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A Brush with China's New Calligraphic Art

The 5,000 year-old art of Chinese calligraphy has undergone as great a change in the last two decades or so as has Chinese society itself. This is an aspect of the culture that is little understood in the West. Originally developed as the main form of official communication, calligraphy has been transformed into a dynamic new art form, pushing the boundaries of both Chinese and Western art.

This trend is featured in the exhibition "Calligraphy as Source and Resource: Chinese Contemporary Art," which is now showing at the Asia-Australia Arts Center in Sydney, Australia. The exhibition opened on January 21, Chinese New Year's Eve, and will run until February 22.

The exhibition presents a new and noteworthy artistic trend that has emerged in China since the 1980s. It presents the new forms of expression in calligraphy, painting, installation, performance and public art that have been derived from the traditional art and culture of Chinese calligraphy, with influence from Western modern art and Japanese calligraphy. The exhibition includes the work of 14 artists active in China and documents a unique encounter between modernity and tradition.

"Calligraphy as Source and Resource" has been co-curated by Beijing arts journalist and curator Yang Yingshi, who is currently based at Harvard University and has been a key researcher and advocate of the modern calligraphy movement, and Helen Grace, a Sydney-based scholar and artist with a long association with contemporary art.

This exciting exhibition brings to Australia for the first time the work of leading proponents in this new movement. Indeed, very little of this work has been seen anywhere in the world outside China before.

"The exhibition will help flesh out the Asia-Australia Arts Center’s vision of creating greater awareness of art worldwide through cultural exchange and dialogue," remarked Binghui Huangfu, director of the arts center which is one of the leading venues of contemporary art in Australia.

A part of the Chinese New Year Festival in this largest city of Australia, the exhibition is sponsored by the City of Sydney, the Australia-China Council, and the Institute for International Studies of the University of Technology, Sydney.

The exhibition was opened by the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Lucy Turnbull, and at the same time, a special Chinese issue of the art magazine, Artlink, was formally unveiled by Kevin Rudd, opposition shadow minister for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade.

"The opening was highly successful and the work has been very well received by those who've seen it," said co-curator Helen Grace. "Many people were impressed by the work and the idea of modern calligraphy."

Included in the exhibition are the dramatic creations of Gu Gan and Yan Binghui, whose work was featured in the seminal -- and enormously popular -- First Modern Calligraphy Exhibition in Beijing in 1985, Chinese calligraphy's equivalent to the New York "Armory" show in 1913, which transformed the understanding of European art.

Also included is the work of a new generation of innovators -- Wei Ligang and Shao Yan whose work "post-modernizes" the traditional scroll form of calligraphy, adding content that reflects the urban spaces of a new China. Wang Dongling, a prominent modernist calligrapher and winner of major awards, brings together the energy of calligraphic strokes with the new energy of consumer culture in his collage works.

A new calligraphy "avant-garde" is represented in the works of Zhang Dawo, who has created a sculptural and multi-layered calligraphic style. Zhang's recent "Love Letters" series is impressive with its abstract, heart-touching calligraphic lines that dance on elegant, patterned letter-paper (xinjian) made in Beijing's Rongbaozhai, a gallery and venue for traditional Chinese art.

The dynamic work of calligraphy theorist and artist Qiu Zhenzhong concentrates on the fine detail of calligraphic form, eschewing a focus on content. Such tension between form and content is a feature of this new movement. The exhibition includes more than 40 small abstract works the artist has executed with dynamic calligraphic lines and strokes that portray a flower and, at the same time, document his individual "status."

The exhibition also contains the work of Cai Mengxia, a young artist working with more obscure texts, such as women's script (nshu), and one of the few women featured in this new calligraphy movement.

The "fun" part of the exhibition is a number of video installations and performance and public art works that make the exhibition more interactive with the public.

Artist Qiu Zhijie's video installation, which examines key issues in Chinese calligraphy in its relation to human nature and Chinese culture, is installed on the ground floor of the gallery so that it projects onto the gallery window, facing the street.

"At night, especially, the work attracts an audience and people stand in the street, quite transfixed by the work," said Grace.

"'Ten Poems of the Tang Dynasty', 'Writing the Orchid Pavilion Preface a Thousand Times' and 'Grinding Tombstones' work very effectively in this way," she noted.

Calligraphy performance artist Zhang Qiang presents a new work for the first time in Sydney after the success of his work internationally at a major exhibition of Chinese calligraphy, held in the British Museum in 2002. A number of the artists included in that exhibition are also featured in this show. Zhang was unable to be present at the opening. His work is represented by a video show of his recent performance in Hong Kong.

Some artists, such as Zhu Qingzheng (LaoZhu), develop the idea of calligraphy as public art. For this exhibition, Zhu's work enters public space in the form of a specially produced design for a garbage truck, entitled "The Artist is a Cleaner.” Enlarged, wild cursive script-style Chinese calligraphy is printed on the sides of the truck, which runs on Sydney streets to interact with the local public.

"The artists and their works in this exhibition represent the pursuit of individual expression and the desire to re-invigorate -- or reuse -- traditional Chinese art, a move which started in the early 1980s when China started its wide-spread reform and opening-up movement," remarked co-curator Yang Yingshi, who initiated the exhibition project.

"In this exhibition, we encourage visitors to refresh their understanding of Chinese art. It is not only meant to introduce Western viewers to an emerging school of Chinese art; we also hope it reminds people of how fascinating and dynamic Chinese tradition can be -- as source and resource for contemporary art in both the East and the West."

(China Daily February 16, 2004)

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