Recent Radical Approaches to Calligraphy

Britta Erickson


Paper presented at “The Act of Writing and Non-Writing:  Open Space for Chinese Calligraphy”, International Exhibition of Modern Calligraphy
China Academy of Art, Hangzhou, China
October, 2005


From the late 1980s to the present, a prominent thread in avant-garde Chinese art has been the creation of works of art that simultaneously celebrate and criticize traditional art.  An excellent example of this would be Zhan Wang’s Jiashanshi  (Artificial Rocks). While by exactly copying original jiashanshi, Zhan Wang reaffirms their lasting power and beauty, his use of a modern material  – stainless steel – suggests that the original stone is inappropriate for contemporary life. Additional examples of such usage of traditional Chinese art forms and motifs abound, to the extent that several exhibitions have taken this as a theme. The irony involved in such deconstruction of traditional art provides an opportunity for reconsideration of the original. 

Deconstruction of the written word was an important project of the mid to late 1980s, finding its best-known expression in the works of Xu Bing (b. 1955) and Gu Wenda (b. 1955). As an example I show Gu’s Pseudo-Characters Series: Contemplation of the World (1984), the central panel featuring an invented character created by combining two genuine characters. Works from the 1980s that deconstructed the written word largely have been interpreted as a critique of the devaluation of the written word during the immediately preceding decades as a carrier of meaningful content. Although the written word continued to be the focus of deconstructionist activity by avant-garde artists during the 1990s, the drive behind such activity became diffuse. In recent years, however, several artists or artist groups have produced works of art that demand a reconsideration of the aesthetic precepts of calligraphy, focusing attention on the power of this art form. Three of these artists or artist groups – the Yangjiang Calligraphy Group, Zhou Tiehai, and Michael Cherney – are the subject of the present paper.

Recent radical approaches to calligraphy are leading to a close scrutiny of the nature of this art form. The artists involved come from both within and without the tradition, and are examining both the form and the format of calligraphy. They push form and format beyond traditional boundaries, or make use of them as a kind of “found” objects. Whether or not we consider the resulting works of art to belong to the category of “calligraphy,” they undoubtedly lead to a fuller appreciation of the richness and significance of this branch of the arts.

Michael Cherney (1969) is an outsider [to calligraphy] by way of his birth. He has, however, engaged in serious study of calligraphy, to the point where he is included in the International Festival of Calligraphy here in Hangzhou. Beijing’s Rong Bao Zhai plans a solo show of his calligraphy for 2006. Michael Cherney’s recent work, Passages of Bronze and Stone (Autumn 2004 – Winter 2005), is a book of seals whose real subject has to do with the aesthetics of ancient writing. Studying a rubbing, he selects a cluster of characters that bears the general appearance of a seal. Looking below that cluster, he identifies a larger visually coherent group of characters to serve as the “inscription” supposedly on the side of the seal. Without changing the spatial relationship of the two groups, he carves the first into a seal to be impressed above a photographic reproduction of the second group. The overall appearance is that of a book of seals – which, indeed it is.

Another work by Michael Cherney, Shadows of Ancient Png (Autumn 2004 – Winter 2005), shows the extreme to which an appreciation of detail can be taken, featuring enlarged details of rubbings of ancient carvings. The resulting images are reminiscent of splashed ink landscape paintings, and also call to mind the eleventh century master Guo Xi’s “shadow walls”: the eleventh century master is said to have based landscape paintings on the irregular convexities and concavities of a roughly plastered wall. There is a history in Chinese art of basing a work of art on chance-created forms. Shadows of Ancient Peng belongs to this tradition, as does Passages of Bronze and Stone, albeit in a less obvious fashion.

Michael Cherney generated the seals for Passages of Bronze and Stone from rubbings of Shang and Zhou period vessels and steles. His selection of passages was according to whim, backed by some degree of reason. As the artist describes the process, “The choices were based almost exclusively on form; in fact many of these characters are familiar only to specialists. Some of the resulting meanings are interesting while others are nonsensical.” On one page is printed a seal carved with an obsolete character having to do with fishing; below are two thematically-related characters, djing (big river). On another page the seal features the character hi (black) repeated three times, formerly in use as a surname.  Cherney says: “I like to use this seal on calligraphy works, like three black dots of ink!”

In some ways, Passages of Bronze and Stone is reminiscent of Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky (1988-1991), a set of four woodblock printed books that at first glance appears to be a set of classics. Upon closer examination, it is revealed that the characters are inventions of the artist. Similarly, Passages of Bronze and Stone resembles a typical ynp or book of seals, but the seals and the texts taking the place of inscriptions are generally meaningless due to decontextualization. Both Xu Bing and Michael Cherney have adhered to the aesthetics of the written word, and of the traditional art form upon which their works are based. The resonance of their works differs dramatically, however, due to the times in which they were produced.

The motivations for deconstructing the written word in the early twenty-first century are quite different from the motivations that drove artists to do the same in the 1980s. An investigation of Chinese culture is still implied, but the wariness has waned, to be replaced by an appreciation of the historic forms of the written word, and their highly charged aesthetic value.