Becoming Literate: Perspectives on a Book from the Sky

You might have heard of the Zen koan that asks: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Lately, the Blanton education team has been asking a variation of this philosophical question about the exhibition Xu Bing: Book from the Sky:

Xu Bing Book from the Sky 1987–1991 Mixed media installation / Hand-printed books and scrolls printed from blocks inscribed with ''false'' characters Installation view of Xu Bing: Book from the Sky at the Blanton Museum of Art, 2016 Courtesy of Xu Bing Studio Photo by Colin Doyle
Xu Bing
Book from the Sky
Mixed media installation / Hand-printed books and scrolls printed from blocks inscribed with ”false” characters
Installation view of Xu Bing: Book from the Sky at the Blanton Museum of Art, 2016
Courtesy of Xu Bing Studio
Photo by Colin Doyle

What is the meaning of a book that can’t be read?

There are a number of perspectives on this answer, reflecting the broad range of interpretive possibilities that can be accessed through a singular work of art. Once you consider Book from the Sky from one angle, think about it from another. No matter the entry point you choose, it is sure to be the intellectual equivalent to a cool dip into Barton Springs pool.

Personal Parallels

A recent gallery lesson with the Young African Leadership Initiative occurred in both the Xu Bing and Goya exhibitions. The focus of their time in the museum was to discern how the viewer creates meaning for themselves when they experience a work of art. As the lesson progressed, a common thread emerged: a key component to making meaning was to get in touch with individual lived experiences in order to create context for what participants were seeing. At times these observations were similar, and at others they were very different. The divergent opinions led to a lively conversation about the viewer’s role in interpretation. The parallels between these works went beyond thematic similarities; they were able to provide a greater understanding of the similarities between us as individuals and as a collective society. –Sabrina Phillips

The Artist’s Voice

When teaching Book from the Sky with university students, drawing upon the artist’s own voice can add depth to the discussion. With university audiences, we often use an excerpt from Xu Bing’s essay, Something Different in a Secluded Place. This reveals the artist’s thinking about Book from the Sky when it was first exhibited in 1988. There are four areas within Secluded Place that are of particular relevance to student discussions: labor, mindfulness, focus (told as a Chinese story), and belonging. These ideas combine to support conversations about growth mindset (a learning skill that supports perseverance and effort resulting in mastery), belonging, and ability. All of these ideas are significant when working with groups from the Student Success Initiatives across campus. Approaching a work that is largely silent from the perspective of the artist’s voice offers clues to interpretation. A collective reading of the text supports students’ insight in a way they may otherwise not achieve during a gallery visit.  –Siobhan McCusker

Knowledge is Power

Right around the time Xu Bing started learning to read, the Chinese government, under the Maoist regime, embarked on a program to simplify their writing system. This would ostensibly make it easier for people to read and understand the language, but a consequence was that the traditional way of writing became inaccessible to a new generation. (Imagine that everyone born after 2005 only learned how to read emojis. Reading The Declaration of Independence would be impossible. Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 9.40.54 AM) By controlling what people could know (or not) the Chinese government was exerting an amount of control.

In this sense, Book from the Sky demonstrates the frustration of the inability to access information at your fingertips.  –Laura Kilian Jaster

Photo: AzulOx Visuals
Photo: AzulOx Visuals


What is the meaning of a book that can’t be read?  How might our understanding of Book from the Sky vary according to the context in which we encounter the work?  When Xu’s work was first shown in Beijing 1988, the initial critical reception was laudatory; the awesome scale, the viewer’s spatial experience, the precision and beauty of the execution, the sheer amount of work involved– all noted and appreciated. However, after the government’s violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square (June 4, 1989), the work’s resistance to clearly articulated meaning gave rise to uncomfortable questions.  Was the artist suggesting that language could not be trusted?  What was he saying about the value and wisdom embodied in Chinese traditions of literature and learning?  The work seemed downright pessimistic in 1989… maybe.

Understanding that a work of art has its own life, and multiple meanings for its beholders, Xu left China in 1990 to continue his career as an artist based in the United States.  He was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1999—and he became head of China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing in 2008.  Our question now becomes, what meanings might this challenging, ambiguous, impressive artistic achievement hold for viewers in central Texas in 2016.  Through our public Slow Looking conversations and class discussions, we are beginning to find out. –Ray Williams

Andrea Saenz Williams manages the Blanton’s school and teacher programs.  Xu Bing: Book from the Sky is on view through January 22, 2017. 

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