BRUSH STROKES OF GENIUS: Xu Bing & Victoria Tang-Owen
Text by Kee | Photo courtesy of Shanghai Tang
Xu Bing's 'square word calligraphy' for Shanghai Tang
Xu Bing and Victoria Tang-Owen (Shanghai Tang's creative director)
Xu Bing
Cashmere-silk-wool knit cardigan
Cotton jersey T-shirt
Silk double-sided scarf
In spite of their similarities, Shanghai Tang and Chinese artist Xu Bing had never crossed paths in the last 25 years – the same amount of time that the fashion label has been in business. In 2019, they finally met – which resulted in a collaboration showcasing their mutual respect in the craft and shared admiration of Chinese culture.   

Long before modern day diplomacy went out the window, Chinese artist Xu Bing was spending his days between Beijing and New York developing a new written language that pays respect to the cultures of the east and the west. That was in 1994 and just over 25 years later what has become known as the square word calligraphy is now his magnum opus in a three decade-long career. Essentially Xu wrote a new table of English alphabets – with ink on paper – utilising basic strokes seen in Chinese calligraphy. While only a fool would quickly dismiss his interpretation of the 26 letters as meaningless penmanship, any keen observer is able to unlock the mystery and his genius. He has cleverly masked each English letter with a few strokes of ink to resemble Chinese characters. For example, the letter B under Xu’s coding appears like an elongated numeral 3 attached to a 1. And it doesn’t take a beautiful mind to figure it out. By putting these strokes together within an invisible square grid, he is able to fool the untrained eye even though it spells out an English word. From there, Xu has spent countless number of hours developing new words – similar words can even be written in different ways – with each also honouring the foundations of how a Chinese character is written in the first place. Xu’s work – which has exhibited in prestigious locations like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum in London – has also found its way into the family home of the late Sir David Tang, who happened to launch Shanghai Tang the very same year Xu conceived the square word calligraphy. This mutual admiration isn’t lost even though the Hong Kong-born founder and patron of culture passed away in 2017.  His daughter Victoria Tang-Owen, who is now the creative director for the brand, sought out Xu when she was shortlisting ideas for celebrating its 25-year milestone – and by happenstance Xu came to mind as his work was just placed at her bedside. The Chinese artist, whose modest experience with a fashion house includes a painting on a Louis Vuitton trunk, immediately saw the serendipitous partnership as one that fits nicely with his own ethos and backstory too. Xu’s part in this co-branded capsule collection is the development of the brand’s slogan of Created by Chinese, rendered in square word calligraphy that would be used as a print on garments and lifestyle accessories. The beauty about this is that non-Chinese speakers can find familiarity and understand the message composed. Similarly, those are the same values and vision that Shanghai Tang’s founder had in introducing a mandarin collar to every corner of the globe.

MANIFESTO: How did this collaboration come about?

VICTORIA TANG-OWEN: As the brand is celebrating its 25th anniversary, I knew I had to find something that really embodies the concept of Shanghai Tang to help reimagine it. It was at night and I was in bed and I saw a work on my bedside that I had framed from Xu Bing. He once wrote T-A-N-G for me. So, I thought, “Wait a minute, this is exactly what I want to say for the brand. It has a Chinese essence but an international perspective.” I have been a fan of his for a very long time and the idea was sitting there all along. So I decided to write an email to him. I said: “There’s this brand called Shanghai Tang and I don’t know if you know about it but my father started it and we are celebrating the 25th year of the brand and would also like to celebrate the 25th year of your art work. What do you think?” And luckily, he said yes.

XU BING: Shanghai Tang is a brand I already knew about before when I was in New York working. And when I do come to Hong Kong, I do see it. What I have really liked about the brand from what I have observed then is the way it has promoted Chinese culture through fashion. And Shanghai Tang has been a pioneer in instigating fresh ideas to share our culture with others who are unfamiliar with it. Of course, when she told me that her brand is celebrating the 25th anniversary I was surprised that even my square word calligraphy has been around that long! I appreciate our similarities. I acknowledge that if I didn’t have a chance to experience living abroad, I wouldn’t have developed this square word calligraphy idea – which the same can be said of the founding of Shanghai Tang.  

M:  Did you ever imagine your work to one day be on a wearable canvas like a T-shirt or even a Louis Vuitton trunk?

XB: Of course when I started, I never thought about expanding my platform. I was very focused on my work as I wanted to be considered as a serious artist.

M: Work between two creatives can be tricky. What was the agreed starting point of this collab?

VTO: I think the first question was “What is it you want to say?” For me, Shanghai has always been made in China, inspired by Chines, and celebrated by Chinese. We are bringing together culture and starting conversations. I wanted to express that we are now in a time where we can say: “We are created by Chinese.” So that was the phrase that I wanted Xu Bing to interpret in his art.   

XB: I really like this phrase (Created by Chinese). But of course writing it out is another thing. I spent the most time thinking about the presentation format. Do I elongate the words and split them up more? Or present them in a vertical format?

M: What is the most difficult part about translating your work onto a different canvas?

XB: The most difficult part isn’t in developing the new characters. It would be if my work is executed on a poorly designed item. So if I ended up having to continuously alter my work because it doesn’t fit onto a proposed item then that’s difficult. I would get tired about this and I don’t like it. Thankfully, my experience with Shanghai Tang isn’t like this that’s because they know what they are doing and as an artist they have given me creative freedom to express my ideas. Similarly, I had a good time with working on an LV trunk because the artisans are so experienced and they have an understanding about your art which means you’re also able to learn from them.

M: Are you surprised that your art has endured since you developed it in 1994?

XB: I definitely hoped for it but honestly when I first showed it, there was a different interpretation in mind. I wanted to tell the audience that the way they view these characters were prejudiced by how they were taught early on. And to truly see these characters, they had to alter their mindset meaning any tension in deciphering the characters was only self-created.

M: Did you ever foresee eventually being part of the Shanghai Tang set-up?

VTO: Never! This to me has been a surprise. My father never believed that anything should be given and that it would have to be earned. He was very strict in the sense so he would never have passed it on to me. If I wanted this, I would have to earn it. I feel lucky to have earned this in a way having been a photographer, artist, product designer, looking over manufacturing and having my own creative agency. It has all built up to this so I think I have a purpose to be here with all my experience.


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