Book from the ground is « a book that anyone can read », says its author, Chinese artist Xu Bing. It was conceived as a response to his Book from the Sky, a book written twenty years before and made only of illegible Chinese characters.
First an exhibition at the MASS MoCA in 2013, the « Book from the ground » project was then published in France under the title « Une histoire sans mots » (Grasset, 2013), and later (2014) in the US by MIT Press. No need to change the content: it could have been published anywhere, since this graphic novel is composed entirely of symbols and icons that are supposedly understood by everyone.
The temptation was too big: a book that doesn’t need to be translated? Let’s do it then, for the mere pleasure of inverting the usual operation of translation (giving access to a text which is unreadable for many readers); for the excitement of revealing the potentiality of Xu Bing’s work through it’s conversion into text; for the challenge of finding ways to reproduce the transdisciplinary constraint of the original project (a narrative with images only). Here is a selection of texts that originally take part in a multimedia performance for two readers. The voices alternate or echo each other while the images of Xu Bing’s book are projected in the background. Text and sound are suggested as translations of the pictograms.
Clock reads seven o’clock
Magnify point, magnify little globe, magnify globe, magnify point on the globe, magnify point on a city, magnify point on a neighborhood in a city, magnify house with a tree, magnify tree, birdsong from the tree ,
The bird says : « la la la la »—the last four notes of the melody reach the bed.
The alarm clocks says, « La la la ! » exclamation point. The bird responds : « La la ! », the clock reads five minutes.
The alarm clocks says « la la la ! » exclamation point. The bird stops singing and flies away.
The alarm clocks says « la la LA ! » exclamation point, exclamation point. The sound reaches the ear exclamation point. Closed eye, arrow, open eye, exclamation point. Hand points to an exed-out alarm clock, eye sees rain at the window, disgruntled guy, open eye, arrow, closed eye.
Black cat, black cat’s green eyes, the cat jumps on the bead, surprised guy exclamation point, disgruntled guy, sitting on the bed guy, cat arrow.
Guy sitting on the bed, arrow, guy walking, double arrows, toilet. Guy sitting on the toilets, sick guy, six ellipses.
Sick guy, guy making a real effort, guy making a real effort and sweating a lot, guy making a real effort and sweating a lot. Ellipses. Surprised guy, ex-d out poop, guy sitting on the toilets, thought bubble, instestines, question mark ?
Guy sitting on the toilet, open eye arrow telephone, open parentheses, Twitter logo, Google plus logo, RSS feeds logo, Facebook logo, close parentheses, happy guy, ellipses... surprised guy, exclamation point.
Poop, arrow pointing down, sick guy sweating, poop, arrow pointing down, arrow pointing down, guy huffing and puffing, happy guy, toilet paper, open eye, arrow poop, toilet flusher, toilet seat down.
Shower, hair-dryer, shaving cream, razor, toother brush, toothpaste on toothbursh. Bathroom, double arrow, guy walking.
Guy walking, double arrow, open parentheses, wardrobe, plus, underwear, plus, tee-shirt, plus, pants, plus, shirt, plus, socks, plus, shoes : black guy, close parentheses. Black guy open eye arrow arrow open eye black guy, guy thinking (or is he popping a zit ?), white shirt exed out, refresh, green shirt, guy looking none too sure, refresh, blue shirt, guy blushing, mauve shirt, guy not convinced, six ellipses, black guy thinks of a hot girl, lightbulb with heart, white shirt, check !, happy guy plus striped tie, it’s all good, wardrobe, double arrow, guy walking.
Guy walking, double arrow, kitchen. Finger presses the button, button starts coffee machine, mug with sugar, stirring spoon, hot coffee, thermostat turned on, guy holding pan, egg arrow pan, open parentheses, eggs and bacon, close parentheses, bread arrow pan, pan over fire, ten minutes, coffee arrow open mouth, ellipses, hot coffee, elipses.
Finger presses buton, dash, radio, dash, dash, radio, emitting waves, speaking : quote, cloud with rain arrow cloud with sun arrow cloud with rain, thermometer, arrow pointing down, ellipses, end quote, black guy thinks about an umbrella.
(one reader makes the sounds while the other one reads the text. See video.)
Horloge qui indique sept heures.
Point loupe [click], petit globe loupe [click click], globe loupe, [click] point sur le globe loupe, [click] point sur une ville loupe, [drag] point sur un quartier de la ville loupe [click], maison avec arbre loupe [drag], arbre loupe, [click click] chant de l’oiseau sur l’arbre [drag].
