The book has been part of the permanent collection of the British Library since it was exhibited in London. At this year’s Leipzig Book Fair, “The Language of Bugs” was awarded the silver medal in the category “The most beautiful book in the world”. Since 1991 the Stiftung Buchkunst is the organizer of the competition and the exhibition of the same name.
What is special at this book? This is a book presented entirely from the perspective and in the language of bugs. From the front page to the final chapter, it is void of human writing or text, showing only the writing of bugs seen as thousands of twisted shapes and forms, and characters as non-characters, created by the bugs’ footprints. It’s their language that is expressed in these traces of wonder, much like calligraphy on paper. The images of the marks left by these bugs have their own charm, perhaps reminiscent of paintings from a past dynasty.
We meet the author Mr. Zhu Yingchun at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2017 and talked with him about the background of his successful book.
Red Dot 21 (1): Many of your books are inspired by nature, similar to many jewellery designers. Are there other sources of inspiration for you? If so, what are they? And: do you know designers from other fields who are primarily inspired by nature?
Zhu Yingchun: Nature is my only source of inspiration. Nature has always fascinated me. This has already started in childhood. I grew up in the countryside. In my parents’ house I had no toys made of plastic or wood. So I played with the bugs and watched them. They were my playmates. Today, I wish I had more time to spend in nature. There is nothing better than nature. Yes, I would say that all my inspirations are based on nature. Personally, I have no contact with other designers who use nature as a model for their work as well like me. I have not learned anything from other artists, either Chinese or Western designers. But I strongly believe that they are inspired by nature from time to time too. My work has become popular only through the publishers, who became aware of me. I by myself did not intervene it. I even do not know how to win a competition, for example. I would like to know more about that, or learn more from other designers and authors participating in the prestigious competitions in the US and Europe.
Red Dot 21 (2): What was the process of developing the new book design of “The Language of Bugs”? Please give us some specific examples.
Zhu Yingchun: Everything started when I wanted to create a garden in the courtyard of my ancient home – it’s about 100 years old. I love plants, I love flowers. So I planted everything I liked – much to the annoyance of my neighbours and the adjacent school. I even designed the flower pots out of bamboo by myself. Gradually, the garden came to life and the first insects moved in. I could literally watch it. Even snakes have felt at home in my garden. I was already bitten. But that does not matter to me. I just let everything grow, just as nature would. I did not want to destroy any of the beauty. I remember mushrooms grew and I thought about eating them because they are healthy. But even then I thought that I would rather leave them in the garden, where they live, where they belong. Like the leaves that fall from the trees. They are beautiful too and I leave them lying. The neighbours are already talking about me. They probably think the insects are crawling around on me when I leave the house and run around outside [laughs].
Over time I became more and more curious and started watching the bugs. And the idea was born that they also have something to tell, they speak their own language and therefore I should collect their traces. To collect traces, I first distributed small ink kegs throughout the garden. The ink should stick to the feet of the beetles, praying mantises, spiders, snakes and whatever else inhabited my garden, and in the next step on a leaf they will map the way they travel. But then I thought the ink might not be healthy for the bugs or perhaps even toxic. So I first set about finding a replacement for the ink. For this I made a juice of fruits, mostly berries, by myself and used it as a substitute for the ink then. That worked too! I’ve noticed all along that insects can even do math and especially calligraphy [laughs].
I’m really serious, we can learn so much from nature and animals, especially from bugs. If you ask me which bugs I do not like, I could not give you an answer. They are all beautiful in their own way.
Red Dot 21 (3): What were the biggest challenges during your 5-year observation of the bugs?
Zhu Yingchun: At the beginning, I had no plan at all and no concrete goal. When I laid out my garden, I did not even know what kinds of plants I would like to plant. So everything took its course. After some time, I had more and more different plants. I did not even think about the implications that might have. Because right next to my home and my studio is a school. The school officials did not like it that I planted everything what I wanted. They would have liked to see only beautiful plants with flowers. But for me, every plant is beautiful. The whole nature is beautiful. And in addition, they were worried that I would use pesticides to advance my “weed”, they call it. I never did, and I would never do, because nature is something unique that you should not interfere with. It has been hard to teach that to others who were bothered by my garden.
Red Dot 21 (4): Certainly, you would have been able to collect the traces of the bugs for many more years, and the result would have been something like “the thickest book in the world”. When and why was a specific point in time reached that you said: “I finish the project now”?
Zhu Yingchun: So far, “The Language of Bugs” is my only book about the traces I’ve collected. Of course, I continue to work on it. But not just for this one book. There are many more interesting things to watch, such as the sounds of the insects or their habitat, so their “home”. I will continue to collect my impressions and continue the series. It takes a lot of patience and is one of the reasons why I have been tracking down for five years. At some point I thought, “Stop!” – you want to write more books with other aspects about bugs anyway, and then better stop now. That’s enough for now!
Red Dot 21 (5): Please, describe a working day on which you have tracked the language of the bugs. How did the day start, how did it end?
Zhu Yingchun: First of all, spring is the best time to gather footprints. The insects have many larvae and bring new life to the world. This is especially exciting to watch. Basically, I was not looking for something specifically, but I collected everything from the bugs that I found beautiful and interesting.
