Xu Bing

Tianshu (Book from the Sky)

Xu Bing

Tianshu (Book from the Sky)



Edition Size



Wood block


15 × 18.5 in


A Book from the Sky took Xu Bing over four years to complete. The installation is comprised of hundreds of printed volumes, ceiling and wall scrolls containing a vocabulary of four thousand “false” Chinese characters invented by the artist and then painstakingly hand-cut onto wooden printing blocks, representing a reaction to the history of writing, calligraphy, and book culture in China. Each set of books is a complete woodcut edition, printed with the same four thousand word vocabulary as used in the installation volumes.

Within the exhibition space, numerous sets of open, hand-printed books propped on specially designed wooden mounts are installed in rows on the ground. Ceiling scrolls billow down over the books, and hanging scrolls are mounted on the surrounding walls. The materials and techniques used in the production of these elegant objects all follow the prescriptions of classical Chinese printing, scroll design, and bookbinding. Yet the texts they contain are all written in “false characters” that resemble Chinese characters but are in fact virtually unintelligible. As a result, within this fabricated cultural space, every reader is made illiterate. Even the artist himself is unable to read the works he has printed. The artist’s intention is to produce a kind of cultural shock that will heighten the viewer’s awareness of received notions of language and culture.

Woodcut print from moveable hand-cut type. Single pages. AP edition of 20. 1988-91.