Calligraphy in Contemporary Chinese Art

Calligrapher | © Joe Wabe / Shutterstock
Calligrapher | © Joe Wabe / Shutterstock
Photo of Luise Guest
24 February 2017

Calligraphy forms the cornerstone of traditional Chinese culture, which has been described as a ‘culture devoted to the power of the word’. Whilst rooted in tradition, contemporary Chinese artists like Xu Bing, Yang Yongliang and Monika Lin are using calligraphy to recontextualise and reexamine the past.

Each day in the park around the Temple of Heaven in Beijing one can encounter old men drawing beautiful calligraphy on the pavement with nothing more than a bucket of water and a long, broom-like brush. Fluid, elegant characters appear all too briefly, vanishing as the water dries.

Calligraphy is an essential element in any discussion of Chinese culture, language or identity. ‘This was a culture devoted to the power of the word.’ (Dawn Delbanco, Columbia University) The scholar class who dominated government and culture in pre-modern China, the product of the Imperial Examination system, elevated written language to the status of the highest human endeavour. The visual form of written Chinese lends itself to metaphor, coming to symbolise both the beauty and vitality of nature and the energy (or ‘qi’) of the human body. Its essence is the gesture, restrained and contained. Ancient poems often refer to the beauty of specific calligraphy in dramatic terms:

‘A dragon leaping at the Gate of Heaven,
A tiger crouching at the Phoenix Tower.’
(Description of the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi by Emperor Wu)

From the Song Dynasty to the early 20th century, the practices of calligraphy, poetry and ink painting were intertwined. ‘Scholar painters’ represented subject matter such as bamboo, old twisted trees, and dramatic rock formations with deft, skilful use of ink and brush developed through disciplined years of practice in calligraphy, creating animated and expressive works. By this time the combination of painting, poetry and calligraphy was known as the ‘Three Perfections’, a trinity of expression called san jue’ The significance of these traditional forms is not lost on contemporary artists, who are increasingly marrying past practices with a drive to subvert our expectations and communicate multiple meanings in works which appropriate, reinvent, recontextualise and reconsider the past.

Monika Lin, ‘Ten Thousand’, 2012 | Courtesy of the artist.

Shanghai-based American/Chinese artist Monika Lin experimented with the arduous discipline of calligraphy in a recent performance work, Ten Thousand, during which she wrote the character for ‘rice’ ( 米) 10,000 times. Her work explores the beauty and simplicity of the script, and the significance of rice, but also makes an ironic comment on romanticised views of Chinese history. Peasant farmers produced rice, were taxed on it, but could not afford to eat it: their labour supported the cultural pursuits of the literati engaged in painting and calligraphy, writing poems and contemplating their gardens. The result of her labours was 833 sheets of paper inscribed with the character. The artist’s act of placing each sheet carefully down on the gallery floor was so physically challenging that it appeared to some observers not unlike the back-breaking labour of planting rice. Her work also provides a wry counterpoint to a currently fashionable re-examination of pre-revolutionary China which Lin considers a form of orientalism.

Lin’s work is part of a resurgence of interest in this art form, both inside and outside China, with major exhibitions this year dedicated to exploring both past and contemporary ink painting. Many artists are engaged in reinventing the traditions of both ink painting and calligraphy. Approaches to art which somehow survived thirty years of Socialist realism and the 90s love affair with Western Pop-influenced imagery are gathering momentum.

Writing in 2011 in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Keith Wallace commented on the ‘concerted effort by historians, curators, and critics not to let ink-painting slip into the abyss of historical dinosaurs, but to encourage ways in which its practice can continue to contribute to contemporary art.’ Far from any such slippage, by 2013 a number of major international exhibitions featuring contemporary approaches to Chinese tradition had taken place in New York and London. An exhibition of contemporary ink and wash painting, Re-Ink provoked much commentary at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, while Altered Shan Shui States, at Redgate Gallery, featured artists who injected elements of the contemporary world into landscape painting, in order to transform and subvert this tradition. Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their first sales exhibitions of Chinese contemporary ink painting during Asia Week New York in March 2013.

