Random thoughts

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What happened to the “Book from the sky”?

December 28th, 2008 · No Comments

I don’ t know how and why, a few days ago Xu Bing’s “Book from the ski” (徐冰-天书) emerged again in my consciousness. I had forgotten its name (I thought it was called “Book from heaven”), but what’s not forgotten is the powerful impression it left on me. A slowly built impression, started when I first saw it at a calligraphy exhibition in Hong Kong, and cemented later on as I showed pictures of the artwork to some chinese friends of mine in Beijing.

The “Book from the sky” uses thousands of non-existing chinese characters to create an undecipherable mysterious text. Regular chinese characters can be pretty undecipherable to me without resorting to 4,000 non-existing ones, but the effect of showing pictures of what looks like chinese text to an educated native speaker are hilarious. The person at first  recognizes the familar patterns of character radicals and says with confidence, “Ok, Marco, let me translate it for you”; he then takes a closer look, starts emitting animalesque monosyllabic groans, and terminates the attempted analysis with a bewildered question  like “What is THAT?”.

I can’t imagine the amazement in the mind of a trained reader of chinese characters as he sifts through the familiar square-shaped blocks of strokes and radicals, and no message emerges. It must feel as mystical and magic as any written text would have appeared to human groups without a writing system.

I didn’t pay much attention to its origin and author when I saw it in Hong Kong, nor I realized that the work is contemporary (less than 20 years old). What’s surprising me today though is, a majority of google search results point to pages that are not reachable. At least not from Italy, or not today. What sounds like the author’s website, www.xubing.com, seems to be a dead link as well. Why? I can’t even find a decent picture to reference on this post…

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