In this critical essay I will reflect on the theme of ‘What is Contemporary Art?’ covered in the Methods Seminar series (Semester 1, 2015/16), then focussing on the analysis of how two specific examples of practicing Contemporary Artists, Xu Bing and Katie Paterson, use the book as a ‘multi-media cultural form’ in making their work. I will discuss how both artists address in their practice the concept of ‘time-space compression’ a theory articulated in 1989 by David Harvey a geographer in his book The Condition of Postmodernity: an enquiry into the origins of cultural change.’ (Harvey, 1989)

When breaking down the question, ‘Contemporary Art’ as a definition is presented as meaning the ‘present day’ movement of art and artist-led practice;

‘…there have been no significant movements in the past twenty years, and artists have not been interested in organizing themselves around any.’ (What is contemporary art? E-flux issue 1, 2009).

It is an interesting point that art work made since the late 80’s which has been formally institutionalised within museums of art and art galleries, and also purchased by established private art collectors, has, according to art critics and academics been without a recognisable umbrella-like artistic movement beyond ‘modernism’. A homogenous artistic movement of current times has been elusive to the point of it being currently accepted as being too complex to categorise and is simply given the term ‘(…) “contemporary” (…) to mark the death of “modern.”’ (Medina, What is contemporary art? E-flux issue 1, 2009).

In this essay the book as a ‘multi-media cultural form’ is intended to be a description of the diversity of the presentation and interpretation of the book form, virtual and tactile (including all text and images). What constitutes a ‘book’ is expansive historically from the early calligraphic accounting marks made in cuneiform clay tablets, Egyptian papyrus scrolls and their hieroglyphs, Greek scrolls and then the development by the Romans in 4th/ 5th Century of what we now recognise as the book. This is when the Romans began to stitch together groups of hand written folded papyrus pages (signatures) bound between two wooden covers in what is referred to now as the ‘Codex.’ In Latin ‘caudex’ means the “trunk of a tree” or block of wood, book; plural codices. Gutenberg in Germany then developed and introduced the mechanically printed book to Europe in 1439, made in a press (originally adapted from a wine press) with metal moveable type allowing a ‘print proof’ to be made and corrections made before a large print run. With the advent of ‘Fordism’ and the developments in methods of mass manufacturing, distribution and production the book continued to be produced remaining faithful to its original ‘Codex form’ that we know and is still produced today.

In the last ten years what has changed and developed is the means by which the ‘book’ or text can now be published, viewed and distributed with the rapid development of the Internet and its global system of interconnected computer networks. Not only can any book be sourced and bought from any part of the world but the ‘virtual’ or ‘e-book’ has become popular with the launch of the ‘Kindle’ e-reader in 2007, allowing a virtual book shelf to be transported with great ease and easy user-accessibility. There has also been a significant increase in self-publishing as well as more mainstream independent publishing houses being established.

Online libraries and cataloging resources have been extensively developed and shared, a good example is the ‘Google Books Library Project,’ an enhanced card catalogue of the world’s books’ started in 2004, which is a project aiming to have the ultimate searchable card catalogue listing every single book in every language in the world allowing ‘(…) readers across the world to search, browse, buy or borrow the books and also reference them (…)’ ( The original deadline for completing the Google book project was recently extended as the partnerships with libraries and academic institutions assist its development. The sheer number of books in the world has been realized and continues to increase significantly. In the UK alone the International Publishers Association (IPA) reported that publishers released 184,000 new and released titles in 2013, and in 2014 it was calculated that in the UK publishers were releasing more than 20 titles per hour over the course of the year! This is a huge number of books to physically reference let alone fully digitize.

As individuals we can collect and collate our real and virtual libraries using online resources including, an accessible online catalogue with over two billion items available through lending libraries across the world. Also online there is a ‘virtual shelf’ has been developed to catalogue and manage your digital home library using sites such as and an app developed specifically for ‘cloud cataloguing.’ A good example of the transition between ‘Fordism’ to ‘flexible accumulation’ (Harvey, 1989) is how self-publishing has been developed, allowing authors to publish on the web as soon as they have a script to post.

