the performance, perfections and failure of a single act
Writing is a privilege and a necessity to record, narrate and remember. The Japanese ‘way of writing’ (shō do) brings writing to life, by imbuing the unique presence of the writer in the writing. What is most revealing about this exhibition is in the small photographs that show the vigorous process of the artist performing the writing of a single character – the facial expression, the tense muscles and poised body. The gesture, is by no means simple. To many, this exhibition may seem a tad of over-indulgent homage to a single calligrapher, but then again, we do have a personal museum dedicated to our own local cultural medallionist, Tan Swie Hian. The calligrapher, at the heart of the universe, can say so much in one stroke. The unique script on exhibit, is at least a mark of artist, a self-portrait of sorts.
There are two things we can see from this exhibition.
Firstly, from a semiotic perspective, the hieroglyphic Chinese characters seem to embody the signified and signifier, and when performed in writing, the essence or truth of an idea is depicted. Perhaps this is why calligraphy is a mental exercise, a meditative search or reflection of a certain truth. Imagine the calligrapher writing the word ‘Ren’ (忍) or crudely translated as ‘endure’ or persevere. Can the sense of endurance be felt by any reader? Or is the cursive text an abstract form – an obstacle to understanding the word through calligraphy?
Secondly, it allows us to substantiate and perhaps understand the essence of performance art, if we see performance art’s relation to the esteemed learned calligrapher, a narrator brandishing a brush. While many pieces in this exhibition seemed genuine, and indeed somewhat recognizable of representing the signified and the signifier, some are not very coherent by my laymen standards. Perhaps a single thought cannot and shouldn’t be succinctly captured in one act.
While many of the cursive kanji characters on exhibit in glass frames are almost abstract, they represent the body, the vigorous physical movement of its maker, Yoshio Norizuki. Words in Chinese can be described as ‘hierogyphic’. The root word of each character can be traced to some ancient pictogram, corresponding to an object or idea of an object. For example, the word ‘Shui’ (水) means water, and the ancient hierogyphic equivalent is three wavy lines. Such Chinese characters use a symbol for each idea and is universal in its potentiality. A picture of a chicken is a picture of a chicken in Brazil or China, with subtle variations, or at least I believe this to be so. Henri Michaux remarked that ‘the oriental belief that the state of mind and quality of gesture were central to the ability to shape a beautiful script. Calligraphy practiced in this way, was an act of writing that, unlike the West, sought to place the body at the centre of its aesthetics’. The body, and its movement, becomes the measure of this aesthetics, and perhaps could be applied to the performative visual arts – theatre, dance, live art. The body, in ergonomic ways, is a measure of beauty.
I half suspect Yves Klein would have made a good calligrapher, had he made up his mind to drag his brushes (women) across the paper to write, stating more clearly his authorship of his work. Perhaps even a signature of Yves Klein, like how Piero Manzoni would sign his body of work. Of course, in Klein’s body paintings, or anthropometries, the aesthetics was probably divided between the actual performance and the finished paintings. Just as Pollock never intentionally showed photographs of his act of ‘action painting’ until they were published by Hans Namuth, the actual action of painting formed much of the discourse of the American Abstract Expressionism. It was supposed much later that Pollock saw the works of the Japanese Calligraphers. If Yves Klein or Pollock had made references to Sho, perhaps Western hegemony of performance art would have been more readily contested in the East, against the backdrop of Gutai Group in Japan. The exhibition doesn’t make any protest or reference to live art, which would have changed the perception of calligraphy today, and the piece of work by Tan Swie Hian at the 50th Venice Biennale. Many say they hate the pretentious work, but I rather like it.
Another argument against the merit of the exhibit is trying to signify too much with only one aspect of Japanese calligraphy, with one calligrapher. But what is special is these are new pieces written specially for the exhibition. I could almost imagine the tiny photographs which intrigued me, to be much bigger and an actual exhibit, rather than some explanation or accompanying wall text.
This exhibition should be considered together with the performance art festival, Future of Imagination 3. The art of calligraphy, if appreciated and accepted by the traditional audience, can extend the same bodily aesthetics to appreciate performance art, albeit in a different context, syntax and physical surface.
3 of 5 stars
SHO – Personal Moments of TruthJapanese Calligraphy by Yoshio Norizuki1 March to 31 August 2006