For me calligraphy has been one of the real pleasures of learning Chinese. Indeed, even when I can’t read what I’m seeing, I enjoy trying to following the line and figure out the character. Yesterday morning as part of the Textual Logic (书与法) exhibition at the OCAT Contemporary Art Terminal there was a calligraphy performance by Qiu Zhenzhong (邱振中) and Wang Dongling (王冬龄). So I was kind of “wow, calligraphy onstage. Fun.” However, it turned out that I had approached the event naively; calligraphers may or may not be fun, but the event felt like a cross between a movie star press conference and an art seminar.
The audience for the calligraphy performance was not OCAT’s typical audience who tend to have western aesthetics and a passion for conceptual art. Instead, the audience (not including the calligraphers’ respective entourages) was made up of calligraphers and folks who might be classified as calli-groupies, whose comments ranged from how the room had been set up through how the ink was mixed to how difficult it was or was not to write at this scale for so long. Indeed, it was a happy, almost fair-like event with pauses for watching and then commenting. Needless to say, the audience also complained that photographers and videographers had been given front row positions and could follow the calligrapher.
The level of audience participation in the exhibition struck me wonderful.
After the performance and throughout the rest of the day’s events, people stood online to ask a question and/or have their photograph taken with one of the artists. Meanwhile, other members of the audience were also explaining the just-created works to students, friends, and anyone else who happened by. A plethora of interpretations and aesthetic possibility, making the work about the audience rather than straight-forwardly about the professional calligrapher. In this sense, the performance or imaging the performance in order to understand how the work was created became the artwork and the rice paper functioned to hold clues about that practice and how it might be approached by picking up a brush — mental or actual — and following the lines.
Textual Logic showcases the work of Qiu Zhenzhong (邱振中), Wang Dongling (王冬龄), and Xu Bing (徐冰). All three artists are talented and justifiably renowned. And yet. For me, the audience’s level of knowledge and participation transformed the calligraphy from being a mere aesthetic object into something pleasurably social, where the diversity of opinions and calligraphic practices and the desire to learn calligraphy infused the performance. We appreciated the work as a group rather than isolated connoisseurs.
In this sense it is interesting that Xu Bing was the only member of the group show who did not perform and in his artist statement, he made a point of saying that he is not a calligrapher. Indeed, Xu Bing’s work struck me as being more about language and its transformation through printing into a practice to produce alienable objects — books than it was about the actual practice of writing. This implicit contrast between the calligraphic practice of Qiu Zhenzhong and Wang Dongling with the conceptual of works of Xu Bing directs our attention to the textual logics that inform art as well as everyday life, leading to a final comment on the exhibition title Textual Logic.
The Mandarin title of the exhibition is 书与法. Character by character this breaks down into 书－character/ book 与－and 法－law/ way of doing something/ dharma. The irony, of course, is that the word for calligraphy is 书法 or writing way. By separating the two characters with a connective, the Chinese title draws our attention to how together calligraphic practice and the texts it produces are a metaphor for living. Calligraphy symbolizes social possibility (including individual accomplishment) not only because we can see the calligrapher’s qi on the page, but also because calligraphy forces us to grapple with the ways in which writing is both a verb and a noun, an action and an act. All this to say, calligraphic practice allows us to contemplate what it means to be human by reminding us that life is actually a gerund, a noun-verb of traces and ongoing practice.
If you have a chance, check out Textual Logic with a friend and don’t just see the show, but engage it together.