©2019-2021 liurenshan

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series of a Calligraphy Piece (Mo/3o), exhibition view, 2019
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Cy Twombly, Six Latin Writers and Poets: six plates (Bastian 61-66), 1976, image source: Christie’s
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赵孟頫 Zhao Mengfu ( 1254-1322 ), 秀石疏林图 Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees
石如飞白木如籀,写竹还于八法通;若也有人能会此,方知书画本来同。Poem on the left side: Rocks are Feibai and trees are Zhou (both are writing techniques in Chinese calligraphy)…If one understands this, one
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Chinese shadow puppet. From the collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Image resource: Wikipedia
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Robert Motherwell in his studio. image source: Artsy

related work:a Calligraphy Piece 书法之一(Mo/30)

Color of Chinese Calligraphy

Preface: a Calligraphy Piece

Once in a discussion class at UdK in the beginning of 2019, I presented some of my latest works, of which the three calligraphy pieces (with the same title a Calligraphy Piece) — calligraphic practices of a single Chinese character Mo — had set off the most conversations and suspicions among my professor and the fellow students. The three calligraphy pieces on display were A3 in size, made of plain white sketch paper and different colors of ink (red, blue and black), arranged on a horizontal line on the wall. In the class, the formalistic strategies of the rather unconventional appearance of Chinese calligraphy, such as the size of paper or the color of ink, were questioned particularly.

I could only imagine that my international classmates are quite knowledgable in art history, and all have had more or less certain classic model of Chinese calligraphy registered in mind as soon as my a Calligraphy Piece entered their sight. Thereupon they honestly queried the validity of the formalistic utterances in front of their sight, in particular the explicit colourfulness on a supposed Chinese calligraphy as one of open provocation. In my understanding, the held suspicions are not intending to condemn the enthusiasm of modernising Chinese traditional art, on the contrary, if there is something unresentful about this Chinese calligraphy of a Calligraphy Piece for most intercultural inspections, I suppose it first of all is its overt alienation from the cultural stimuli of the repetitive eastern exoticism. It is fair enough that the neutral and universalised look of this particular Chinese calligraphy has set off an irresistible feeling of familiarity, and questions.

For any artist who comes from an academic background, these questions — in a structuralist model of signifiant and signifié — are perhaps as affable and at the same time as exhausting as going back to one’s parents house. The vested power of this order has indeed guided many artists to construct their won functioning system of language or help them to countercheck leaks in concept. This efficacious order is almost like a baby walker, which has always been a great help to not only babies but also grownups with its excellent treatment: rapid onset, easy operation, free from pain, hence free from whining. Unfortunately, there’s still a handful inevitable side-effects of this useful tool, for instance, the efficacy prone to rebound, the users are likely to become dependent, and certainly worst of all, in the case of a creative industry, this formula is freakishly boring.

The questions of my international friends did not catch me off guard. Luckily, as a proud MA student who started her west-centric art training as early as ten years ago, even though the inchoate stage did not take place in the west, the satisfactory amount of culture appropriation of western art — or simply globalism? — in the common art scenes in China had me well prepared. In fact, none of the concerns from them were not already repeatedly dealt with during the process of my creation. If this whole discussion was a game of laser tag, I was at least pleased to know that their assessments are within my firing range. Regrettably, a reachable range still failed in empowering me with a killing craftsmanship, now thinking of it, because I did not recognise the crux of the argument at that time. To defend an important decision in my work that had boggled many minds on that day — the non-monochrome appearance of the calligraphy — my defence was unduly simple: it is the result of arbitrary assignment, likewise the pronunciation of a logogram, or the meaning of a phonogram. At that time I stupidly thought the justification of my argument was self-explanatory and this answer was clear and straightforward.

Obviously, my explanation did not leave people in relief, because they all ended up looking at me as if I was speaking Chinese to them. I soon became aware of a certain kind of discrepancy, so apparent yet so arcane, existing deep down in the ways of seeing on each side and led to our disagreement, but at that time I could not quit yet put my fingers on it. Until recently, after tireless pondering, I came to a revelation, more accurately, a bold assumption that I could not help to come to, that is — I’m afraid my Chinese calligraphy pieces were mistakenly regarded as an outcome of western modern art, in particular the notoriously influential and authoritative Abstract Expressionism.