In 1989 the geographer David Harvey presented the concept of ‘time-space compression’ in his book, The Condition of Postmodernity’ encouraging the reflection on his perceived underestimation of what it is to be human;

‘Space and time are basic categories of human existence.’ (Harvey, 1989 p201) and that ‘(…) we tend to take them for granted (…)’ (Harvey, 1989 p201)

Time-space compression, as a concept, specifically refers to anything that positively or negatively changes the qualities and relationship between time and space. Currently we are more conscious of the effects of ‘time-space compression’ from the direct results of the negative effect it has had on our working and social lives. Practically and economically over a relatively short time period ‘time-space compression’ has changed from being a ‘Fordist’ mechanism for production and the manufacturing industries in terms of maintaining steady unexaggerated economic growth into further compressing our time as technologies speed up our ability to live, work and play. The results in our working processes moving into smaller spaces creating a more compressed and at its extremes more stressful ‘time-space’ labour market.

‘We can say that the digitalization of the labor process has made any labor the same from an ergonomic and physical point of view since we all do the same thing: we sit in front of a screen and we type on a keyboard.’ (Beradi, The Soul at Work, 2009)

Harvey makes a case that we all personally experience ‘time-space compression’ on a day to day basis, just on a different scale, ‘(…) our mental processes and perceptions can play tricks, make seconds feel like light years, or pleasurable hours pass by so fast we hardly notice.’ (Harvey, 1989 p202)

It is also applicable on a global scale with the advance in technology, the Internet and worldwide trade increasing the rapidity of processes and expectations and speeding them up virtually through computer programming developed by humans but beyond a humans physical capabilities; ‘The conclusion we should draw is simply that neither time nor space can be assigned objective meanings independent of material processes (…)’ (Harvey, 1989 p204)

In relation to what we have qualified as ‘Contemporary art’ this encompasses the wide range of artistic sub groups or ‘(…) diversity within outwardly homogenous populations.’ (Harvey, 1989 p203) that has developed as a result of the effect of ‘space-time compression’ on artists working today for example in ‘Post-Internet Art’, ‘Adaptation’ and ‘Digital Play.’

‘Each distinctive mode of production or social formation will, in short, embody a distinctive bundle of time and space practices and concepts.’ (Harvey, 1989 p204)

The two Contemporary artists I have chosen both work individually with aspects of print, text, space, time and the book as a ‘multi-media cultural form’ within their current practice. The first artist I will consider is Xu Bing (born 1955, China) and the second Katie Paterson (born 1981, Scotland).

The works that will be discussed are Xu Bing’s ‘Book from the Sky’ 天书 or Tiān shū meaning ‘divine writing’ (1987 – 1991)’ first exhibited as an installation piece in the China/Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing in 1989 (figs. 1 & 2 Photos © Xu Bing Studio) and his more recent related work Book from the Ground’ (first published, 2012). Xu Bing spent 10 years researching and working in his studios on Book from the Ground’ driven ‘(…) [by his] desire to write the world’s first book that would not require translation.’ (Bing, 2014). It was completed nearly twenty years later than ‘Book from the Sky’ (fig. 3 Photo © Xu Bing Studio). Alongside these two works I wil discuss ‘Future Library (2014 – 2114)’ by Katie Paterson, this is a long term collaborative art work with a social structure at its heart. The art work has been planned to be completed unusually after the artists’ lifetime through the work of the ‘Future Library Trust.’

To begin with we will look at Xu Bing’s ‘Book from the Sky’ 天书 (figs. 1 & 2 Photos © Xu Bing Studio). This work is an installation piece of hand printed books and wall and ceiling scrolls all printed from hand carved letterpress type, ink onto paper. The work has been presented in several museum and gallery spaces where each time it is adapted to the space although each time carefully reconstructing the feel of the previous installations. On immediate viewing the texts carefully and meticulously printed by hand on each part of the installation read as a body of text, to a non-Chinese speaking audience they are convinced that it is written in Chinese therefore will be intelligible but to someone able to translate the script it is unintelligible.