L’oiseau dit : « (Lily chante les notes) » – les quatre dernières notes de cette mélodie atteignent le lit. [snoring]
Le réveil dit : « Lily chante les notes » point d’exclamation. L’oiseau répond : « Lily chante les notes », horloge indique 5 minutes. [tic toc]
Le réveil dit : « Lily chante les notes » point d’exclamation. L’oiseau se tait et s’envole de sa branche. [fwap fwap fwap]
Le réveil dit : « Lily chante les notes plus fort » point d’exclamation point d’exclamation. Le son atteint l’oreille [huh ?] point d’exclamation. Œil fermé, flèche, œil ouvert, point d’exclamation [bling !]. Main désigne réveil barré [hand slap, clash], œil voit pluie par la fenêtre [plip plop plip plop], bonhomme mécontent œil ouvert, flèche, œil fermé. [snoring]
Chat noir [meow], yeux verts du chat noir, le chat saute sur le lit [meow !], bonhomme surpris [unh !?] point d’exclamation bonhomme mécontent [uhh], bonhomme assis sur le lit [wake up noise/gesture], chat flèche. [meow]
Bonhomme assis sur le lit [wake up noise/gesture], flèche, bonhomme qui marche [pat pat pat pat pat], double flèche, toilettes. Bonhomme assis sur les toilettes [uh], bonhomme malade [uhhhhhh], six points de suspension.
Bonhomme malade, [constipation noises] bonhomme en plein effort, bonhomme en plein effort avec gouttes de transpiration [panting], bonhomme en plein effort [constipation noises] avec beaucoup de gouttes de transpiration [panting]. Points de suspension. Bonhomme surpris [huh ?], crotte barrée, bonhomme assis sur les toilettes, [constipation noises] bulle de pensée, intestin [gurgling stomach noises], point d’interrogation ?
Bonhomme assis sur les toilettes [cont gurlging noises], œil ouvert flèche téléphone, [bloo ba boo ba beep] ouvrez la parenthèse, logo Twitter, [ts] logo Google plus, [ts ts] logo flux RSS, [ts ts] logo Facebook, [ts] fermez la parenthèse bonhomme content, points de suspension… [gurgling noises] bonhomme surpris, point d’exclamation [tiny plop].
Crotte, [tiny plop] flèche vers le bas, [constipation noises] bonhomme malade qui transpire [panting], crotte, [Plop !] flèche vers le bas, [Plop !] flèche vers le bas, [Plop !] bonhomme qui souffle, [Ahhhhhh] bonhomme content, papier toilette, [fdddddd] œil ouvert flèche crotte, [swipe swipe swipe] chasse d’eau-cuvette se ferme. [Flush !]
Douche [eruh shhhhhh], sèche-cheveux [neeeeeee], mousse à raser plus rasoir [fffffd fffffd], brosse à dents flèche dentifrice sur brosse à dents [k-kr squeezy noise ch-ch-ch-ch-ch]. Salle de bains, double flèche, bonhomme qui marche. [pat pat pat pat...]
Bonhomme qui marche, double flèche, ouvrez la parenthèse, [mime] penderie, plus, caleçon, plus, t-shirt, plus, pantalon, plus, chemise, plus, chaussette, plus, chaussure : bonhomme noir, fermez la parenthèse. Bonhomme noir œil ouvert flèche flèche œil ouvert [geste : double guns, wink in the mirror] bonhomme noir, bonhomme réfléchit [mmm-mmmh], chemise blanche barrée, rafraîchir [whoop], chemise verte [mime], bonhomme dubitatif [ennhhhhh], rafraîchir [whoop], chemise bleue [mime], bonhomme rougissant [eeinnh - leger degout], rafraîchir [whoop], chemise mauve [mime], bonhomme pas convaincu [sung « i dunno »], six points de suspension. Bonhomme noir pense à belle fille [whistle + sexy hum], ampoule avec cœur, [bling !] chemise blanche validée, [check !] bonhomme content plus cravate rayée, tout va bien [ta da !], penderie, double flèche, bonhomme qui marche. [pat pat pat pat...]
Bonhomme qui marche, double flèche, cuisine. Doigt appuie sur bouton [click], bouton déclenche cafetière [coffee machine noises], tasse avec sucre [ploop], cuiller qui remue [tink], café chaud [blowing], thermostat allumé, [ki-ki-khooo !] bonhomme tient poële [clang], œuf flèche poële [crack tsssssss], ouvrez la parenthèse, œufs et bacon [TSSSSS], fermez la parenthèse, pain flèche poële [rumple rumple fwap], poële sur feu, [tssssss] 10 minutes, [TSSSSSS] café flèche bouche ouverte [tsah – mouth opening noise], points de suspension, café chaud [burny mouth noise], points de suspension. [eating drinking noises]
Doigt appuie sur bouton [click click], tiret, radio, [white noise] tiret, radio qui émet des ondes dit [louder white noise]: ouvrez les guillemets, nuage avec plus flèche nuage avec soleil flèche nuage avec pluie, thermomètre flèche qui descend, points de suspension, fermez les guillemets, bonhomme noir pense parapluie.