Now, whether the assumption is true or not, I think it is nevertheless an interesting proposition. In the rest of this paper, I would like to discuss some of the misconceptions of Chinese ink tradition, and undertone its unique traits in the practice which I would propose as Sinocalligraphism.

Chinese writing, the writing of calligraphy and Sinocalligraphism

Calligraphy is a set of aesthetical demand on manuscript, the corresponding visual presentation of meanings in forms of words. In a broad sense, any written script counts as calligraphy. During the course of history, the Chinese writing system has undergone several stages, in which oracle script, bronze script and seal script were all happened once and then replaced by the newcomers and consequently faded into an exquisite appetite for the upper class bureaucrats and literati. Almost all of today’s commonly used Chinese writings can be traced back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), and have maintained their change of visage within a fairly small amplitude ever since. Interestingly, early Han is also the age in which paper ever made its debut in the world — in forms recognisable as paper in modern times — so that the less ideal writing gears, like the cumbersome bamboos and the extravagant silks, were soon left behind. As the writing materials have been pretty much fixated to paper and ink, it is not so surprising that the scripts from that time period are the ones that carry on.

In 1950s, the newly established communist government of China promoted a newer set of simplified characters derived from the traditional cursive scripts — in the hope of increasing literacy among the people who haven't had chance for proper education by decreasing the difficulty of writing — trimming more than two thousand leafy Chinese characters of the bloody bourgeoisie to nude branches for the innocent proletariat. The idea of this writing revolution seems so wild and wacky, like if the millennium-old Roman architectures were to be renovated into Bauhaus style to prevent high cost of maintenance. One does not need to be brainy to understand the hatred many people hold toward the simplified writings back then as well as nowadays, nevertheless, I could not help but wonder whether if we have overestimated the significance of this recent innovation of Chinese characters. After all, to boil it down, simplified Chinese is just an additional edition of a little more than two thousand of comparatively more abstract shapes of logograms that piles on top of all the previously existing ones. One thing need to be clear is the newcomers of Chinese characters are not imposters of the old ones, but the mediators between the nostalgia for the traditional cultural, which ideally should be agented in part through inheriting the long-preserved old writings, and the current political structure and economic environment gripped by the regime power. In other words, the simplified Chinese is a politically designated proxy of meanings in representing the authoritative speech of our contemporary political life under communist govern. Certainly, this is not the only or first time that the official writing system in China had to change in a top-down process, that means to say, when we look at a Chineses character in its etymological thread, we see a passage of meaning in its past political forms.

To understand the implication of Sinocalligraphism, we need to first acknowledge that the case of Chinese ink culture is most definitely one of a kind. First and foremost, both calligraphy and painting are essentially the practice of imitating images. Secondly, the images in that sense could be further identified as pattern or as non-pattern by the inspectors — not its practitioners — of the artworks, based on their pool of knowledges. The images that were written in calligraphy are diagnosed not just as any images but authorised patterns (Chinese logograms), which have been imputed with semantics within its linguistic network, whereas the rest of the depictions, the non-prescriptive representations of meanings, are often not recognised as equally authoritative and communicative as logograms. Writing the non-patterns, so to speak, is in fact nothing else than the vary practice of the classical ink-wash painting. This is to say, Chinese calligraphy and painting are the same resulted productions that are made through practices of ink art and distinguished later on into categories depending on the content they are carrying. Even though it seems we have long gotten used to the dividing, the division of Chinese ink isn’t any premise of an artwork and does not kick in before the process of creation. Therefore, it is far from accurate to categorize Chinese ink works into the separated status of calligraphy or painting, because the dynamic of the status of an ink work is always shifting. As a matter of fact, a finished Chinese ink painting without any calligraphy (poetry, comment, or simply title and signature) written on the side is hardly seen anywhere in history. From a practical point of view, to distinguish the act of painting ink from the act of writing ink is tautological; from a theoretical point of view, there is a famous ancient phrase customised for this parallel — calligraphy and painting share a common origin (书画同源) — this historical observation implicates primarily the overlaps on material, formality and motif between the two siblings, while traces their monistic origin back to the pre-spilt time. Sinocalligraphism, however, only refers to the ever unified status of writing and painting as genre.

