From East to West : Traditional East Asian and Contemporary European Printing
29 April – 17 August 2008 The Folio Society Gallery at the British Library
The British Library exhibition From East to West displays some of the finest examples of East Asian printing, many of them rare or previously unseen. From 9th century printed fragments discovered in a cave temple complex at Dunhuang, to 21st century examples of fine printing by contemporary artists inspired by classical Asian printing techniques, From East to West moves from past to present to examine the development of printing over the centuries.
The exhibition includes exquisite examples of traditional Japanese colour printing, unique and rarely seen items including a miniature Buddhist scroll dating from the mid-19th century, as well as work by key print artists and groups, such as the influential 17th century Ten Bamboo Studio. From East to West also features work by notable contemporary artists including Wang Chao, Han Likun and Xu Bing.
Born in 1955, acclaimed Chinese artist Xu Bing was a student during the Cultural Revolution, producing politically acceptable drawings. By the 1980s, he was exploring conceptual art and the textual aspect of woodblock printing. On show is a ‘Tian shu’ or Book from the Sky, a playful guide to Chinese pronunciation, with entries including the letter P pronounced ‘pi’ using the Chinese character for ‘fart’ and the letter ‘W’ pronounced ‘da bu liu’. Another Xu Bing exhibit is a humorous ‘teach yourself to write Chinese’ guide using English characters presented in the style of the Chinese alphabet.
Also displayed is German artist Thomas Kilpper’s work ‘The Diamond Sutra’, part of ‘The Ring’ series (1999-2000) and inspired by Orbit House, former home to the British Library’s Oriental and India collections. Shortly before the building was demolished, Kilpper created an enormous woodblock carved into the parquet floor to produce the print, with the design covering many aspects of the history of the building and collections, including a reference to the Diamond Sutra (868 AD) the world’s earliest dated printed book, found in Dunhuang in 1907 by Sir Aurel Stein, and now part of the British Library’s collections.
The British Library’s collections of fine printing from East Asia are among the best in the world, with the earliest examples of woodblock illustration dating back to 9th century China. Coloured woodblock illustration developed most spectacularly in 18th century Japan and the continuing tradition of exquisite printing in Korea, Japan and China is reflected in the Library’s most recent acquisitions of artist’s books, which includes modern works by contemporary artists inspired by East Asian woodblock prints.