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Art for Thought

In ‘Art For Thought’, Janice Peh encourages readers to discuss what is happening in the world today by meditating on a different artwork every fortnight.

In a utopian world, we would all be living in perfect peace and harmony. Reality, however, suggests that our world is one replete with conflicts and prejudice.

Every day, we are bombarded with news of people griping about globalisation, immigrants and refugees. It seems like we are living in an increasingly divisive world, where multiculturalism and globalisation are met with contempt, as they have become the scapegoats for social problems such as unemployment and economic collapse. Cultural signifiers have become a determining factor when our society decides whether a person should be welcomed or shunned.

Sometimes it can feel like the media is throwing us into an abyss of hopelessness, as it paints us this picture of a dystopian world, saturated in gloom and despair. Yet, there is an artist who shows us a hopeful, alternative reality. Chinese artist Xu Bing has been awarded numerous awards by multiple institution – including Columbia University and the US State Department – for promoting cultural understanding between the East and West. This week, we look at one of his fascinating work: ‘Square Calligraphy Classroom’.

Breaking barriers, building bridges

‘Square Calligraphy Classroom’ is an installation artwork that simulates a typical classroom environment. Neatly laid out in the museum’s exhibition space are tables and chairs that look like the something you might find in a classroom. A large chalkboard is displayed at the front of the room, near a video encouraging museum visitors to sit at any of the desks and become students in this class.

A set of learning materials are displayed on every table: a Chinese calligraphy brush, a small container of ink and a copybook with instructions. When you open the copybook, you find instructions written in English and models of handwriting for learners to imitate and inscribe. Museum visitors are encouraged to pick up the calligraphy brush that is provided, dip it in ink, and to begin inscribing the words found in the copybook.

The English-language instructions in the books introduce learners to an original writing system invented by the artist, named ‘New English Calligraphy’. This writing system is a hybridisation of the English alphabet and Chinese characters. Each English letter is modified and rearranged into a square-word format, so that the alphabet somewhat resembles a Chinese character but remains discernible to the English reader.

As museum visitors identify and inscribe each word in the copybook, their preconceptions about reading and writing are challenged. Through this process of unlearning and relearning a written language that one is deeply familiar with, visitors learn that the apparent gulf between various cultures is mostly an illusion. Rather than emphasising the many differences between the East and West, the artist found his own way to harmoniously integrate these two seemingly disparate worlds.

What does the ANU community think?

‘It is extremely important to gain further understanding of other cultures. Without understanding, we cannot progress together to create an open, undivided world. Globalisation is only productive if companies ensure that the proper treatment of each worker is made a priority.’ – George Dover, Bachelor of Visual Arts

‘I think it is absolutely necessary to gain a deeper understanding of other cultures. In a global community that has become more interconnected than ever, a broader and deeper understanding of cultures definitely imbues a person with a practical perspective on life. This understanding builds firm foundations for relationships, something that is invaluable.’ – Daniel Kang, Bachelor of Law and International Relations

‘I don’t think it is very important to find similarities between different cultures. What is truly important is understanding and appreciating each culture as it is, despite the differences. By understanding each culture’s unique attributes, we will learn to appreciate diversity and enjoy discovering the uniqueness of the many diverse cultures in our world.’ – Ong Hong Sheng, PhD in Immunology

What do you think? Is intercultural understanding an idealised, impossible concept? Is multicultural harmony a romantic, impracticable notion?