Calligraphy as Conceptual Arts : Xu Jiong

Xu Jiong, Hermit Mong Rong・Untitled, 2016, 154.5 x 84 cm, Chinese Ink on Paper


Calligraphy as Conceptual Arts : Xu Jiong

I. Contemporary Art Lineage

With the exception of fortune tellers, no one can describe the future, let alone explain it. The same is true for art. We may attempt a different method and look back on what art history has deemed important and worthy of preservation. One type is that which is not a creative symbol, but nonetheless possesses a kind of unmistakeable personal quality. Another uses the simplest visuals and language to express new spiritual layers. Such artists include Rothko and Cy Twombly, who are often mentioned by Xu Jiong. Those skilled in the use of written language include Ed Ruscha, On Kawara, and Christopher Wool.

As Western artists, the temperaments of their forms might not be wholly comparable to Xu Jiong, since image and text are usually discussed separately. When connected with the tradition of conceptual art in the sixties and seventies, works featuring text involve written text and an exchange with images. Nevertheless, they lead to an unclear grasp of various explanations, texts, and sentences. They also lead to a pure visual quality, and new discoveries of language and reading. Writing and the overall text may be displayed as pictures and lines, separating them from semantics while creating new meanings.

From this line of reasoning, Xu’s works, which focus on Chinese calligraphy, are part of the same artistic tradition. In his art, the irreplaceable aesthetic beauty of Chinese characters achieves the “existence” of written language in Western art of a similar type. Every subject emphasizes the relationship experience between the imaginary and concrete, or between the grammatical structure and the physics (and non-material appearance) by which it constructs images. Instead of falling into the rut of symbolism, Xu raises this layer of relationship experience to a higher context that involves the textual creation of the relationship amongst text, person, and object. Xu himself quoted:

I’m not interested in simple depiction of objects and people or simple use of calligraphy and characters. Through the medium of calligraphy and the characteristic of promoting calligraphy, I wish to express the condition and relationships of people, objects, and things. This is my true goal.

This layer of relationship comes from a variety of implied meanings and mental associations brought about by aesthetics. The works also feature a varied and extensive use of gray. I recall a Japanese calligrapher who claimed that the most challenging part of this art form was the free and non-intentional application of ink. Gray is neither black nor white, but serves as the existence of a new region of uncertain emotions. On the other hand, gray lines submerging or being submerged cannot be seen through.

II. From Lines to Scenery

In this gray calligraphy of rising and falling layers – particularly Xu’s latest works – I feel the artist has processed his existence from a further distance. This is not cold and indifferent but resembles a movie shot zooming out, allowing one to confront and ponder upon the overall scene. While the size of a picture is limited and the shape of characters (resembling object outlines) still exists, Xu does not draw out a boundary line that closes off the picture. Leaving it open implies an incompleteness, which contradicts the core of contemporary art thought. The constructed scenery does not require a center or edges for the artwork to focus on self-centered thinking and freely create relationships with people, objects, and the outside world.

Focusing solely on one’s own art is a limiting perspective, especially when relying simply on the internal aspects of memories or impressions. The external aspect is the unlimited scene, producing “consciousness started in the present.” This is also a kind of abstract consciousness of thought that provides one with the freedom to understand the world through full use of the senses. The process aims only to complete the simplest calligraphic lines and composition but ultimately incorporates knowledge, temperament, concept, visual experience, and human nature.

Like a quiet, secluded courtyard, this type of purely aesthetic art can be difficult to understand. This courtyard may also be compared to nature created by humans for the purpose of thought. The best courtyards do not appear artificial; like nature they simply exist, appearing quiet while at the same time inclusive of all kinds of plants and scenery. This represents my feelings towards Xu’s work. Within the life of each word, the origin of all life is vaguely apparent, which is also the artist’s shifting consciousness and emotions.

Huang Yaji