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Between Heaven and Earth: Wang Dongling’s Calligraphy exhibition at the Forbidden City in Beijing


text:Frank Vigneron/photo:Frank Vigneron/translation: Zoe Song

文:Frank Vigneron/圖:Frank Vigneron/翻譯:宋敏

In any case, Wang Dongling’s calligraphy was powerful enough to make of this exhibition and its surroundings a very satisfying experience.

(Parallel Chinese-English textsChinese follows English. 本文章為中英對照,英文在前,中文在後)

On November 5, 2016, the Forbidden City in Beijing saw the opening of a major exhibition of works by the calligrapher Wang Dongling 王冬齡. Organized by the publication Poetry & Calligraphy & Painting (詩書畫), it took place at the Taimiao Temple Hall (太廟), a venue that is now dedicated to art events. Officially curated by Fan Di’an范迪安, now director of the National Museum of China (中國美術館) and an official occupying many other positions in the official artworld of the Mainland, and Xu Jiang 許江, president of the China Academy of Art (中國美術學院) in Hangzhou, but actually put together by Yan Shanchun 嚴善錞, formerly vice-president of the Shenzhen Fine Art Institute (深圳畫院), the exhibition itself consisted mainly of a large reflective surface, standing in the middle of the hall, where Wang Dongling had written one of his large distinctive calligraphies in white paint. Based on either the cursive script (xingshu 行書) or the even wilder ‘grass’ script (caoshu 草書), Wang Dongling famously created his own style in the form of intertwining the lines of these scripts, thus creating a sense of intense complications that has been coined ‘chaos script’ (luanshu 亂書). Some viewers did not like the idea of exhibiting the main piece of this exhibition on a horizontal wall-like structure that felt like blocking the space of the hall, suggesting that the verticality of these Chinese architectures should have been exploited to better effects. Others also did not like the addition of standing structures that were used for the wall didactics, saying that they interfered with both the art works and the space of the hall. In any case, Wang Dongling’s calligraphy was powerful enough to make of this exhibition and its surroundings a very satisfying experience.

The opening of this exhibition was also the occasion for Wang Dongling to enact one of his public performances in writing calligraphy. Many times, he has done so on extremely large sheets of paper, sometimes larger than fifty feet wide, moving around this space wielding very long brushes. As already mentioned, for this occasion he had done one of his giant calligraphiers using white paint on sheets of metal. But the opening ceremony gave him the occasion to perform simply using water on the stones of the courtyard of the Taimiao Temple, thus commemorating something many people have done as an everyday practice in the parks and gardens of China. Wang Dongling’s performances, designed in the mind of the artist to bring the experience of this age-old art form into the realm of contemporary art practices, immediately beg the question of the participation of the body in the visual arts of China and especially in calligraphy. The engagement of the whole body that Wang Dongling brought into his practice is not always necessary to a lot of other calligraphers working on a smaller scale. In fact, Wang Dongling’s performative choice is not the only possibility for calligraphy, but even in the calmer practice of more traditional calligraphers, the physical gestures are as much part of the work itself as the characters written.


Wang Dongling’s Calligraphy exhibition site shot at the Forbidden City, image courtesy of Prof. Frank Vigneron

Even though the event of this particular opening only produced a very fleeting presence, since the water used by the artist very quickly evaporated, the works of Wang Dongling are generally ‘exhibitable’ objects and produced during performances that can be compared to those of artists like Jackson Pollock (for whom the term ‘action painting’ was used in the 1950s) or the French painter Georges Mathieu (1921-2012). There are differences between these two artists though: the American one was not too concerned about the performative aspect of his work, being only interested in the final product, whereas the French one did not separate the performance of making from the final product that was the finished painting. For Wang Dongling also, there is a conscious decision to think of the process of making calligraphy a part of the entire artwork. His practice does not separate making, performing and exhibiting and is, at the same time, rooted in the ancient history of calligraphy and the modern understanding of performance and exhibition.

In Asia, it is possible to see in the Japanese movement called Gutai具体other another trend of artists who took their cues from their own ancient culture and the influence of Pollock-style performing. It is obvious that American culture was everywhere to be found in Japan in the years following WWII and the New York abstract expressionist painters were extremely visible in the many exhibitions organized by the US authorities in the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, many Japanese artists took from the gestures of calligraphy, but also from their own martial arts tradition, what could be completed by the performative art of Jackson Pollock, thus producing completely original performative art forms that remained fundamentally Japanese. The works of Shiraga Kazuo白髪 一雄 (born 1924) are for example very typical of the visual research and the abstract art of the post-Kaprow era. This artist of the Gutai movement decided to start painting, using heavy oil or acrylic colors, with his feet, dancing and sliding on the surface of the canvas put on the floor. What might have seemed surprising at the time was however no more so than painting with one’s nails or hair, acts that Chinese painters could do as long ago as the eighteenth century and even earlier – in particular高其佩 (1660-1734), whose grandson Gao Bing 高秉 wrote an incredible treatise simply titled About Finger painting (Zhitou Huashuo 指頭畫). In that sense, it gives me some pleasure to think that Wang Dongling’s work, in spite of a conscious effort by the artist to think of his practice as entirely contemporary, would not have shocked the calligraphers and painters of the past in China.


Wang Dongling’s Calligraphy exhibition site shot at the Forbidden City, image courtesy of Prof. Frank Vigneron




由於地上的水很快蒸發,王冬齡的書法在地上只能呈現片刻。但即使是這樣,他的作品仍然具有「展示性」,並且能讓人聯想到1950年代「行動繪畫」的代表畫家傑克森•波拉克(Jackson Pollock)或是法國畫家喬治·馬修(Georges Mathieu,1921-2012)。這兩個藝術家的區別在於:傑克森並不十分注重創作中的表演部分,他只關注創作最後的呈現。喬治創作時,則會把表演創作過程和作品最終呈現這兩個部分分開,王冬齡同樣如此,他的表演是構成他創作的不可或缺的一環。書寫、表演、和最後的展示對於王冬齡的創作來說是一個整體,其根基在於中國傳統書法技藝的傳承和對現代展覽方式的借鑒。



(Article from a.m.post Issue 124 January/February 2017;本文刊載於 a.m.post Issue 124  1/2月 2017)