August 2003 Third International Convention of Asian Scholars


Third International Convention of Asian Scholars, Singapore – Scholar discussion on Contemporary Calligraphy and the Chinese Aesthetic Pursuit of Xuan (abstruseness) and Miao (wonderfulness).

“Calligraphy is the artistry of xuan [abstruseness] and miao [wonderfulness].” This was a definition given by Wang Xizhi of the Jin Dynasty. It remains the most abstruse and wonderful definition today. Inspired by this, the panel explores contemporary Chinese calligraphy and revisits the Chinese aesthetic pursuit of xuan and miao from three perspectives, i.e. historical, curatorial and practitioner.

The first speaker (Dr Chew Kim Liong), from a historical perspective, takes the audience through a centenary journey from traditional calligraphy to new calligraphic art, covering three stages of the 20th century: 1) Personalised Traditional Calligraphy⎯works in a personal style but still related to traditional calligraphy; 2) Pictographic Calligraphy ⎯ works such as painting-like calligraphy and calligraphy-dominated painting (Huang Yao and calligraphy); and 3) New Calligraphic Art⎯works including pseudo-Chinese-character calligraphy, calligraphy as advocated in Shufa Zhuyi [Calligraphism], as well as calligraphy related performance and installation works.

The second speaker (Mr Kwok Kian Chow), from a curatorial perspective, takes on from stage 2 to deliver a paper on Huang Yao’s pictographic calligraphy and linking it to the Chinese aesthetic pursuit of xuan and miao. The third speaker (Mr Gu Wenda), from a practitioner perspective, talks about Gu Wenda’s new calligraphic art/installation and sharing experiences on his pursuit of xuan and miao.

From Shufa [Traditional Chinese Calligraphy] to Shuyi [New Calligraphic Art]: A Centenary Pursuit of Xuan [Abstruseness] and Miao [Wonderfulness] – Dr. Chew Kim Liong, Assistant Professor, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

By the Tang Dynasty, five styles of shufa [traditional Chinese calligraphy] have already been developed and reached their full maturity; they are zhuan shu [seal script], li shu [official script], kai shu [regular script], xing shu [walking script] and cao shu [cursive script]. Since then, Chinese calligraphy has been used for the imperial examination system, as a practical medium to write Chinese characters for communication purposes, and later as inscriptions on Chinese painting. There was no effort made to separate and develop calligraphy into its own independent artistic form, until 1898 when Kang Youwei and his student Liang Qichao launched the “One-Hundred-Day Reform”.

Kang’s ideas prompted many calligraphers to start seeking fundamental transformation and drastic innovation to bring calligraphy to an independent art status. The process of development was, however, very gradual in the beginning. This paper gives a historical account of this beginning phase, the so-called First Stage: Personalised Traditional Calligraphy (works in a personal style but still related to traditional calligraphy), which spanned across the hefty first eighty years of the twentieth century. The paper then looks at the next ten years as the Second Stage: Pictographic Calligraphy (works such as painting-like calligraphy and calligraphy-dominated painting). The last stage discussed in this paper is the Third Stage: New Calligraphic Art (works including pseudo-Chinese-character calligraphy, calligraphy as advocated in Shufa Zhuyi [Calligraphism], as well as calligraphy related performance and installation works).

Huang Yao and Modern Calligraphy – Mr. Kwok Kian Chow, Director of the Singapore Art Museum

Given shuhua tongyuan (that writing and painting stem from the same root), Chinese painting and calligraphy have always been particularly conscious of art and words as significations.  The great conceptual problem of 20th-century Western art⎯that of the dichotomy between figuration and abstraction⎯was posed very differently in Chinese art history.  Since both shu and hua are signs, figuration never played a central role in visual representation.  However, the potential of creative interplay and interchanges between words and images was not realized until the modern age.  This paper argues that this is because of the modern reception of art and calligraphy, where mass media and multicultural environment call for intercultural and mass communication of unprecedented intensity. The work of Huang Yao is discussed in this context.

An early practitioner of wenzi hua [calligraphic painting], Huang grew up in the literati circle and was an editor-journalist-cartoonist in Shanghai during the mid-1930s till the World War II.  He was prominent as the creator of the Niu bizi cartoon series.  The context for the later half of his life was Southeast Asia⎯primarily multicultural and cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur.  His creative output, other than his continued interest in history, philosophy and education, was a variety of calligraphic paintings exploring the interplay of images and words.  This paper further suggests that the Southeast Asian context help to explain why Huang was one of the earliest proponents of 20th century modern Chinese calligraphy. ( In photo : Mr Kwok )

Mr Kwok

From Middle Kingdom to Biological Millennium – Mr. Gu Wenda, Artist

As a practising artist, Gu Wenda talks about his own new calligraphic art/installation and shares experiences on his pursuit of xuan and miao. Gu will highlight a variety of his works from his world-renowned piece entitled, ‘United Nations’, to his more recent project at the Esplanade. Gu’s pieces are conceptually, methodologically, geographically, culturally, ethnically and politically as well as artistically very inclusive and complex.

In his new book Art beyond the West, Michael K. O’riley explains that the ‘United Nations’ project “can be seen as a kind of universal tea house, a place where many cultures can assemble and transcend their national differences.” He added, “By violating the traditional system of writing in which the characters carry distinct meanings, Gu’s work represents a new form of mysticism⎯with his installations as the temples where the mysteries can be contemplated.”

His projects are an “ambitious attempt to address in artistic terms the issue of globalism that dominates discussions of contemporary economics, society, and culture. Gu’s work is remarkably timely. Yet, like all important art, it is meant to speak not only to the present but also to the future, which will recognize it as part of the fundamental quest of artists throughout history to extend the boundaries of human perception, feeling, and thought and to express humanity’s deepest wishes and most powerful dreams.  ‘A great utopia of the unification of mankind probably can never exist in our reality,’ admits Gu, ‘but it is going to be fully realized in the art world.’ ”


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