A BOOK FROM THE SKY.

Victor Mair has a typically informative and enjoyable post over at the Log that has a lot to say about (in the words of its title) “The unpredictability of Chinese character formation and pronunciation”; what I want to highlight here is the following passage about an astonishing and (to my mind) brilliant work of art/épatage:

The ultimate sendup of Chinese character formation is Xu Bing’s famous Tiānshū 天书 (A Book from the Sky), which consists entirely of characters that look like real characters, but are in fact all fake. When A Book from the Sky was first exhibited in Beijing in 1988, it caused enormous consternation, because those who came to view it felt that the characters were familiar, but no matter how hard they strained, they could not make sound or sense of a single character in the entire lot. Sounds and meanings could arbitrarily or imaginatively be assigned to each and every one of Xu Bing’s 4,000 characters from the sky. All of the strokes and all of the components are “legal” in the sense that they occur in officially authorized characters, but they have been combined in “illegal” ways. That is to say, they don’t add up to any characters that occur in historical texts or dictionaries. Once they realized that they had been “had”, conservative viewers were outraged because they thought that Xu Bing was making fun / light of them and their revered writing system. It wasn’t long before the exhibition closed and Xu fled to the United States in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

At the “Tiānshū” link you can see an image of the book; I wish I owned a copy. Xu Bing is right up there with R. Mutt as far as I’m concerned.

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    Read Victor Mair’s post, but also read the comments and follow the link to a sample picture.

  2. He has another project called “Square Word Calligraphy“, where he forms English words into squares. This is rather reminiscent of the Korean script.
    I should also point out that Vietnamese chu nom looks slightly like his nonsense Chinese script, except that chu nom looks a lot clumsier and it doesn’t take long for a Chinese to figure out that it’s not Chinese.

  3. The comparison with Tangut is pretty sound too. I haven’t seen extensive samples of Xixia.

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I wish I owned a copy. My thoughts exactly when I read Victor Mair’s article. Curiously, however, it’s not clear that he agrees. In the passage that begins Yet I have not been able to determine precisely what his intentions were in creating A Book from the Sky he seems to be hinting that he thought it rather a futile exercise.

  5. I wish I owned a copy.
    HKD 600K (four years ago).

  6. he seems to be hinting that he thought it rather a futile exercise
    I tend to agree with him. It’s a lot of love and care to lavish on something that actually has no discernible meaning, except as an expression of the artist’s love of play. The history and examples of real characters are much more interesting than made-up ones.

  7. There are some interesting parallels between Tianshu and Lambert’s Word Encyclopedia LH discussed a few days ago. Here we have two substantial works that represent a great deal of care and effort to produce texts in languages that don’t exist, but almost do. Maybe Lambert should repackage her work as a commentary on “Orientalism”.
    That said, I like Tianshu quite a bit as a work of art. I can’t see what is wrong with “something that actually has no discernible meaning, except as an expression of the artist’s love of play.”
    Still, I suspect that is a naive reading. I find it hard to see Tianshu as anything but a commentary on elitism, and in particular the way Chinese elites have traditionally seen knowledge and information as their private game preserve, to be shielded from the people at all costs. Maybe I’m overanalyzing.

  8. One of my most treasured books is Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus, an encyclopedia of an imaginary world written in an imaginary script, so I can imagine enjoying Tianshu if I were intimately familiar with Chinese characters. Serafini’s book also has marvelous illustrations, though.
    I once went to a Xu Bing exhibition at the Smithsonian with lots of other character play, like a 3D artwork in which copies of the character for ‘bird’ take off from a page and fly. I went to the class in square word calligraphy there; fun.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Here we have two substantial works that represent a great deal of care and effort to produce texts in languages that don’t exist, but almost do.
    I don’t think this is a valid comparison. The Chinese work is a deliberate, minutely executed attempt to creats a “fake Chinese” document, by someone who is fully familiar with the actual script and knows exactly what he is doing. Lambert’s purpose seems to be genuine (although misguided), to provide a resource for the Tlingit language (an actual language, although severely endangered) and encourage people to learn it. She may have put a lot of effort in her work, but not much care (see remarks by James C. in the thread you refer to). The result may be “fake Tlingit”, but nothing suggests that that was intentional rather than a result of ignorance and arrogance.

  10. I don’t disagree with you marie-lucie. Maybe I’m just looking at it differently. To me Lambert seems so deluded that what she has produced could easily qualify as “outsider art” (or “art brut”). Despite her intentions, she seems to have created an “encyclopedia” just as fictional, if not as impenetrable, as the Codex, the Tianshu or the Voynich manuscript.

  11. Vanya, your surrealist streak is one of your more endearing characteristics.

  12. I find it hard to see Tianshu as anything but a commentary on elitism
    It’s an awful lot of effort just to make a commentary on elitism!

  13. Do you think so, Bathrobe? But it is also a very beautiful object in its own right. That’s what makes Tianshu such an interesting piece. It’s not necessarily a negative commentary, certainly not a simplistic commentary.

  14. Well, when you say “I find it hard to see Tianshu as anything but a commentary on elitism” it makes it sound like you can’t see it as, say, “a very beautiful object in its own right.” Perhaps “I find it hard not to see Tianshu as a commentary on elitism” would have been a clearer wording.

  15. j. del col says:

    This made me recall Brion Gysin’s strange calligraphic works with William Burroughs, such as The Exterminator.

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