The proposing of the neology Sinocalligraphism is necessary because it patented to withdraw the fundamentalist type of practice of traditional Chinese ink from the dominant linear all-in-one art theory. Sinocalligraphism is an ideology that casts away formalism entirely and advocates that a program of writing meaning is the sole truth of Chinese ink culture. The manifesto of Sinocalligraphism means to intervenes the commonplace of comprehending calligraphy and painting in the norms of west-centric art history books, with its ambition of resuming the collective genre of Chinese ink. Under such notion, the naming of Sinocalligraphism may seem false for it only refers to the one-sided part of calligraphy while applying its proposal to calligraphy and ink-wash painting as a whole. In fact, throughout the history of ink-wash painting, the grasp of 写意 (xieyi, the style of writing meanings) is held in such high esteem that it became the requisite criterion for the most praised paintings. That means to say, in a program of writing meaning, as writing is being the only kind of gestural command that supervises the momentum of ink, the activity of painting is arguably inexistent by defination; alternatively in a radical sense, it is retreated to a status of artistry, a distinctively lively kind of writing that resides in the program of Sinocalligraphism. The style of writing meanings, embodied by ink, water, brush and paper with shapes in vast spectrum of patterns and non-patterns, is not only a praxis of metaphysics but also an incisive summary of the aesthetics lies in the hierarchic ink tradition — art as a way of intellectual exchange — it is noteworthy that the speech of ink art was entirely harnessed by the class of literati and bureaucrat in ancient China.

In the manifesto of Sinocalligraphism, there are not separate art practices for writing or painting. The moment when an ink artwork unveils itself as calligraphy or painting, is the moment in which viewers conduct an assessment of its image. Take my a Calligraphy Piece as an example: when a Chinese calligraphy cannot be identified from a perspective that fully comprehends its literal content, calligraphy consequently becomes painting, or even a painting of Abstract Expressionism in the eyes of many. The assessment of a Chinese ink work is hinged on the culture of the inspectors and their former experience in viewing. When an image ceases to operate as a concrete symbol of logographic meaning, calligraphy is thus converted to painting, vice versa.

A poem shall not be finished. Should it be overfilled, it becomes calligraphy. Should it be misread, it becomes painting.
—— Su Dongpo

Color of fulfilment

In the average viewership toward Chinese calligraphy and ink-wash painting, a stubborn habit has carelessly taken the black-and-whiteness for granted, hence when I altered this protocol in my work without offering an apparent acceptable explanation, my calligraphy pieces resulted in being simply suspicious.

As a matter of fact, Chinese calligraphy and ink-wash painting never restricted themselves to black-and-white by definition. The tinctorial contrast between the white paper and the dark ink is not an intrinsic order that regulates paper and ink, but rather epiphenomena of the destined materials. In the relation of paper and ink, the unpainted paper is not just a plat surface in white but stands for a carrier of blankness, which prepares a void status previous to the event of writing or painting. Meanwhile the ink is not simply a blackish water-based pigment but indicates a substantial matter, which fulfils the event through its distinctive manner on platform of the carrier. In this process, the happening of event is converted into a pictorial format that the platform is competent to read. Paper cannot directly read event, but it can read ink, regardless of the choice of colour.

Just as a screen reads a shadow play projection, resulting in monochrome shapes, and screens out (literally) all that fabulous colours on the shadow puppets, in the program of writing meaning, the material colour would not affect the messages that the event supposes to convey. The functioning of shadow play is a much more observable and legible example of the mechanism of arbitrary assignment than that of my calligraphy pieces following the same principle. The judgement call on the arbitrariness of colour is not a criminal accusation against its legitimacy, and does not suggest the chosen colours are unrepresentative and purposeless. Rather, it is an efficient estimate of the causal relationship between material colours and gestural outcomes — which is plain arbitrary. In other words, the visual tinctorial simulations of the material ingredients of shadow play and of writing and painting would eventually be folded inside the dark shadow or ink on the terminal devices at the end of the process — a process of reducing the dimensionality of a happening to a 2D reflection.

Make no mistake — it would be utterly wrong to overthrow the retained profiles of the long-lived traditional renderings. No matter it is the oral presentation of a logogram, or the visual description of a pigment, they are arbitrarily assigned with a reason. Mandarin was not a lingua franca in China until the 14th century when the officials of Ming dynasty endorsed this one specific model of vocalisation; the black-and-whiteness has always been the most preferable colorisation in Chinese ink works by its early practitioners since Han dynasty, and is virtually sacred with its legacy spreading over the east asian art history. That is to say, the political identity of the historically elected vocalisation of Mandarin or black-and-whiteness of calligraphy is not backed by any methodology of Chinese language or ink art, but by a far wider discourse of historical determinism and cultural phenomenon.

