'Chinese artist Xu Bing has ideas about how people communicate. Different people in different countries should speak one language. Xu Bing wrote a new language. It uses pictures not words. It looks like Egyptian script meets Madison Avenue.'
Such is the translation of the symbols in the above panel, produced using software that translates words into icons.
The software was developed by Mr. Xu, a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation 'genius grant' and an icon in his own right.
An exhibit of Mr. Xu's work now on in Shanghai draws mostly from a humorous 112-page day-in-the-life type storybook he has written entirely in icons. 'Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life,' the Chongqing-born artist says in notes for the show, now at the Shanghai Gallery of Art through the end of May.
The book, 'Point to Point,' is a clever illustrated tale of eating, travel, romance and television channel surfing involving a yuppie known as Mr. Black.
Mr. Xu's book contains no words. Still, anyone savvy enough to use the Internet is likely to breeze through his writing like a native speaker of the language, which doesn't have an official name.
The trained printmaker, named a MacArthur Fellow in 1999, developed a word-set that appeared to be Chinese characters but was actually a text of readable English words written in the style of calligraphy.
He also bridged cultures with a 2004 project that was illustrated with cigarettes. He weaved the interplay of North Carolina's tobacco crop with Chinese nicotine habits, including the death of his own puffer father. What appeared to be a giant shag-carpet was in fact a tapestry of cigarettes.
Mr. Xu says his interest in what he calls 'a language of icons' is rooted in his habit of nicking seat-pocket safety fliers from airlines, the ones that use symbols to explain how to don a life vest and find the nearest exit.
Mr. Xu says he got the idea of communicating with symbols after realizing how effectively three simple diagrams on a chewing gum pack instructed consumers to dispose of the foil packaging.
The Point-to-Point book featured at the Shanghai show is the latest evolution for his language-as-icon project, which has shown in various forms around the world.
In a corner of the restaurant Jean Georges Shanghai over the weekend, Mr. Xu told guests, including conductor Tan Dun, that he is working with show co-sponsor Vertu to incorporate the symbols into a texting system for the British company's luxury mobile phones.
上周末在上海外滩一个法国餐厅Jean Georges Shanghai的角落里，徐冰对包括指挥家谭盾在内的多位来宾说，他正与沪申画廊联合赞助商、奢华手机制造商Vertu合作，准备将这些图形整合到该公司手机的短信系统中。
The playful symbols are usually reflexively readable.
A maple leaf means Canada. A skull-and-bones symbol indicates death. Clocks show the time. Mr. Xu draws a lot from the Internet, including Gmail's red envelope that essentially translates as, 'you've got mail.'
They are Egyptian-style hieroglyphics, but ones that would be more recognizable to Facebook users on Tahrir Square than the pharaohs.
One sentence containing a red-hexagonal symbol of a stop sign, a golden skeleton key, then three arrows projecting from a head appears to translate as, 'wait, where are my keys?' Other entries are equations, such a sentence that starts with a crack through a red heart, followed by boy and girl silhouettes, then a minus sign next to the girl, followed by an equal sign and lastly the boy -- a pretty obvious reference to a guy getting dumped.
Deep thoughts appear challenging with symbols. Mr. Black's anxieties are about missing appointments and trying to locate a toilet. The Golden Arches represent a favorite restaurant.
Parts get muddled in translation. Most readers are likely to understand that a black dot inside a wide eye means seeing. But the image is confusing for an American news junky since it is also the logo for television network CBS. The icon dictionary is also limited: It doesn't include the word hieroglyphics. Instead of signing his books, Mr. Xu sketches a pair of his signature round spectacles.