This is Tian Shu (天书) by Xu Bing (徐冰), often translated as Book from the Sky, but sometimes called Book from Heaven. It’s perhaps the most widely known contemporary work by a Chinese artist, so it’s a little mortifying that I only just discovered it this morning, reading about this and that in the Australian Journal of Anthropology.
Tian Shu, a modern art installation four years in the making (1987-1991), is comprised of a display of books spread in a large rectangle across the ground, above which voluptuous scrolls unroll in long, pregnant arcs. The books — four hundred of them — are handmade with reverential adherence to the standards of traditional Ming dynasty fonts, bookbinding, typesetting and stringing techniques. The fifty-foot scrolls are printed in the style of Chinese outdoor newspapers.
To make them, Xu painstakingly carved Chinese characters into square woodblocks, in just the way his ancient printing predecessors would have done, had them typeset and printed, and the printed pages mounted and bound into books and scrolls.
The result is a truly spectacular display of bookmanship — volumes fit for an emperor’s library.
Yet, there’s the astonishing, Borgesian catch:
Out of the three or four thousand Chinese characters used in these volumes and scrolls, not a single one of them is a real Chinese character.
They are made up of recognizable radicals and typical atomic components of Chinese characters, but Xu laboured to ensure that while they all retain the unmistakable look of Chinese script, they are all, so to speak, nonsense. They do not exist in any dictionary, and do not mean anything. Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers alike approach the books with the same sense of wonder at their beauty, and the same sense of incomprehension at their content — though, for Chinese readers, the frustrated impulse to read might detract somewhat from their aesthetic enjoyment of the art piece. I’ve heard that some Chinese readers have spent days attempting to locate a character they can read — to no avail. It’s a piece of art whose meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness.
Some twenty years later, in 2006, Xu Bing followed up on Tian Shu with another installation called Di Shu (地书) – literally, Book from the Ground, or Book from Earth. Where Tian Shu is understood by none, Chinese or non-Chinese speakers alike, Di Shu was composed to be understood by all, irrespective of their language and nation. As Xu himself says,
我的艺术多与文字有关，这是从二十年前的一部叫《天书》的作品开始的。称它为“天书”，因为它是一本包括我自己在内，世上没有人能读懂的书。现在我用这套 “标识语言”，又写了一本说什么语言的人都能读懂的书。我称它为《地书》。事实上，这两本书有共同之处 : 不管你讲什么语言，也不管你是否受过教育，它们平等地对待世界上的每一个人。
“I have created many works of art relating to language. This [piece of work – Di Shu ] has its origins in a piece I made twenty years ago, called Tian Shu. I called it Tian Shu because it it is a book legible to no one on this earth, including myself. Now I am using a “language of signs” to write a book that any speaker of any language can understand; I call it Di Shu. In truth, though, these two books have something in common: No matter what language you speak, or what level of education you have attained, they treat all people of this world equally.”
Whether from Heaven or Earth, both his art pieces — and in this way they are something of backhanded tributes to the written word — are to be understood (or not understood, in the case of the Tian Shu) by the educated and non-educated alike.
For me, amongst other things, Tian Shu is the purest veneration of the written word and the form of the book: not for the knowledge they contain and convey, but simply the very fact that they are, and that they are, or can be, so beautiful, without even reading a word, and even without meaning anything at all. This is, in short, bookporn at its most essential! Who among us has not walked into a bookstore or a library which contains not a single book one can read, but which nonetheless takes our breath away? Who has not been touched by beautiful calligraphy, by brushstroked words on fine paper, by sensuous lines of scripts that dance provocatively on the page, inviting comprehension? Beauty can move without language. Here is my internet Hat taken off to 徐冰先生. May he continue to frustrate the literate, create beautiful things, and do his bit for bookporn around the world.
Pictures from xubing.com and Google Images.