UCCA: As you walk through the exhibition’s entrance, you are immediately enveloped by a different kind of text, namely Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky. To a Chinese speaker, these characters seem familiar from a distance, but up close become illegible. The work is composed entirely of fake characters. Xu Bing created these words using the structures and components of Chinese characters. However, it differs from the puzzle-like experience of his Square Word Calligraphy. Book from the Sky is the artwork that first brought Xu Bing fame on the international stage.
Xu Bing: One day in 1986, as I was thinking about something else, the idea came to me to make a book no one could read. The idea thrilled me. In July of the following year, right after my graduation exhibition, I quickly started on this “book.”
From the very beginning, I had a few clear thoughts on how I would make it. First, it would not have the most essential quality of a book: though it would still strongly resemble one, it had to be entirely devoid of content. Second, the process of making it had to be identical to that of an ordinary book. Third, each step of its production and all of its details had to be precise and meticulous.
I knew that the fate of the piece depended on the attitude I brought into making it, and that the work’s artistic power lied in creating a counterfeit that seemed realer than real.
I decided to create over four thousand fake characters—that’s the number of characters you need to read most normal publications. If you know more than that, then you can read, and you are considered an intellectual. My requirement was that these words resembled characters to the largest extent possible without actually being characters. Their internal structures had to accord with the rules that govern actual Chinese characters.
UCCA: After mastering the techniques of movable type, Xu Bing carved over 2,000 fake characters by the latter half of 1988. What is now the National Art Museum of China presented this first version in October. He titled the show “Xu Bing Print Exhibition,” emphasizing the importance of “printing” to this work.
Xu Bing: The name of the work was originally A Mirror that Analyzes the World: The Final Volume of the Century. I came up with such a ponderous title because I was so preoccupied with “profound” questions back then. Later, people started referring to the work as Book from the Sky, and I thought that worked better. The exhibition shocked viewers, and many people outside the art community came to see it. Traditionalists criticized the artwork as too radical. They said it was like “ghosts building a wall,” meaning that this art and the artist’s thinking were flawed. The avant-garde, on the other hand, said it was too traditional, too academic.
UCCA: Although the exhibition provoked heated discussions among the critical community, to Xu Bing this only confirmed the form the book should take. He decided to change the scale of the work, spending over a year carving another 2,000 characters, for a total of over 4,000. This time, he did not employ oil printing, but found a factory on the outskirts of Beijing that specialized in producing ancient books. This second round of carving and printing lasted two years.
Xu Bing: In all, we printed 120 sets of Book from the Sky. Each set contains four volumes, totaling 604 pages. Each set was put into a walnut wood box made by an old carpenter from Handan in Hebei province. The piecemeal nature of the work delayed its completion; it was finished in the fall of 1991. I had moved to the United States in July 1990. Those days, when you went abroad, you were never sure when you would come back. Before I left, the binding sample was completed, and I decided on the color and format of the cover, among other details.
Book from the Sky is a contradictory object filled with paradoxes. People call them “characters,” but they lack the essential function of real characters. They say it’s a “book.” Though it resembles one superficially, it cannot qualify as a real book. Its surface and depths are completely different. It combines the hyperreal and the abstract. It is both serious and absurd.
Looking back, I wonder what I did from 1987 to 1991. All I can say is, a person used four years to make a thing that said nothing.