In the work of some artists this revival of traditional forms looks not unlike historical ink works. But any analysis of the contemporary manifestations of ink painting and calligraphy must take into account its diversity. From elegant literati-style ink on paper works, to gestural abstraction which references western Modernist idioms, to performative iterations of the gesture, to video and installation, the ink tradition is alive and well in numerous guises. Chen Anying in Literati Painting: Reflections Across Discontinuities identifies the discontinuous nature of present day Chinese society as the chief rationale for this tendency to ‘revert to tradition’. After the art boom, and in response to the overwhelming pace of social change and urbanisation, a re-examination of Chinese tradition is sometimes very consciously a rejection of ‘Western’ art conventions. At other times it effortlessly fuses a global contemporary practice with scholarly traditions.

One of the first and most significant artists to understand the importance of working with traditions of calligraphy and ink painting was Xu Bing. As long ago as 1989, The Book from the Sky used apparent Chinese ideographs to comment on how we are shaped by language. During Xu’s childhood in the fifties and sixties Mao’s development of ‘simplified Chinese’ resulted in children having to learn and unlearn different characters, an instability of language that made him realise that ‘to change the language, even a little bit, really changes people’s thinking.’

As a schoolboy during the Cultural Revolution, Xu Bing was chosen to paint propaganda posters, ironically similar to those which condemned his own father and other intellectuals to persecution and exile. This history, and a growing sense that language had become entirely mutable, inspired him to spend four years developing a language of characters which appear at first glance to be Chinese, but in fact cannot be read. Painstakingly carved into pear-wood blocks, they were printed and bound into 400 books using traditional methods of bookbinding. In this work, described by Alice Yang as an ‘all-enveloping textual environment’ wall panels were printed in the style of ‘dazibao’ (big character posters) or outdoor newspapers, evoking revolutionary tumult. 50-foot-long printed scrolls hang from the ceiling. Like sutra scrolls, they create a calm and meditative space. Paradoxes abound, in the work itself and in its history of official recognition and then denial. Initially, when shown in Beijing at the China/Avant-Garde exhibition the work received official sanction. Later, however, when attitudes hardened following the long months of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, approval was withdrawn. The work powerfully questions the ways in which language can be subverted for political purposes as the winds of power shift.

Xu Bing has created many works using a variety of invented characters and ideograms which point to the ways language can be manipulated. On his website, Xu describes his installation work, New Calligraphy Classroom, in which viewers become participants in an apparent calligraphy lesson: ‘The feeling of being engaged in an esoteric practice evaporates, as the idea that the meaning of Chinese characters can be grasped through a short-cut training session rather than years of study is exposed as a fantasy rooted in a cultural attitude. For participants who read Chinese, a system of language masquerading as one’s own and adapted to Western modes of thought and communication raises other issues of appropriation, displacement and Western dominance.’ Participants in this work, seated at wooden desks with ink sticks and brushes in hand, believe they are learning how to write Chinese characters, until it slowly dawns on them that the ‘characters’ make English words and they are actually writing nursery rhymes such as ‘Mary had a little lamb’.

Yang Yongliang, ‘Infinite Landscape’, digital Blu-Ray video, 7min 30sec (frame detail), 2011 | Courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.

One of the most powerful representations of the fluidity of language and culture is his work, A Case Study of Transference in which he obtained a male and female pig, painting the male pig with strings of letters from the Roman alphabet and the female with his illegible ‘fake’ characters. The pigs were placed in an enclosure with books in different languages and the inevitable ensued, resulting in a merging and blurring of the ‘languages’ painted onto the pigs as they mated. Nature versus culture. The Tsan Series used silkworm moths to lay eggs onto the pages of books bound in both Western and Chinese styles in a ‘matrix’ of neat rows. The eggs hatch and silkworms emerge, and begin to enshroud the objects to which they are attached in spun silk. The living text may be interpreted in multiple ways – as a comment on the mutability and organic flux of language and culture, or alternatively as a recognition of the continuous nature of Chinese history.

Jiang Weitao, ‘Work 1112′, oil on canvas, 112 x 82 cm, 2011 | Courtesy of Red Gate Gallery.

Many other artists, too, combine their early training immersed in Chinese tradition with a willingness to subvert conventions and create an entirely new approach. The digital animations of Yang Yongliang (just selected for the Moscow Biennale in late 2013) appear at first to be screen-based versions of traditional ‘Shan Shui’ mountains, lakes and waterfalls until you realise they are in constant motion. In Infinite Landscape, in the collection of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, the mountains are in reality the towering skyscrapers of a city. The landscape is criss-crossed by freeways bearing tiny cars and trucks, and an army of construction workers labour in the foreground in a potent expression of the artist’s ‘despair and sadness’ at the relentless modernisation of Shanghai. To the list of artists reinventing tradition we can add He Xiangyu and his Cola Project, for which he appropriated Song Dynasty paintings, applying ink mixed with Coca Cola – literally redrawing Chinese history with the global brand – and Yao Lu, who makes works that appear as traditional misty ink paintings featuring mountains, lakes and waterfalls seen through ‘moon windows’, but are actually constructions entirely made up of garbage and discarded plastic bags. These artists work in a space between nostalgia and satire, holding up a mirror to their contemporary world.

