Exhibit explores clash and transformation via ink
When the ink characters kept shrinking after the calligrapher drew them on an oil canvas, the audience at the Chambers Fine Art gallery in New York oohed and aahed at the effect as their cameras fired away. On the side, a video camera was recording the performance to complete the artwork.
The calligraphy demonstration took place at the opening of a new exhibition, entitled Guanshan Gathering, which will run through Feb 22. The exhibition features collaborative works by Chinese scholar, curator and artist Zheng Shengtian and acclaimed Chinese calligrapher Wang Dongling.
“The two materials (waterbased ink and oil canvas) work against each other, which is why when you write on the canvas, the effect will be drastically different from what normal Chinese calligraphy looks like,” said Zheng, who is behind the idea of using the two conflicting materials.
“The process resembles the conflicts and misunderstandings that often occur in communication between human beings, a clash and blend between the East and the West,” he added.
To show the varied meanings between different languages and interpretations, the gallery provided three translations of the written text in the demonstration — from a Buddhist, a poet and Google translate.
“It is a traditional Chinese calligraphy with a new touch of modern age, a kind of joint venture of the East and the West,” said JD Hotchkiss, an art representative and frequent visitor to the gallery. “It is very good and I like to see Chinese calligraphy being brought to the West.”
“I think it’s a unique opportunity for the New York art world to see a calligrapher,” said Stephanie Mar, a visual artist and textile designer. “I have definitely got inspired.”
The idea of writing ink on oil canvas was developed 13 years ago, when Zheng was invited to create an installation for the Word and Meaning: Six Contemporary Chinese Artists at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said Zheng. Back then his wife Aikang wrote Clement Greenberg’s essay Modernist Painting in ink on four oil canvases, accompanied by a audio recording of Canadian artist Hank Bull reading the essay.
Much like the work in Guanshan Gathering, the ink shrank until only random black dots remained on a sheer trace of the written characters, reminiscent of an abstract painting. Zheng recorded the entire process to show the theme of conflict and transformation.
Years later an invitation from Chambers Fine Arts inspired Zheng to conduct a new interpretation of the ink-versus-oil-canvas idea, as the previous work was a bit rushed, said Zheng.
“This time I invited my old friend, the most prominent Chinese calligrapher Wang Dongling to collaborate on the work, and this would be a challenge for him too as a calligrapher because he had never drawn on a material that he was unfamiliar with,” Zheng said. “I also found a professional video photographer to help me record this time.”
In order to plan the collaboration and exhibition, Zheng, Wang and others involved in the project met at their friend Huang Luoya’s house at Guanshan, a famous mountain near the ancient riverfront town of Changhe close to Hangzhou, China in April 2013. Later on they started to use “Guanshan Gathering” as the group’s name on WeChat, China’s mobile social network.
“Luoya sent a message stating that her young son did not understand the meaning of ‘Guanshan Gathering’, and asked whether this was a gangster group (‘dark society’ in Chinese). I replied ‘yes, but it’s a ‘gang of ink’ (‘ink society’ in Chinese),” said Zheng in his blog on the creation of Guanshan Gathering.
The team chose the fifth century classic Introduction to Landscape Painting by Zong Bing, a Southern Dynasties painter, as the text for Guanshan Gathering’s first set of artworks completed in Hangzhou. The work, written on five 110-by-160 cm canvases, was well received in the exhibition in Beijing last summer. However, due to space limitations, it could not be shown in New York.
Instead, both sets of twocanvas works completed on the opening night of the exhibition in Beijing and New York will be shown, in addition to the videos that recorded the duo’s collaboration. Zhang Yang contributed to this story.
Chinese calligrapher Wu Dongling performs his skills at the Guanshan Gathering, an exhibition at the Chambers Fine Art Gallery in New York.