In two recent exhibitions, the Chinese-born artist has subverted calligraphy and traditional landscape painting
A language written in pictures like Chinese lends itself to calligraphy as art, and art as calligraphy. Xu Bing, whose exhibition Landscape Landscript ran this spring at Oxford's Ashmolean museum, printed 4,000 invented characters on scrolls and in books, hung so that they simultaneously invite and defy understanding. It is not just characters that he subverts. In the entirely different setting of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, visitors see what appears to be a traditional homage to classical Chinese landscape painting, which on closer inspection is a backlit series of shapes created by dried plants. And beyond hang two enormous phoenixes, too raw for the intended site in the atrium of a new Beijing building, created entirely of what the artist calls architectural excreta – workmen's helmets and spades, bits of tube and old air extractors, welded into the birds that symbolise both rebirth and imperial power.