Jiang Weitao’s paintings, such as Work 1112 come from a tradition of abstraction seen most particularly in Shanghai. During the 1980s abstract painting emerged there as a form of dissidence and individual expression, and it continues to flourish. This work has a luscious and seductive red surface, its high gloss reminiscent of lacquer ware, covered with marks based on the Chinese character ‘kou’ meaning mouth, entrance or window. This ideogram alludes to the opening of the new China as it enters an era of prosperity and growth. Jiang, whose practice also includes beautifully fluid ink on paper works, has described his development of an abstract visual language in terms of the debt he owes to traditional Chinese art forms, and the aforementioned ‘san jue’, or the ‘three perfect things’. This particularly Chinese approach to abstraction, which distinguishes it from a western modernist inheritance of formalism even when some aspects may appear superficially similar, is also seen in the work of painters such as Hu Qinwu, and Lao Dan who work within and extend the traditions of calligraphy.

Hu Qinwu, ‘Buddhist Volume No. 3’, Acrylic & pigment on hand-made paper, 110x78cm, 2011 | Courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects

Hu Qinwu works in an idiom which at first glance appears not unlike western conventions of abstraction – large canvases on which stains of rich reds and blues appear to shimmer and float like works by Rothko, immersive and profoundly beautiful. In his Meditations series the layered pigment contains a grid of dots created by slowly and carefully dropping water onto the surface of the work, evoking a sacred text. The Buddhist Volume series uses Chinese characters partly revealed through a patterning of dots, hovering under a fine gold grid. Hu’s practice of Buddhism informs every aspect of his meditative approach to painting. With none of the idiosyncratic gestural mark-making of much contemporary ink, these are highly controlled works pared back to essentials, a visual language of grid, line and dot. Like Braille, they suggest that the meanings lie within the tactile surfaces and beautifully restrained colour. Hu has described his practice as ‘a process of alternative confirmation and disavowal’ in which a repeated brushing away and re-drawing ultimately creates harmony.

Hu Qinwu, ‘Burned and altered book’ | Courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects.

Another element of his practice is burning holes in Buddhist sutra books with a soldering iron, obliterating some characters and creating books which to some may appear illegible and meaningless. To the artist, however, they are based in Buddhist theology, in which meanings are arbitrary and language is just one possible way of labelling the world. His immersion in the traditional practices of ink painting, his own personal history and the recent history of China have all had a profound impact on his work. ‘Chinese history and culture are in my blood’, he says, and in their austerity and order his paintings convey tranquillity and acceptance.

Lao Dan was trained in the tradition of ink painting, although his father, also a painter, worked on propaganda paintings during the Cultural Revolution. Lao studied graphic design and worked in advertising but has always practised calligraphy every day. His nervy, flickering brush marks evoke landscapes and organic forms without being at all representational, and his scribbly calligraphic line is reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionist, Mark Tobey, reminding us that Chinese art had a significant impact on mid-20th century Western avant-garde practice.

Lao Dan, Chinese ink on rice paper | Courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects.

Song Dong, one of the most significant Chinese performance and conceptual artists, reflected on the practice of calligraphy in Writing Diary with Water. Since 1995 he has written diary entries with water on a block of stone, using a calligraphy brush. The practice began when he was a child, because during the Cultural Revolution his parents could not afford to buy ink and paper. As an adult, he decided to keep an invisible diary that can never be read, recording his secret thoughts in an ongoing performance work, documented with photographs.

The tradition of calligraphy is appearing in some surprising guises in contemporary Chinese art and all is not as it seems. Binary opposites of disclosure versus secrecy; speech versus silence; the individual versus the collective and the past versus the present provide rich possibilities that allow artists to examine the fluidity of meaning and language in a time of dramatic change. Whether in the hands of the old men in Beijing parks silently practising their water calligraphy or on the walls of galleries, one thing is certain, the central place of the word in Chinese culture remains constant.

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