The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"Dragons Leaping at the Gate of Heaven": calligraphy in contemporary art

Here is the start of my new article, published today on The Culture Trip. I have been interested for a while in the growing international fascination with ink painting and calligraphy, which is slowly coming to replace the rather tired western characterisation of Chinese contemporary art as all about Political Pop and Cynical Realist Mao-dominated imagery.

Xu Bing, 'A book from the sky', Woodblock print, wood, leather, ivory, The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 1994 with funds from the International Exhibitions Program and with the assistance of The Myer Foundation and Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation, Queensland Art Gallery, 1987-91.
"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.
Water Calligraphy at the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, December 2012
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."
Jiang Weitao,'Work 112', 2011, oil on canvas, image courtesy Redgate Gallery, Beijing
Read on by clicking HERE to see what I have to say about Song Dong, Xu Bing, Monika Lin, Hu Qinwu and others in this context.