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Charles Alexander & Chinese Books

Charles Alexander & Chinese Books

BAG Lecture

November 27, 2007 | 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Perspectives on SHU:  Chinese Artists Re-Read the Boundless Book, talk by & discussion with Charles Alexander, Chax Press, Tucson, AZ, Tuesday in the Maps/Special Collections Classroom, Suzzallo Library, Basement Room B89

For most of Chinese history, the book has been a centerpiece of culture, and the encouragement given to young scholars was to "read a thousand books and travel a thousand paths." It was the bookish, the learned men, who ruled throughout the vast physical expanse of China. Broad and deep knowledge of books was critically important.

The Chinese Revolution that began in the May 4th Movement of 1919 would culminate in a new People's Republic of China in 1949, followed by a vast repression of widespread reading. Then, in 1956, a new movement was encouraged: "Let the hundred flowers blossom, let the hundred schools of thought contend." It was not long until this new movement was quashed and increased suppression of ideas and reading occurred, leading to the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and ended officially in 1969 but unofficially not until the Gang of Four was arrested in 1976.

During the Cultural Revolution, which was the time in which many current leading Chinese artists grew up and came of age, reading was limited to the little red book of Chairman Mao, and little else. Yet ideas were seeping in, and gradually after 1976 more Chinese students studied abroad; it was not long until Chinese art exploded, both in terms of variety and in terms of world impact, from the early 1980s and continuing in the present. It is no surprise that one of the first icons Chinese artists addressed was the book.

The book was a symbol of learning, yet the book was also a symbol of repression of learning. The book was a symbol of officialdom. It was also a Western symbol of prestige and decadence. Chinese artists have an intense relationship with the book that is filled with love, anger, challenge, and no resolution in sight. Far more than in the west, Chinese art that addresses the book is about what the book has represented and might represent in the past, present, and unpredictable future.

This talk will briefly address the history of the book in China, the work of artists presented in Seattle Asian Art Museum's current exhibition, Shu: Reinventing the Book in Contemporary Chinese Art, and the notion of the artist's book maker as an individual involved in a critique of book culture and of culture at large. It will also articulate Charles Alexander’s own connection to the art of the Chinese book.  Charles is a well-known poet, printer, publisher and book artist who has been working in the field for over 25 years.

The intent is to talk for a brief period of time (20 to 30 minutes) and then engage the audience in discussion of the exhibition Shu and issues it raises with regard to contemporary book arts workers. Prospective audience members are strongly encouraged to visit the exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Presented by The Book Arts Guild and Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries.