by guest blogger Karen Schiff
My post today is the least pre-planned & the most thought-through of this week. This morning, I attended a demonstration of Chinese calligraphy (by contemporary ink & performance artist Zheng Lianjie), so I'm about to write about poetry-painting connections that are totally fresh...it's just chicken-scratch. And this evening, I attended an opening of Tairiku Teshima's "Symbolic Calligraphy," such as this 2006 painting of the character "Sui (Greenery)" at right
(which is rendered imagistically, with a loose hand, & large: 43 x 28-1/2 inches). Yet I've been thinking for many years about calligraphy, & its way of seamlessly integrating visual & verbal modes (to the degree that it doesn't even make sense to separate them into distinct "modes").
Around 2005, in a class about Japanese Visual Culture,
I heard that a single spoken word in Japanese can mean writing, painting, or scratching -- these three concepts are homonyms.* I remember that the word was "kanji" (but internet research now leaves me dubious: apparently "kanji" can mean many more things than these words, & I don't see anything online about painting or scratching. I'd love to know more about this...). True: writing can be made by scratching lines into a wall (of a prison, for instance), or a stylus into a wax tablet (from classical through medieval times). An image can be made by scratching a needle into a metal plate (as in an etching), or a fingernail into fingerpaint (or any tool into any paint). And now that we've connected scratching-writing & scratching-painting, how can we connect writing-painting? In calligraphy.
East Asian calligraphic traditions have certainly been rich areas for visual-verbal integration. A 1992 article about calligraphy, "Pictocentrism," written by Charles Shiro Inouye (who happened to teach that Japanese Visual Culture class, all those years later!), was formative in my thinking along these lines. But western calligraphy can be imagistic, too. In art school, I studied with Brody Neuenschwander, whose handwriting might be familiar to you from the big screen: he does calligraphy for Peter Greenaway's films. He creates tools & techniques that would allow Roman letters to become more visual. For instance, he bends pen nibs out of cola cans, to create splatter effects such as those in "Your Feelings Slip" (2008), at left. (When I go through the process of "decoding" the writing in this piece -- I cannot "read" it without working at it -- I see that its "subtle fire" is being conveyed by the colors & lines, as much as by the language & its capitalizations.)
This morning, Zheng Lianjie noted that the tools for Western calligraphy are not as flexible as those in Eastern traditions. The metal nib & the feather quill cannot change direction as easily as a pointed animal-hair brush. (I'm sure he does not know about Neuenschwander's cola-can nibs, which can move sideways more easily than standard metal nibs, but still...Zheng's observation holds.) Not only can the pointed brush pivot easily, but its stroke has a wide range of widths, no matter how long the hairs on the brush. These technical details may help to explain why Roman handwriting has not gotten as imagistic as in China & Japan: we're simply locked into the letters. Yet we also regard handwriting differently.
After Zheng Lianjie introduced several ideograms in terms of their meanings, I asked whether we also should be thinking about these not just in terms of legibility, but also as visual compositions -- attending to line quality & the overall visual arrangement of the lines in relation to each other. He said that we should definitely be thinking about our writings as paintings. His way of explaining this, though, wasn't in terms of the visual qualities I had been isolating. His definition of writing-as-painting was that we should be making our strokes while "going inside" to connect with the aspect(s) of ourselves that would find expression on the paper, so that we would be working on our "writing" the way we would work on a studio project...or the way we might create a poem. He insisted that even though we were officially beginners, our work was manifesting our individuality: just as we each had a way of moving, we each had a way of using the brush. Our ideograms were actually more fresh, authentic, & individual expressions, to his eye, than if we were more practiced. (He even encouraged us to sign & frame them!)
The Western analogue for this philosophy -- graphology -- is often considered quackery. Though it is perfectly ordinary for us to recognize each others' handwriting, we do not generally take seriously these visual qualities. Perhaps the difference is that graphology tries to diagnose specific character traits, while the kind of "individuality" Zheng Lianjie was talking about today was more holistic -- less reductive. Western "handwriting analysis" tends toward personality dissection, categorization, & desiccation; I also associate it with diagnosing criminality or deviance. In any case, I am uncomfortable with this binary opposition of the two writing styles, & the disparate ways of thinking about writing...so for the rest of this post I will seek middle ground.
First, I'll look to the work of another contemporary artist (& sometime colleague of Zheng Lianjie), Xu Bing. Before today, my admiration for Xu Bing's artwork centered around some projects with Chinese calligraphic nonsense. Because I don't speak or read Chinese, ideograms always look indecipherable to me, anyway...but Xu Bing takes them one step further. In a multi-year project, "Book
from the Sky" (1987-1991), he created nonsense using familiar calligraphic strokes (see the printing woodblock carved here), so that a printed page would resemble Chinese writing but be utterly gibberish. Then he created an entire room full of these printed texts! (See right -- printed books are on the floor & on the walls, as well as suspended from the ceiling.) Another project was to write English letters in a Chinese calligraphic style, constructing an ideogram out of each word (see below). He calls this "Square Word Calligraphy" or "New English Calligraphy," & I find it fascinating... the calligrapher here has just written "Little Bo Peep." We tried this out today, & I found how hard it was. Yet this was still an exercise in writing according to a form -- someone else's form. How could language be written in a visual form that is not prescribed?
This small photo to the right, a snap from tonight's "Symbolic Calligraphy" opening, suggests another approach. It's the character for "Country," but Tairiku Teshima makes the outer structure of the ideogram into a border, & thereby transforms the negative (white) space into a dynamic shape. While the word can still be recognized & read (I can say this with conviction because it was one of the ideograms we worked with today), the piece looks & functions more like a painting.
How might this be possible in Roman lettering? (And why should we care?) Extending Neuenschwander's ideas about calligraphy farther, we could see all of our letters as the arts that they are -- each type style an entire territory (meaning that a type style condenses historical forms & ideological associations into the microcosm of a printed letter), & each penstroke a drawing. I think that this way of thinking about text could defamiliarize it so that we gain a degree of remove, a critical distance from texts whose aim is to persuade. (Including this one...) Sure, typography can also be used to persuade, but once you're hip to its tricks -- once you can see letters visually -- you're not as subject to typographic manipulation.
Now, that is what we could gain distance from. What could we get closer to? I'm thinking that seeing writing as an image could infuse all texts with an aesthetic register -- a visual poetry, you might say. At this historical moment, when we're reading standardized type styles all day on our devices, a bit of play in our assumptions about text could revivify the eyes (& the mind) with which we're processing all that data. (For a fun, new, typographical look at NYC, for instance, click <here>.) I've tried to enact a bit of that this week, by setting my blog in Times New Roman instead of the default Helvetica...& by using all of these ampersands. Now it's time for me to go back to my studio, where I make text even less readable -- or more visual -- than what I've been writing about here. (You're welcome to visit! Open Studios in my Brooklyn neighborhood are this weekend, & more info about my location is <here>.)
Many thanks to Stacey Harwood, for inviting me to blog for this week!