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Back to Out of Character main exhibition | Introduction

Word World : The Character of Characters

By Gary Gach

The mounting of the brushed words in Out of Character at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, has been enhanced with instances of contemporary dance and abstract expressionist painting, that we might more fully appreciate Chinese calligraphy as art, in and of itself. Presumably, when it opens at the Met, it will enjoy similar amenities. Meanwhile, it can be enjoyed, as well, through the superb, illustrative, substantive, hefty, nifty catalog, edited by Michael Knight and Joseph Z Chang, with texts by a diversity of scholars. Indeed, appreciation of Chinese calligraphy is a fellowship representing a continuum extending across ages.

Sponsor Robert H N Ho Family Foundation has said:
The works in this exhibition were created by the "one percent" — the elite literati class who throughout history controlled the bureaucracy and defined aesthetic standards. In the past, rigid rules were laid down to constrain heterodoxy and maintain "order." Innovation and creativity arose within the bounds of these rules. Today, the "ninety-nine percent" of Chinese are literate and have a much larger influence in the direction of tastes and creativity.

Chinese calligraphy's deep influences are also brilliantly limned through a contemporary work, The Character of Characters, by genius painter philosopher innovator Xu Bing. Commissioned in conjunction with Out of Character, The Character of Characters is sure to take a life of its own.

The Character of Characters is an animation made with a team of dozen, the 18-minute fruit of 10,000 hours. Bold, yet full of beguiling nuance and rich subtleties, it's in black and white (yet some sections use the color of Chinese rice paper as base). For museum installation, it's presented on an 11-meter wide screen, with five high-density light sources, as shown here. It's also available as a DVD which comes with a large book.

An essay by independent scholar of contemporary Chinese art Britta Erickson, contextualizes the animated piece as summation of Xu Bing's concerns. Moreover, Xu Bing's own text provides very useful and provocative clarifications of its 18 sections. For instance, if my understanding is correct – I'm still letting this percolate — Xu Bing reads Chinese brush landscape as a syntactical mobilization of a basic vocabulary as found in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting — — just as the calligraphy of a poem draws upon pictorial origins of words. This theory is visible here in a mode he's dubbed Landscripts,. He also "makes new" his insights into the shaping of Chinese civilization by brush culture, applying it to such global phenomena as logos, and the local flow of congested Beijing traffic.

The order of magnitude of Xu Bing's accomplishment elevates the ground upon which we travel.

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