Character Study

UAMA's latest exhibit explores the nature of contemporary Chinese calligraphy.

Walls of words made of human hair and a municipal utility box that's been tagged with the artist's genealogy--you won't find these in most museums' Chinese art galleries even though they evoke calligraphy, the most traditional Chinese art form. You will find these and about 50 other Chinese artworks at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, not in its permanent collection, but in the current traveling exhibition Power of the Word.

This fascinating exhibition features pieces by nine contemporary Chinese artists who use Chinese characters in their work. Artists from both the People's Republic of China and Taiwan are represented. Almost half of the artists are expatriates or spend part of the year living in Europe or the United States. Most of the artwork in the exhibition is truly international.

Language is at the core of all cultures and is one of their unifying forces. Societies worried about losing power from inside or outside their borders always seek to preserve the integrity and dominance of their language. In the 1980s, Gu Wenda and Xu Bing began changing the Chinese language in their own ways for their artwork. Even then, before China's post-Tiananmen Square repression, the philosophical and artistic pursuit known as "deconstruction" in the West was a politically charged, rebellious act in China.

Now Gu Wenda, who lives in New York, is using language, including Chinese, to break the taboos of even the Western world to reveal our common humanity. "Enigma of Birth," one of his artworks at the UAMA, features four forms that resemble miniature beds with Chinese characters written on the mattresses. The characters are written in what appears to be colored sand but is actually dried human placenta. The different shades of brown and different grades of coarseness add to the piece's poignant and solemn aura.

Some viewers may be repulsed by the medium, others intrigued. Many may speculate about how the artist acquired so much dried placenta. Most viewers, I think, will wonder what the words mean, which raises a problem with the exhibition: None of the Chinese in the artwork was translated by the curator or organizers.

Power of the Word was organized by Independent Curators International, New York, and the Taiwan Museum of Art. The guest curator was Chang Tsong-zung. Although the exhibition opened at the Taiwan Museum of Art, it has an extended American touring schedule. Clearly, the curator and organizer made a conscious decision to let the Chinese characters stand alone as aesthetic and pictographic elements rather than overburden the non-Chinese viewer with extended translations and cumbersome background material.

On the subject of providing translations for the viewer, Peter Briggs, chief curator of collections at the UAMA, says he feels there is more than one way to approach the artworks. "I think that if one is steeped in the history of Chinese language and writing that one can get a lot of different messages and understanding from the work than someone who is not. But I think someone who is not can find a lot of interesting things [by] coming at it from a different perspective." UAMA did add translations of the poems by Chairman Mao Zedong to its Gallery Guide because the work "is more steeped in the literary tradition as well as the visual tradition," according to Briggs.

Power of the Word does have much to offer every viewer, yet how ironic it is to omit translations from an exhibition based on language. Finding the happy medium of how much text to post in any exhibition is hard, but "Enigma of Birth" is a good example of why some translation and background would be helpful.

In "Enigma of Birth," the Chinese characters on each bed in turn read "Abnormal Fetus," "Normal Fetus," "Dead Fetus." One of the beds is empty, a white sheet in a culture where white is the color of mourning, where people shroud themselves in white at funerals. (All of the translations and this background come compliments of Matthew Gross, a UAMA staff member who speaks Mandarin Chinese and who actually re-created the characters from the placental material for the UA exhibition.) Dried placenta was reputedly used by a 12th-century Chinese emperor as an aphrodisiac, and it was clinically tested in China in the 1990s as a treatment for female infertility. Those historical connections are part of why the piece won't be relegated to the current American fad of using bodily fluids as an art medium.

Xu Bing, who now resides in New York, has moved from creating nonsensical Chinese characters in his earlier work to squishing English letters together to look like Chinese characters. His installation "Square Word Calligraphy" is set up as an actual schoolroom for his "New English Calligraphy School" to teach students his made-up language. Xu has an ironic perspective on the relationship between the language spoken by the most people in the world and the one spoken most widely throughout the world.

Power of the Word includes only one traditional calligrapher: Chairman Mao Zedong. The leader of the Chinese Communist revolution also is revered in China as the century's finest and most influential calligrapher, according to the catalog. The pieces included in Power of the Word are enlarged facsimiles because Mao's work is held in China's official archives. Even as copies, these texts of Mao's own poetry reveal the beauty and boldness of his calligraphy, and they provide an excellent foil to the transmutation of calligraphy in contemporary Chinese art. The whole notion of a leader who practiced his nation's two most honored arts shows the cultural gap between the United States and China.

Qiu Zhijie does use calligraphy, among other things, but his art places calligraphy in the context of conceptual art. His "Copying One Thousand Times 'Preface to Orchid Pavilion Anthology' 1995-1996" is a long sheet of paper that shines and buckles with layer upon layer of black ink. Qiu has copied the most famous piece of calligraphy in Chinese history literally 1,000 times until the words have dissolved into ink. The repetitive movement of the artist's hand across the paper has become a spiritual act, the words a mantra that fills the mind.

First and foremost, Power of the Word offers a vision of strokes, delicate and bold, rendered on everything: paper, canvas, wood, clay, copper, even a computer screen. The exhibition also offers a perspective into Chinese culture, both the personal and the political, through a medium that has not been widely seen in the United States. In an age of rampant globalization of lives and art, the time to see both views is now.

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