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Recalling Nǚshū, a Secret Women’s Language, Poet JinJin Xu Knocks Words in Shanghai Exhibition

Recalling Nǚshū, a Secret Women’s Language, Poet JinJin Xu Knocks Words in Shanghai Exhibition

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JinJin Xu Tutu Zhu
JinJin Xu. ” What Would You Hear If You Could? #1. 2021-2024. Sound installation. Mesh netting, directional speakers. Site-specific dimensions. Photo curtesy of How Art Museum.

Heidegger suggested that “language is a house of being” and criticized those who treated language only as a tool. JinJin Xu, who is first and foremost a poet, explores this profound relationship between language and existence through poetic video, archive, sound, poetry, performance and installation to construct diverse interdisciplinary works in her latest solo exhibition Against the Earth, She Knocks at How Art Museum in Shanghai, which I curated. Recalling, Nǚshū, a script derived from Chinese used exclusively among women in Jiangyong Country in Hunan Province, the exhibition begs viewers to change their relationship with language, to go beyond appearances and enter what Immanuel Kant called a “deeper” language-poetry.

In the exhibition, I wanted to center Xu’s unique artistic voice as a “knocking” upon existence. Since 2017, utilizing the concept of Nǚshū, as a way for women to communicate to each other, she met with and collected secrets, desires, remorse, and tears of women dislocated on the margins of nine countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe supported by a fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation Based on these meetings, her artwork delves deep inside women’s lived experiences and transforming marginalized voices into vibrant and poetic expressions.

JinJin Xu
JinJin Xu. “Outside Women* Café (II),” 2024. Still from Dual-channel video. 14:22. Photo curtesy of the artist.

In 2019-2020, Xu was part of the artist duo Silkworm Pupas together with fellow poet Jiaoyang Li. For this exhibition, however, Xu’s approach to collaboration instead centers the collective rather than collaborative authorship. For instance, stepping into Her Poetry/Her Sight/Her History, is like entering a shelter where existence can be manifested and settled. This is a poetic history and resonant home constructed by women collaboratively, a collective soundscape in which language can be uttered into existence, and understood.

Conversations with Xu’s Grandma He, one of the last natural heirs of Nüshu, inspired the peoject. She once lamented that “Nüshu is tears fallen from the stars,” as her grandmother’s tears always flowed unstoppably when she was writing the women’s script— it is a way of telling the world of her sufferings, and also an act of listening. Nǚshū is not only a writing system, but also a symbol of culture and social practice that carries the experience, knowledge and values of the women who used the language to correspond with each other. This act of female communication transcends the meaning of words themselves, and accessing archives of letters in this defunct script connects history with the present, the individual and the collective, and the inner and outer world; it maps identity, gender divisions of labor, women’s status and power relations, and serves as an example of women’s struggle for discourse and self-expression.

JinJin Xu How Art Museum
JinJin Xu. “What Would You Hear If You Could? #9: “As If We Are In Between Sleeping and Waking.” Site-specific video installation. Projection, resin, fabric (collected locally), mirrors. 2024. Site-specific dimensions. Photo curtesy of How Art Museum.

The exhibition’s title Against This Earth, She Knocks is derived from Xu’s poem Against this earth, we knock, which is both an action and an echo, symbolizing women’s demands and expressions to each other and to the world. Using the roots of poetic language to challenge our boundaries of empathy by revealing the taboos within our most intimate relations; the tensions between mothers and daughters; memories unspoken and misremembered, Xu constricts a radical “poetics of witness.” This witnessing challenges the audience’s empathetic understanding, deepening our query into humanity, and attempts to capture the echoes and dreams hidden beneath ordinary reality.

In Her Poetics, Xu’s research on Nǚshū is brilliantly interwoven with the voices of women, co-writing a women’s collective poetry. The archival area presents various forms such as documentaries, photos, diaries, and text conversations, — the culmination of Xu’s eight-year research on Nǚshū and voices of women experiencing dislocation and marginalization. Within this documentary space, the audience witnesses, listens to, and learns to deeply understand the lives of these anonymous women, while reflecting on the significance of recording poetry and its ethical dimensions. The exhibition features a dual-screen documentary, “Outside Women* Café (II),” and behind the screens, the sound installation ingeniously guides the audience to the climax of the exhibition.

JinJin Xu. “Exhibition archives,” 2024. Courtesy of How Art Museum.
A group of objects from the ceiling.JinJin Xu
JinJin Xu. “What Would You Hear If You Could?#8: Against This Earth, We Knock.” Site-specific Installation, Old pots (collected in JiangYong), coal ashes (collected in JiangYong), resin, mechanical installation. 2024. Photo courtesy of How Art Museum.

Through this sequence of presentations, the audience enters the final mysterious space—a surround sound experience composed of “striking” raindrops. Here, the raindrops touching the earth, sometimes tranquil, sometimes passionate, leads the exhibition towards its ultimate climax: What Would You Hear If You Could?. Each raindrop embodies the unique “poetics” of an individual woman and the feeling of being unable to speak——as if to say: ‘only through the knocking of our body against the ground can we be heard.’ Xu’s inspiration comes from the age-old Chinese idiom: “Women are made of water.” As poetry can create deep meaning in only a few words, it is perhaps not a surprise that a poet has chosen to shed light on the fact that women will always be heard, even if words are foregone.

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