[Radio noises : static static... dunno why/static/radio dial turning/ I’m only happy when it/dial turning/static/static/dial turning/blame it on the/dial turning/static/now for/dial turning/Forcasts show rain today with a high of 50 and a low of 35 degrees farenheit. It’s gonna be a stormy one folks...]
(one reader reads the main texte while the other one reads the words on the right.)
(one reader reads the English version, the other reader reads a French translation simultaneously. The volume evolves progressively so that sometimes the English is louder and the French is whispered, and other times it’s the other way round).
Seven o’clock in the morning
See a point in the universe, get up close to it, closer, yes, closer still, you will see a city, closer still, a place in this city, in the heart of one of these buildings on the cityscape you know so well, and closer still, a house, also familiar to you, and next to which a tree grows, and upon which a bird sings.
The bird’s pick-me-up melody spreads, stretches, reaches out right up to your bed, where the last notes come to you, like in a dream.
Your alarm clock, not in the least concerned which such melodious effects, reminds you without further ado, that the day has begun. As though in echo, as though recognizing one of its partners, the bird strikes up again the first notes of its melody. You follow along, for five minutes, you don’t notice the time passing. But the alarm does not give in so easily, and reminds you again, this time with kick, that your night is indeed at an end. The bird, taken aback with such hostility, stops its singing, and flies off its branch, which has suddenly become hostile terrain.
Triumphantly, as though victor in a battle, the alarm clock starts up again with renewed vim and vigor. In spite of your best efforts to resist, you eventually allow the sound penetrate your ear, still muffled, still sleepy. You open one eye, so as not to have to open two. You hail your alarm clock to be quiet, its hour of glory at an end, and you chance a shy glimpse out the window, but upon seeing the rain pummeling down outside, you close your eye as abruptly as you had sent it out on its inspection assignment. No point in beginning a day which in any event, promises nothing good.
Luckily (or not), Minogue, your little black, green-eyed cat, knows you too well to leave you to it, and in a leap, she is on top of you, her paw on your face, letting it be known that no end to the mayhem was in sight, you getting up or what? Your night has gone on but too long. A brief moment of surprise passes, quickly followed by a moment of renunciation, you give in, and you get up progressively : if you are sitting, that may be considered progress. Goddamn Minogue.
Still asleep, you head to the toilet : this is where your mind, calm and concentrated, may awaken tenderly, as it deserves. Nothing : on this day, nothing doing. Try as you might, worry as you might, wait as you might, push as you might with all your might, nothing. Could you have eaten something bad? Do you have an intestinal problem? Gotta remember to check Doctissimo. For a distraction—and where better to distract yourself?—you check your favorite sites on your phone, required introductions to your day surfing the webs (yes, the same ones that everyone checks, Twitter, Facebook, Google plus, News of course—you never claimed to be original). This makes you happy, these daily rituals which provide you access to the world, to the universe, without even having to get up off your seat. And here comes the twist, your body none the wiser, relaxed and let go, your pipes get to working normally again, and not without a little effort, you dump what you’ve got to dump, wipe, inspect the product with pride, and, not without relief, you flush. You can now carry on with the breezy, effortless choreography of the morning: shower, dry your hair, shave, brush your teeth, the end. No effort wasted.
The similar, yet perhaps more anguished choreography of getting dressed. You’re going to have to find the underwear, the tee-shirt, the pants, the socks and shoes which will make it so that on this gray and monotonous day, you will look like none other than yourself, your everyday self, the one accompanying you from the day you were born, the one you look at and see in the mirror, and that you recognize, without any particular relish. You seem pale, the white shirt’s no good. You try the green one, but remain skeptical. You try the blue, but is it too much? You try the mauve, unconvinced. You think back to the woman you’re going to see today, this phenomenon you haven’t met yet but who is going to cross your path, and will no doubt reveal herself to be the love of your life that you’ve been waiting for since always. Only the white shirt could live up to such an adventure. With a striped tie preferably. Awesome. You’re ready.
Now is your favorite phase of the morning : breakfast. Effort is always minimal, the choreography, always simple: a button, the coffee comes out, a sugar cube, a stirrer, another button, the burners heat up, you crack the egg against the pan with the graceful art of one who does that every day, not a drop escaping. If eggs and bacon are a make-over for the morning mass’s wafer, the buttered toast is its juicy receptacle. Wait for it. First mouthful. The coffee burns, as on every morning, and you promise to be patient tomorrow. You let it cool while listening to news radio, and the weather woman’s voice confirms what you already knew, that the day promises nothing good : it will be cloudy, with hints of sun in the begining of the afternoon, rainy, and in any case, cold all day long. You jot down a mental post-it to take your umbrella, which is always useful (as a pick-up prop as much as to avoid getting wet).