A "Ghost Rebellion": Notes on Xu Bing's "Nonsense Writing" & Other Works
Wu Hung

Xu Bing’s Tian shu is well-known to the English-speaking world as A Book from the Sky. This translation of the artwork’s title fails to convey the nuance of the Chinese phrase. Although tian shu occasionally refers to the mysterious divine canon of a religious sect, in colloquial Chinese it means abstruse or illegible writing that makes no sense to its reader. It would thus be more appropriate to call Xu’s composition of fake characters Nonsense Writing. More than a simple change in wording, this alternative translation illuminates an interpretation of the work, because it is the result of a particular audience’s response: the title Tian shu was not invented by the artist, but was given by onlookers who were confused by the work‘s seeming illegibility. As Xu Bing has remarked on various occasions, including the interview published in the Winter 1993 issue of Public Culture (p. 324), his composition is a piece of “nonsense writing” (i.e., tian shu) only to people who cannot penetrate its meaning; his own title for the work was Xishi jian or A Mirror That Analyzes the World. As a “mirror,” it reflects while reversing this world; as a piece of “nonsense writing,” it deconstructs and recon- structs what makes this world legible, conceivable, and therefore meaningful. This reversal does not destroy meaning, however. It only destroys the signified (i.e., content), not the signifier (i.e., form). Nonsense Writing is never “no-sense.”

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