ithaca with cutting-edge programs and courses at the new graduate campus in New York City.

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		 A.D. White Professor-at-Large Xu Bing