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published: April, 2002

Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License


Describing the Contemporary
John Gordy, Smithsonian Institution, USA

Demonstration: Demonstrations 2

Our goal was to present our visitors with an introduction to work by the contemporary Chinese artist, Xu Bing. We created interactives that went beyond documenting the installation. They illustrate some of the concepts behind Bing's work.

As an introduction to the artist, we asked the curator of the exhibition, Britta Erickson, to interview Bing about the importance of language in his personal background and in his artwork. He also spoke about his process of fusing writing, painting, poetry, and personal chronicle into a site specific installation at the Sackler. We were able provide our online visitors with audio excerpts of these interviews.

One of the installations that Bing created specifically for the Sackler Gallery was "Monkeys Grasp for the Moon". It's an installation of word shapes, each a representation of the word monkey rendered in over a dozen languages. With the tails and arms of the figures linked together, the installation reaches eighty feet from the galleries skylight to just above the still pool four floors below. The work is based on a Buddhist folktale from China. In the online interactive, we were able to juxtapose the folktale, the characters and the language each was based on, and a traditional Chinese painting from our collection that is also based on that fable.

Another site specific installation is "The Living Word". It begins with characters for the word "bird" on the gallery floor. Proceeding upward, these characters evolve toward the ancient Chinese pictograph for the word bird. As the characters fly towards the ceiling of the gallery, they change to current Chinese, into English and finally into a bird like form. For the interactive we were able to animate Bing's sketches for the installation. As the user mouses over each character, they soar upward revealing what language or script they were based on.

Outreach to our local and national community is an important component of every exhibit at the Sackler Gallery. The Laughter Project explores the pleasures and pains of conveying ideas in a foreign language. It brought together second-language learners to share stories of mis-communication. Theses classes visited the exhibition and presented their own stories about language. We video taped them and beginning with Bing's own story, presented a selection online.

With this series of online interactives we were able to provide our visitors with an understanding of the ideas that are illustrated in the installation. Once informed, they will be able to engage at a deeper level in the ideas presented.