The installation titled “One: Xu Bing” features a new acquisition, “Square Word Calligraphy: Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman” (2018), which celebrates the famous American poet’s ties to the Brooklyn Museum, as well as the 200th anniversary of his birth. Xu Bing, widely regarded as one of China’s most important living artists, created this work specifically for the Brooklyn Museum using “square word calligraphy,” a conceptual method of writing English words stylized as Chinese characters that Xu developed while living in Brooklyn in the early 1990s. The resulting painting is a commentary on the immigrant experience of living between two cultures, simultaneously serving as an example of the new traditions and unique perspectives that evolve when cultural experiences are shared.
The large-scale painting features Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which details the narrator’s journey across the East River on a Brooklyn-bound ferry and the excitement he witnessed among his fellow passengers as they came from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Published as part of his famous collection “Leaves of Grass,” the Whitman poem uses the shared experience of diverse travelers on a crowded ferry to comment on human relationships across time and place. Similarly, Xu Bing’s homage to the poet celebrates the global interconnectedness experienced by immigrants of different ethnic backgrounds melding cultures and creating new traditions. Whitman, who was known as the American poet of democracy, also served as an early librarian at the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library Association, the predecessor to the Brooklyn Museum.
For more on Xu Bing’s work, please watch our segment about his installation titled “Phoenix.”