Especially in the morning there is always a lot to discover. I walk into the garden and see what traces they left on my leaves. Of course, these are still incomplete for my book at this time and I have to intervene a little, e.g., fix the leaves or string it together. Later I have to bring all the leaves together and let them dry. Only when they are dry, I can continue to edit and e.g. categorize them. For example, there are thinner and thicker tracks. The traces which the bugs leave in the morning are actually different from the traces of bugs which they leave in the afternoon and evening. In the evening I sit down and continue the script for the book. This is all very time consuming, because nothing is edited by a computer or digitally merged.
I have to make sure at all times that what I have collected also fits together and can be processed to a purpose. I have to be completely satisfied, otherwise the search and the collecting start from the beginning. That’s another reason why it took five years. I was only able to do the project because in the meantime I did not accept any other assignments and did not work for anyone else except for myself. So I could concentrate completely on the work. Earning money is secondary to this project and for me in general. I was very involved, but that’s what makes me happy.
Red Dot 21 (6): You have compared the traces of the bugs with the works of various artists. Do you think someone like Jackson Pollock or Joan Miró was inspired by the bugs as well, but they just did not talk about it?
Zhu Yingchun: To be honest, I’ve never been deeply involved with Western artists, but I think every artist is somehow inspired by nature. There are many artists in China who are inspired by insects or even birds. So why should not artists around the world take nature as their role model?!
Red Dot 21 (7): What do you think: would these two artists, if they were still alive, be happy with your comparison of their compositions with those of the bugs?
Zhu Yingchun: These artists are true greats and I think they would find it funny that I compare their compositions with those of the bugs.
Red Dot 21 (8): Often people called you “a pioneer in the field of morphology”. What do you think of this, and which comparison would you prefer instead?
Zhu Yingchun: I do not like to be labelled as a pioneer or an expert in this field. There are many people who are much better than me in what they do and explore. They do it specifically for science. Personally, I just want to be perceived as a friendly, open-minded and funny person. I do not care if I’m called “artist”, “designer” or “pioneer”; rather, the joy of life is what represents me and what is my destiny.
Red Dot 21 (9): I guess you love to skip the traditional ways of book design – some say you break with conventional rules. Do you think that the term “visual author” fits you? And if so, why?
Zhu Yingchun: I would like to say something general to the tradition first. Everyone should learn to accept and respect the tradition of their country. Well, whether one can call me a “visual author”, I’ll leave that to one question. I just tried to apply a new method and a different approach that is consistent with tradition and nature.
Red Dot 21 (10): You have already been awarded and honoured with many titles, e.g., the “Chinese Government Award for Publishing”, the prize as “Outstanding Editor” and the international award of “The World’s Most Beautiful Books”. Which award honours you most personally, and why?
Zhu Yingchun: I would like to emphasize that I did not apply for the awards and titles – they just gave it to me. For example, the publishers have never asked me about it. Of course, I am honoured and happy about these titles. Ultimately, the awards made it possible for me to travel to the book fairs to Germany and worldwide. And I had the advantage that I was not as excited as the other participants are while they are waiting for the results at the awards and who may have applied specifically. That’s a good feeling.
I still remember when I got the call at home. I lay in bed when the good news reached me. I could hardly believe it. It felt very good. I also think that books are a good format to express art.
Red Dot 21 (11): What do you prefer to do in your leisure time, if you are not devoted to the books?
Zhu Yingchun: I always like to be at home. I prefer sitting alone by a river and do nothing. I love the silence, which surrounds me there. There I charge my batteries, relax and just feel good.
Red Dot 21 (12): What do you think are the three most important things any good book needs?
Zhu Yingchun: First of all, the most important thing is the content and message that the book wants to convey to readers. I mean the “soul of a book”. Of course, it should be simply “good” in every respect, no matter whether traditional or modern – it just has to be good. The second most important thing is the shape, the format, so the book design and the material from which it is made. The exterior, the design of the book, should always fit the content and underline it. It is an expression and it is not always easy to find the right design. It also broke my head on “The Language of Bugs” and sometimes I could not sleep well because I thought so much about it. And the third is the technique of production. Everything has to fit together and be coordinated.
Red Dot 21 (13): On which project will you be working next? Or which project have you already started?
Zhu Yingchun: I plan to release three more books about bugs, but that will take time, maybe about 10 to 20 years. Another book is already in progress. It’s about birds.
Red Dot 21 (14): Where do you want to watch the birds, also exclusively in your garden?
Zhu Yingchun: No, at any time, everywhere. It will be a unique and impressive feat. I will watch birds in Germany, France and China and travel for it. My garden is a work of art in itself with many different plants, trees, bugs and even birds, but for the book I go on – I like to travel around the world [laughs].
Nature is one of many sources of inspiration for designers. Especially in jewellery, many designers are inspired by nature, for example by leaves, flowers and animals. The walking routes of the insects in Zhu Yingchun’s book are unique and remind us of the sketchbooks of jewellery designers for whom drawing is indispensable as a tool to depict the ideas.
The so-called “drawing after nature” provides excellent suggestions for shapes and structures. In the book The Workbench Guide to Jewelry Techniques you will find exactly these examples (p. 277) and you can follow the process from the idea to the completion of the piece of jewellery step by step.
We hope you enjoy reading!
Posted on 02.01.2018
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