This Exhibition Has Ended

August 11, 2018
December 23, 2018
In the Bartels Gallery, Floor 1L

As part of the campus-wide Cornell Council for the Arts (CCA) 2018 Biennial, Duration: Passage, Persistence, Survival, the Johnson Museum is presenting The Character of Characters, a five-channel animation by Xu Bing, current A. D. White Professor-at-Large.

This playful and poetic work, created in 2012, expresses the artist’s views on the Chinese writing system as fundamental to Chinese culture and its progress toward the future. This animation, which Xu Bing has described as his “thesis” on the unique qualities of Chinese language and calligraphic practice, was inspired by one of China’s greatest artists, Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322). In it, Xu Bing analyzes, examines, and reimagines two of Zhao’s famous handscrolls: one a calligraphy, The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma; and the other a landscape painting, Autumn Colors on the Qiao and Hua Mountains.

Over the course of the video, the artist reflects on the ancient origins and philosophical basis for calligraphy, the traditional methods of using the brush and close ties with ink painting, the reverence for the pictographic characters that comprise the writing system, the historical development of calligraphy and its relationship to political power, the important role of copying, and the connections between calligraphy and the spirit of the Chinese people.

Select Chinese paintings and calligraphy from the Johnson’s collection provide historical and aesthetic context, along with earlier works by Xu Bing.


This exhibition was curated by Ellen Avril, chief curator and curator of Asian art at the Johnson, and cosponsored by the A. D. White Professor-at-Large Program. The CCA Biennial was curated by Timothy Murray, Professor of Comparative Literature and English and director of the Cornell Council for the Arts. Other works that are part of the Biennial will be on view at the Museum on Floor 1 and in the Morgan Garden.