Calling it arbitrary is by no means a denial of the aesthetics of the black-and-white tradition in Chinese ink art, which we all hold dear, nor does it prepare to ignore the formalistic trivia (e.g. colour, paper, size…) are real concerns of art that is heavily context related. It means to clarify that writing meaning is the only variate that is being examined under the inspection of this particular genre. Similar to that the Chinese script is a type of writing system in which each character stands for a content, leaving the reader to supply the appropriate vocalisation, Chinese calligraphy is another type of writing in which the writing itself — as a spiritual act — stands for a meaning, leaving its material utterances a tentative co-product to the act. In other words, the colour of ink could be any colour besides black as long as it resonates with the act of writing, and fulfils the performative outcome with an legible format onto the paper (in any colour includes white). The colour of ink is really the colour of a successful fulfilment.

epilogue: calligraphy’s calligraphy

The idea of my calligraphy pieces are doomed to turn into a kind of homage to Abstract Expressionism under current circumstance is indeed mind-boggling. It is unfortunate, but it is the reality. Since the dawn of Modernism, the effectuation of East fever in western art has tactically evolved from mere formalistic mimics, namely works of Orientalism, toward an integrated philosophical and aesthetic approach. After World War II, a notable group of avant-garde artists began to work with concepts that was primitively derived from eastern ideologies — decisively Zen, Taoism, and the rituals of Chinese ink schools. Within the scope of painting, Abstract Expressionism, synonymous with the New York School, and Art Informel movement which rooted in Europe in the roughly same time period, have decently illustrated the eastern impacts on western modernist paintings by undertaking Zen rhetorics in concept and exercising in calligraphic brushworks as method.

However, instead of seizing the initiatives in the discourse of eastern influence and writing art history books, the modernist study of Chinese art was not only rare and blunt but also nearly removed during the ten-year revolution of a great leap backward in 60s and 70s, the time when western art of modernism matures at a fastest pace. As a result, the process of the cultural appropriation from the East is painted out when the native language of Sinocalligraphism was successfully lexicalized into the western force of knowledge in the age of pre-internet. While the products of Chinese ink culture still remain exoticism to the west front, the copyright of Sinocalligraphism along with its right of final interpretation were castrated by western avant-garde through waves of art movements. Among the movements the most formidable ones — Action Painting, Process Art, Happening and Performance Art — have entirely confiscated the hope for an independent identity of Sinocalligraphism. As consequences, without a name, the distinctive act of writing of old China has to reconcile itself to a world where western art theory annotates on Chinese calligraphy.

Contrary to its vacancy in speech domain, Sinocalligraphism is unceasingly applied within its culture, even precisely for this reason, the omnipresence of its aesthetics and rituals in east Asia has made it cruelly difficult for people to imagine an elimination of its significance. In other words, Sinocalligraphism is on some level the victim of its own success. In my bold speculation, if there comes an opportunity for Sinocalligraphism to be resurgent, it would only be made happen through orchestrated tactics of analysing the legitimate Chinese ink art from viewpoints that are western rhetorics oriented and Orientalism repellent.




这种存疑并非是反对中国传统艺术向西方当代艺术语言的转换(尽管这件作品也没想这么干),恰恰相反地, 如果这些个《书法之一》对于西方观众来说有什么不令人讨厌的地方,大概首先就是它异化于中国符号的中性的外观——这种外观令人倍感熟悉,它们就像任何一张没有特殊种族诉求的现代主义抽象作品。如此以来,纸与颜色的问题,当然是大问题。




















现代主义以后的西方艺术受到了东方主义的广泛影响,不同于后印象派的梵高、马蒂斯等现代派大师对于东方主义的装饰性的着迷,二战后的一批前卫艺术家从禅宗、书法、水墨的基础观念中吸收元素,加入到西方当代艺术实践中,形成了书法派的绘画风格,例如在美国兴起的抽象表现主义运动(也就是纽约学校)的代表人物Jackson Pollock (杰克森·波洛克)、Robert Motherwell (罗伯特·马瑟韦尔)、Cy Twombly (赛·托姆布雷),以及同一时期欧洲的无形式艺术运动Art Informel的Antoni Tapies (安東尼·塔皮埃斯)、Yves Klein (伊夫·克莱因),以及后来的偶发艺术、激浪派,都属于东方主义这一体系。