Xu Bing has intentionally created a text that cannot be deciphered as it was carefully designed and adapted from actual Chinese script to be a nonsense language, represented by 3-4,000 individual wood block characters (fig. 4 Photo © Xu Bing Studio). In this work Xu Bing beautifully presents a unified and traditional Chinese aesthetic, rich in tradition and cultural reference through the materials, the traditional Book binding techniques and high standards of traditional workmanship (fig. 5 Photo © Xu Bing Studio). However, in duping the audience of any intelligent reading of the text he creates an oppressive and confusing environment, a visual scam, which can’t be accessed representing current cultural issues within Chinese politics and ethics but also recreates some of the discomfort felt in Chinese social and political society.

In contrast with this work from the late 80’s Xu Bing’s work Book from the Ground’ (first published, 2012) engages the reader purely with a coded visual fictional story about a 28 year old man and his everyday life. (figs. 6 to 8 Photo’s © Xu Bing Studio)

‘With advances in technology, and the expansion and increasing commonality of cross-region communication, humanity has become aware of the inconvenience of [traditional] language. In our digitized age, this directly impacts the individual.’ (Bing, 2014)

The story is told through the use of universally recognizable images including brand logos and emoticons taken from smart phone short hand used in messaging. People have tested the book globally and have been able to read it with very little deviation from the original meaning and story. This new pictorial text almost takes us full circle back to the coding of hieroglyphics, which is a fascinating idea.

‘Globalization has led to the continuing standardization of transnational products and consumer lifestyles, and these globalized lifestyles have grown increasingly similar by the day. An “environment of repetition” and copy culture has elevated the recognizability of all material things. And, at the same time, the development of media has led to the [rapid and widespread] transmission of these highly symbolized versions of material things, with the very real effect of “eliminating illiteracy through visual recognition.” (Bing, 2014)

Another dimension to this work is the creation of a ‘(…) “word bank” software application to accompany [the] book. When the user enters Chinese on the keyboard, the computer will automatically transfer into pictograms on the screen (fig. 9 Photo’s © Xu Bing Studio). Typing English leads to the same result, making it—in that moment—a “transfer station” between languages.’ (Bing, 2014)

By making the ‘language’ global Xu Bing has democratized language not only bridging gaps in culture but between the literate and illiterate. Reaching out to a universal reader, physically in the form of the book and virtually in the translation tool he has developed, breaking down literary barriers.

The piece of work I have researched by Katie Paterson is ‘Future Library’ (2014 – 2114). ‘Future library’ (fig. 10 Photo © Katie Paterson) was commissioned and is supported by Bjorvika Utvikling an urban development project in Norway. Katie Paterson describes it simply as;

‘A forest in Norway is growing. In 100 years it will become an anthology of books’ (Paterson, 2014).

This is a simplistic description of the Future Library project but it alerts the reader to the anticipated and pre-arranged ‘time-space compression’ timescale for the work which relys on setting out a clear framework and structure of the artists creative intentions for it to be achieved outwith the lifetime of the artist herself. Paterson anticipates that the anthology of books will number around 3,000 if the woodland planted is cared for and managed well to maximise their fullest potential as pulp to make pages (fig. 11 Photo © Katie Paterson).

‘The idea to grow trees to print books arose through making a connection between tree rings and chapters – almost as if the trees absorb the writer’s words like air or water, and the rings become chapters, spaced out over the years to come.’ (Paterson, 2014)

Each year up to 2114 a different author will be invited to write a text for the project, to select and state a title for it but promise to let no one read it before the hundred years is up. The first author to do this was Margaret Atwood and her title was revealed at a special ceremony in the forest planting sapplings as ‘Scribbler Moon.’ (fig. 12 Photo © Katie Paterson)

The anthologies will be kept in a specially constructed room (built from the timber felled in clearing the forest making space to plant the sapplings) creating a expanded sense of anticipation in the New Publis Deichmanske Library in Oslo (opening in 2018, fig. 13 Photo © Atelier Oslo).

