I had an enormous fortune today to see an exhibition dedicated to 3000 years of Chinese calligraphy. I found it very illuminating how the organizers juxtaposed traditional and contemporary art, creating a very compelling dialogue between them. In the 11th century, one calligrapher asked another, “How many years have you been writing on red leaves in solitary temples?” It seems that the same spirit of devout contemplation accompanies contemporary artists as well.
Chinese calligraphic characters are believed to have been shown to humans by Nature. The secretary to the mythical Yellow Emperor (the color yellow representing earth, dragons and the centre in Chinese symbolism) developed the Chinese writing whilst observing animal tracks that he saw in the sand. The oldest Chinese script discovered were actually inscriptions on animal bones, which were used for divination by means of fire (pyromancy). From early on writing was inextricably linked with earth and nature on the one hand and the realm of heaven and spirit on the other. It was positioned directly on the intersection between the divine and the earthly. As we can read in the most famous work of calligraphy of all time – Orchid Pavillion Preface by Wang Xizhi (born in 265): “We gazed up to comprehend the vastness of the universe. We looked down and observed the numerous species of plants and creatures.”
I want to share a few highlights of the exhibition, in a strictly subjective order. As I entered, my eyes were drawn to “Myth of Lost Dynasties” (1999) by Gu Wenda.
- Gu Wenda (born in 1955), “Myth of Lost Dynasties”
From the description next to it:
“Like a cult image, a character stylistically reminiscent of the archaic seal script, albeit illegible, is suspended above a surrealistic landscape. For the famous avant-garde artist Gu Wenda, his ‘pseudo characters’ symbolize the mystical and inexplicable aspects of our world, those things that cannot be grasped by language. Embedded in the landscape, the characters evoke the mythical idea of the secret power of the written word, derived from nature…”
- Zhu Yunming (born in 1460), poem in cursive script
The Chinese believed that the individual writing style reveals a character. I was fascinated by the cursive script of that particular poet. He was said to possess “an expansive and uninhibited flair.”
From the official description:
“One admirer compares the powerful rhythmical movements of the brush with ‘dancing dragon’ or a ‘heavenly horse soaring into the air.’”
- Wang Guxiang (born in ca. 1501), “Narcissus, Plum Blossoms and Rock”
This is another beautiful example of a Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form), which combines painting, poetry and calligraphy – known as the three perfections. Mesmerizing.
- Zeng Mi (born in 1935), “Self-Portrait”
The poem integrated into the drawing translates:
“The cosmos allows me to find peace, let others chase after fame and profit. / A stone, but not its strength, can be broken into pieces; vermillion, but not its red, can be pulverized. / True words are not beautiful, beautiful words are not true. / Be an honest person and paint to your heart content. / Everything has a beginning, but it seldom happens that it has a conclusion. / The deeper one digs, the harder it becomes, yet all the more fascinating. / A noble horse can cover more than 10 paces in a single jump, a bad horse can cover longer stretches through stamina. / It really is a great pleasure to frighten the heavens. / A person would be mediocre if he were not cursed by others.”
- Cui Fei (a contemporary artist), “Manuscript of Nature V”
She is famous for using sticks and thorns to represent Chinese calligraphic characters. In an interview she said, “Discovering the twigs and tendrils was an accident,” … “During one summer, I had to relocate my studio twice. While moving a large installation I had made with grape vines through a narrow door, many of the tendrils fell off the piece, leaving a mess behind. Sweeping up the fallen twigs, I suddenly noticed that the tendrils looked like Chinese calligraphic brush strokes in the grass writing style. Soon afterward I began removing the tendrils from my old installation and installing them directly on the wall.” (via http://www.gsebooks.com/natures-manuscript-art-that-radiates-permanence-harmony-and-meaning/)
Reading nature, discovering and hearing what it has to say are concepts that I find particularly appealing.
- Xu Bing (born in 1955), “Landscript”
This landscape is composed almost entirely of Chinese characters.
- Zhang Huan (born in 1965), “Family Tree”
From the description:
“Zhang had three calligraphers spend all day writing words and sentences on his face concerning his family, his cultural origins and his personal fate. In the evening the artist’s face was completely covered in black ink: ‘…it was as if my identity no longer existed. I had disappeared.’”
- Qiu Zhijie (born in 1969), “Copying the Orchid Pavilion Preface 1000 Times”
From the description:
“He copied Wang Xizhi’s keywork a thousand times onto the same piece of paper over a period of 5 years. By the 50th time the paper had become a pure field of black. Qiu then continued to write with a dry brush. This written meditation represents for Qiu the quintessence of traditional calligraphic practice: writing as a means of self-cultivation and self-discovery.”
“In Buddhism and in religious Taoism, written words have functions that extend far beyond the teaching of religious doctrine. In Buddhism, copying sacred texts is considered a pious and meritorious activity. Believers therefore made numerous such copies, using not only ink or gold paint but sometimes, if they were especially devout, even their own blood.”
- Song Dong (born in 1966), “Printing on Water,” performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet, 1996
From the description:
“Sitting in the Lhasa river, the artist spent an hour repeatedly stamping the flowing water with a large wooden seal, always performing the same meditative gesture. The only thing engraved on the seal was the Chinese character for ‘water.’”
10.Fung Ming Chip (born in 1951), “The Buddhist Heart Sutra”
From the description:
“’Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’ The experimental language artist and calligrapher has created a visual equivalent of the central statement from the Heart Sutra by writing the same passage twice: once in ‘transparent script’ – using scarcely perceptible pale ink – and once in ‘luminous script’ in which the characters shine like ghostly traces against the black background.”