Gu Gan (古干/Gu gan): Toward a New Calligraphy
Gu Gan, born Zhang Shiqiang, was born in 1942. Studying at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Gu Gan soon positioned himself at the forefront of the avant-garde calligraphy movement, culminating in his participation in the first major exhibition of Modern Chinese Calligraphy. The exhibition was a surprising development in 1985: few would have expected that the Chinese authorities would have allowed such a controversial show to be mounted at the Beijing China Art Gallery. Nevertheless, by the end of the show, it was clear that Modernism had arrived in the Chinese art scene, and calligraphy would be the site of its most immediate impact.
Gu Gan has maintained an unapologetically modern stance when it comes to calligraphy. Part of this stance is an irreverence that demands the liberation of the calligraphic tradition from the centuries of convention and habit that have accrued. His works, often monumental in scale, have at their core the aesthetic expression and experience of emotion; instead of long texts, individual characters or simple phrases are rendered in massive contexts, in unconventional means. Despite this seeming rebelliousness, it must be noted that Gu Gan is an accomplished calligrapher, clearly able to execute works in the ancient styles. He has written and illustrated manuals (glossary: Modern Style Calligraphy) that seek to explain and popularize his more modern calligraphic sensibility. Seen in this light, Gu Gan’s artistic aims should be seen not as an attempt to eliminate the calligraphic consciousness from Chinese Culture, but to make it relevant to the concerns of modern, globalized society.
Xu Bing (徐冰/Hsü Bing): Troubling ‘Writing’ – Interpretation of Classic Calligraphy in a Modern Way
While Gu Gan effectively challenged the idea of calligraphy as a primarily text-based art, and focused on the visual-expressive aspects of the Chinese tradition, Xu Bing began to adopt the traditional means of production only to subvert the expectations of legibility. In particular, his “Book from the Sky” (天書/Tian Shu) makes use of very crisp block prints. Though the characters in the monumental installation allude to the form and structure of Chinese characters, each one of them is an invented, essentially meaningless graph. Thus the viewer, if they can read Chinese, is at once awed by the immense amount of work needed to render so many large woodblock, but also frustrated at their insistence on remaining clear, yet illegible.
In his “Introduction to New English Calligraphy”, Xu further addresses notions of translation, authenticity and writing. In the installation, a traditional calligraphy studio is set up, and a video invites the viewer to be seated and begin following instructions in calligraphy. To the Chinese viewer, it quickly becomes apparent that the characters being taught are not Chinese. Even those fluent in English will soon realize that the characters are in fact graph-like abstractions of common English words. In this way, Xu draws attention to a number of present concerns regarding Chinese art and culture. While the growing engagement between East and West is clearly seen, the inevitability of mistranslation is assumed. The work may be seen as an indictment of any needlessly reductive attempt to render traditional artistic forms legible to the uninitiated. It may also be seen as a hopeful motion toward a world of ever-increasing diversity and synthesis, wherein form, content and practice are finally liberated from the labels of Eastern or Western.