The role of audience and artist in this project is inherent to its success; the Trust set up to look after the project from its infancy (fig. 14 Photo © Katie Paterson) to its completion is a good example of how ‘space-time compression’ has been considered. The trustees entrusted with carrying out the artists’ futurist intentions and detailed instructions, act as social and practical guardians of the artwork. Without this set of social rules of repetition and engagement, with each year’s author and the annual site social complete with campfire and chocolate, the project would lose its inherent connection between people, space, time and the promise of providing something for a future generation. It is a very socially minded art practice; it is a gentle and meditative piece of artwork as is reading a real book to your self. The Trust and its future trustees are vital to the success of the ‘slow time-space compression and ‘(…) but insist, rather, that we recognise the multiplicity of the objective qualities which space and time can express, and the role of human practices in their construction.’ (Harvey, 1989 p203)


In conclusion I propose that the book in any ‘multi-media’ form embodies ‘time-space compression’ itself as no matter what media it is composed and produced in, the book acts as a portal to time travel itself, ‘entered’ into by its reader albeit virtual or real and tactile.

While the case for the book as a physical object is still currently being questioned I think there is a strong argument that all forms of the ‘book’ will continue to co-exist as the complexities of the form of the book are now considered almost infinite with the developments of innovative and craft based technologies and as well as how they are catalogued, accessed and personalized.

The two examples of Contemporary Artists I have considered above, Xu Bing and Katie Paterson individually have approached the concept of ‘time-space compression’ at diametric opposites one (Bing) exploring in his work ‘Book from the Sky’ 天书 the verbal and visual aspects of chinese book formats and scripts and then in his later work ‘Book from the Ground’ embracing the possibilitites of a universal script generated by the symbols and marks generated by a technologically advancing and impatient world, to speed up the time it takes to communicate. While the other artist discussed (Paterson) is working with ‘Future Library’ to ensure direct control over ‘slow-time and space’ and the opposite to the hectic nature of current ‘time-space compression’ pressures and again in direct contrast to ‘(…) time’s ineluctable arrow of motion.’ (Harvey, 1989 p203)

I like the idea that time is substance that can be manipulated. I certainly see it as non-linear – reaches of time, webs, loops, networks, holes.’ (Paterson, 2014)

Patersons work acts as a release, a ‘re-routing, a grounding and a reflective biorhythmic alternative to the seemingly infinite reductions in our linear biological time that we experience daily.

This idea is also presented by Harvey where it apears he is hankering for the more random and less mechanical modus operandus where;

‘Cyclical and repetitive motions (…) provide a sense of security in a world where the general thrust of progress appears to be ever onwards and upwards (…)’ (Harvey, 1989 p202)

My own opinion is that the ‘book’ as a specifically physical object will remain a tactile and universally understood and treasured form of containing data and imagery, knowledge and creative story telling and that we will remain connected to it emotionally. I also appreciate and embrace the clear fact that all ‘books’ in their ‘multi media form(s)’ will continue to create pockets of time away from the increasing pressures of our every day working and social lives. Books in their ‘multi media form(s)’ allow the reader, the audience some escapism and a physical connection to places and times we may never experience from the historical or the purely imaginary.


This is why the book in its ‘multi media cultural form(s)’ will continue to thrive, and be referenced as a successful but constantly evolving form that I will also continue to research through the process of abstraction, ‘slow time-space compression’ processes in my own practice.



Appignanesi, R (2007) Introducing Post Modernism

Bauman, Zygmunt (2007) Consuming Life

Beech, D (Author), et al (2009) Art and Text

Beradi, Franco (2009) The Soul at Work

E Flux issue 1 (2010) What is Contemporary Art?

Fisher, Mark (2009) Capitalist Realism

Harvey, D (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: an enquiry into the origins of cultural change

Rodrigues, C & Garratt C (2010) Introducing Modernism

Stallabrass, Julian (2004) Art Incorprated

Williams, G (2014) How to write about contemporary art


Website links for articles:


Website links for Images:

Xu Bing:


Katie Paterson:°59’10.8%22N+10°41’48.7%22E/@59.9855092,10.6971239,1922m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x0–76