Tian Shu (Book from Heaven) – An Art Exhibit
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.
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.