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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Decoding the Secrets of Chinese Calligraphy

Posted By on Thu, Oct 4, 2012 at 7:30 AM

click to enlarge Jerry Yang and Xu Bing in front of one of the calligraphies in the exhibition. - KAZ TSURUTA
  • Kaz Tsuruta
  • Jerry Yang and Xu Bing in front of one of the calligraphies in the exhibition.
Calligraphy, wrote scholar Chiang Yee, has "the beauty of plastic movement, not of designed and motionless shapes." But as a boy growing up in Taipei, Jerry Yang, who had to take the bus with his calligraphy kit to classes, didn't see that beauty -- only the tedium and repetition of practicing the strokes, copying ancient texts, and grinding the ink.

But now, the co-founder of Yahoo gets great joy from the ancient art of pen and ink, both as a practitioner and a collector. Yang started collecting calligraphies after a Chinese friend suggested that, as someone immersed in technology, it would be interesting to collect ancient works of art. Now 40 pieces of Yang's collection goes on display at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum.

To celebrate the opening of "Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy," (Oct. 5- Jan. 13) the first large scale exhibition on calligraphy in the United States in 12 years, Yang will have a conversation with Xu Bing, who received a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship in recognition of his "capacity to contribute importantly to society, particularly in printmaking and calligraphy." Xu Bing was commissioned to make a work for this exhibition, and he chose to do it in a form new to him -- video. On Thursday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m., the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the artist, moderated by museum director Jay Xu, will talk about the old and the new.

click to enlarge The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma, in small standard script. By Zhao Mengfu, 1254-1322. - LOAN COURTESY GUANYUAN SHANZHUANG COLLECTION. PHOTOGRAPHY BY KAZ TSURUTA.
  • Loan Courtesy Guanyuan Shanzhuang Collection. Photography by Kaz Tsuruta.
  • The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma, in small standard script. By Zhao Mengfu, 1254-1322.

Yang talked to us about calligraphy, non-conventional thinking, and contemporary responses to ancient art.

Why did you become passionate about calligraphy as an adult after studying it as a child. What drew you back to it?

A Chinese friend of mine suggested that as a person who was immersed in the world of modern technology, it would be interesting to collect ancient works of art that were so different from my day-to-day life and yet still had meaning to me as a person of Chinese heritage. He recommended that I buy a couple of calligraphies and paintings from an upcoming sale.  After I bought my first two significant pieces at that sale, childhood memories of practicing calligraphy came back to me, and I connected to this art form strongly. This began my collection.

How do you think studying calligraphy influenced your thinking and your creativity?

Great art appeals to the pinnacle of human creativity -- and good, innovative products and businesses have similar appeal.  Certainly with entrepreneurial businesses, entrepreneurs who strive to innovate and create new realms, often need to take the same kind of non-conventional thinking artists do. 

What is it like seeing your private collection in a museum? What's been most enjoyable about the experience of putting the exhibition together?

My hope as a collector is to share the art with the public, and allow others to experience the awe that I have felt from collecting this art form.   It has been amazing to watch the curators, installers, architects, and conservators at the Asian Art Museum make this exhibition possible.  My belief is that the enjoyment in collecting is entirely in the sharing of what you feel passionate about.

click to enlarge Out of Character - PHOTO BY KAZ TSURUTA
  • photo by Kaz Tsuruta
  • Out of Character

They say this exhibition is for the novice as well as the expert. How would you suggest a novice can learn to love or enjoy calligraphy?

The 40 works were selected by the curators of the show, Michael Knight and Joseph Chang. Of the 40, about 15 are considered "Featured Works," which are important, significant, or monumental works by the artist. These 15 works will be shown in their entirety, in innovative ways so that people can view them in a contemporary and accessible way.  For example, we will show hand scrolls at full length -- some are more than 30 feet. We will show all 85 leaves of an album on a huge wall, and a very large hanging scroll on a curved wall. The goal of these 40 works is to provide audiences a sample and taste of major calligraphers from the Yuan to the Qing dynasties, but also vary them in style, script, and focus on the personalities of the artists. It's designed that even if you don't read Chinese, you can appreciate the diversity, beauty, and power this art form brings. The best way for anyone to appreciate this art form is to take it all in and decide what appeals to you as an individual. 
You say you like large calligraphies. What about them fascinates you?

I have calligraphies of all forms. In this exhibition, we do feature some large, powerful, and lengthy calligraphies. These tend to be better for exhibitions. However, many pieces in my collection are not large. Of those large calligraphies, what does fascinate me is the power they bring. For example, the Large Zhang Rui Tu in the Abstraction section -- you don't have to read Chinese to see the graphical power of the brush in such huge characters and bold strokes.

What was it like getting to work with Xu Bing? How does his video piece fit into the exhibition?

Xu Bing is an amazing artist. His mind is not only creative, but he also thinks like a mathematician -- in symbols and logic. His past works have been able to have Chinese calligraphy techniques applied to English words. That takes a different kind of mind! He also has a great sense of tradition of Chinese calligraphy, and his creation of "The Character of Characters" is a testament to that.  It was developed in response to Zhao Mengfu's masterpiece "Lotus Sutra" exhibited in this show.  He is able to use animation to create a light-hearted but highly intellectual and artistic view of Chinese characters and calligraphy.  A true contemporary response to ancient art!

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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Emily Wilson


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