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.