Witness the scene - The Calligraphy Beyond Calligraphy
Written by Ren Li
Years ago Yangjiang was only a city in Guangdong Province, which was not associated with anything special. But now, when discussing contemporary art in Southern China, it is a place we have to mention.
On the bus to Yangjiang, I saw hundreds of advertisements about kitchen knives. A brand called Shibazi almost summed the whole economic status of Yangjiang. It is similar to my feelings about Zheng Guogu, an artist of Yangjiang. He had an exhibition named Are You Coming to Appreciate Calligraphy or to Test Your Blood Pressure? together with three other local youths, Sha Yeya, Chen Zaiyan, and Sun Qingling.
It was held in the famous World Bookstore in Yangjiang. I was late, and Mr. Lu Yi, the owner of the World Bookstore, told me regretfully that I missed the opening show, Chicken Wing BBQ Feast, but I was paying attention to the meaning of the name, World Bookstore. I know that the bookstore has become the gathering center of young artists in Yangjiang. It also published an underground magazine, Locality, amongst others. Over time, it introduced artists from local or adjacent cities, such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen, or any artists and writers they were able to invite, such as Chen Tong, Xu Tan, Chen Shao Xiong, Hu Rifang, Liu Qingyuan, French novelist Roberge Lier, and Tussen, for exhibitions or lectures, or for a visit.
Nobody commented on this exhibition. They gathered, drinking tea, and reading a verse written by a high school student in turn. I tried to initiate a discussion about the exhibition, but got little feedback. For them, exhibitions are here and there, but the everlasting various artistic events themselves are more meaningful than any art event or exhibition. Their excitement varies by individualism in different degrees. Such an extraordinary attitude of appreciation surprised me, because it should have happened more in a country with an advanced artistic creative system.
With my companion, Lu Yi, I browsed all the works in this exhibition. He introduced me to one of the authors, Chen Zaiyan, the only one that specialized in calligraphy, with a strong family tradition and years of exercise. He established Ningbi House for tutorial purposes, which was also another location hosting the exhibition. The cause of this exhibition, according to Lu Yi's introduction, was an incident. During the spring festival, when the authors of this exhibition were chatting, they talked about the current status of Chinese calligraphy. They mentioned this topic maybe because of the presence of Chen Zaiyan. When he redesigned the form of calligraphy with the theories of contemporary art, all the people in the discussion agreed with him and they were eager to try it. Therefore, after only 2 months of active preparation, I received the invitation letter from Lu Yi, for the opening of the calligraphy exhibition.
I think it is necessary for me to describe the works of the four authors. If we call it a calligraphy exhibition, it may be because that they used the same traditional calligraphic tools: brush pens, Chinese ink and rice paper. In the works of Chen Zaiyan, we may see the efforts of this depressed calligrapher and his struggle against traditional calligraphy rules. He absorbed Zheng's imagination to joke on traditional calligraphy, and changed the contents from classic poems to hot news from newspapers, which were filtered by his individual inspection. Thus, they reflect his personal emotions and reading orientation but there still are professional marks in Chen's works. In contrast, the works of Zheng Guogu, Sha Yeya and Sun salute calligraphy with contemporary artistic attitude, rather than searching for a new form for calligraphy.
Four authors arrived and Zheng started to recommend the artwork on the ground floor, the Calligraphy Massager, which was a pile of wasted calligraphy works shaken by the massager hidden inside. The audience can put their foot into the pile to enjoy the massage from the calligraphy. What amused him more was if my blood pressure increased after watching the whole exhibition and having my blood pressure tested on the same floor. His main interest seemed to be the audience's reaction to the exhibition, much more than the meaning of the exhibition itself, as if the meaning of the exhibition was to challenge or reform traditional calligraphy.
The behavior of Chen Zaiyan was within my expectations. It seemed that he was a little unsatisfied with Zheng's interests and focus. He presented his thoughts on traditional calligraphy as a calligrapher, and his exploration and efforts from the contents to the forms. For him, this exhibition was a product after contemporary artistic concepts met calligraphy, which presented the contemporary look and sense of calligraphy. It was a precious safari of modern calligraphy.
Thus, this exhibition became a mystery. It should be seen as a modern art exhibition with calligraphy as its media but one of the artists insisted on his calligraphic thoughts. It seemed that Zheng, the soul of this exhibition, did not want to uniform its principle. He was not keen to modify or explain. So the resulting definition of this exhibition became a primacord fuse, which would ignite discussion about calligraphy or non-calligraphy, renovation or irony, and presence of form or overturn of form. All information shown by the exhibition contradicted itself under this great dilemma.
But I understood and appreciated Zheng's idea, which was the contemporariness of this exhibition. When calligraphy, the extremely traditional art form, was introduced into modern artistic concepts, interpreted or not, it divided into method and object. A professional calligrapher and three artists, who did not have too much handwriting experience or did not have training at all, produced a seemingly serious calligraphy exhibition, with clear pure calligraphy form, following the rules on tools, materials and presence. But it also showed the unconstrained imagination, on the method and contents of writing, allocation pattern, and fantastic signature and seals. It displayed the comprehension of contemporary art form and the sharp concept conflicts in between.
It was still a serious modern art exhibition, because they showed their respect to calligraphy itself. The enthusiasm of Chen Zaiyan was beyond words. As for Zheng, Sha and Sun, with the identification outside calligraphy field, they borrowed calligraphy, the art form sanctified by traditional authority, to measure up their identification. Thus, they also praised the efforts of Japanese calligraphy on international modern art after World War II, especially for Jingshang Youyi. This legendary master had decided to be a painter since his early age, but finally he chose calligraphy due to economic pressure. However he broke away from traditional calligraphy after feeling the gap between calligraphy and time, complacency and conservativeness. His later calligraphy works presented clear contemporariness. For example, in 1993, focusing on the depressed social status after the breakdown of bubble economy, he held the exhibition named Poverty to show 64 one-character works created in 30 years since 1954. In the touring exhibition Japanese Art After 1945 in USA for the 50-year anniversary of the end of war , designed by Kerota, an American, he exhibited No Me and Ah, Hengchuan National School, which revealed the crimes of wars. The calligraphic attitude of Jingshang Youyi was thought as strange and advanced at that time but he followed the social changes and practiced them in calligraphy, thus developed the territory of calligraphy. He brought a deeper meaning, broke the traditional graceful form, and brought it to broader modern art form.
On my way back, I have different understanding about Yangjiang. This place unifies the local and global. Starting from Zheng, it shows fearless characteristics. With easy and free gesture, they talk to the aged sometimes. The dialogue is the same as their daily chat, beyond our expectation.
>Zheng Guogu: Born on June 18th, 1970 in Cheng Village.
>Graduated from Block Print Dept. of Guangzhou Art Institute in 1992. Now lives in Yangjiang.
>Sha Yeya: Born on February 14th, 1970 in Yangjiang.
>Graduated from Subsidiary Middle School of Guangzhou Art Institute in 1990. Now lives in Yangjiang.
>Chen Zaiyan: Born on October 20th, 1971 in Yangchun.
>Graduated from Calligraphy Dept. of China Art Institute in 1994. Now lives in Yangjiang.
>Sun Qingling: Born on July 19th, 1974 in Yangjiang.
>Now lives in Yangjiang.