Si(g)nification

by Terence MacNamee

Christian Dotremont was a Belgian artist and poet who did strange experiments in handwriting. It started when he accidentally looked at a page of writing he had done upside-down, then looked at it with the page held up to the light backwards, and discovered it was Chinese! He wrote an essay about this called “Signification and sinification”. The idea was that ordinary handwriting had the power to become something incomprehensible but mysterious and oracular – like Chinese writing to a Westerner.

Meanwhile his artist colleague Pierre Alechinsky had become interested in Japanese calligraphy. He went to Japan in 1955 and made a documentary film, for which Dotremont wrote the commentary.

Dotremont devoted the rest of his career to creating what he called “logogrammes”. These were handwritten versions of his brief poems, executed not with a pen but with a brush and black ink in Chinese or Japanese style. The handwriting was so exaggerated in shape as to be unreadable. It looked like an abstract painting, or an action painting. But he always wrote the text of his poem in small conventional writing like a footnote at the bottom of the sheet of paper.

Dotrement died in 1979, without having become particularly famous, but his work still gets exhibited and discussed. Looking back, it would seem that he somehow foresaw, through a glass darkly, that handwriting was going to disappear – as it is now doing in the West, due to the ubiquity of computers and other texting devices. He also must have realised that a whole dimension of human creative expression was going to disappear along with it. And he looked to Asia, where the expressive capacities of handwriting had long been developed into an art. Inspired by this other cultural context, he showed how Western handwriting could have a “last fling”.

This to me is another example of something that happens all the time now. We lose a way of thinking or a cultural form in the West, or have lost it already, and we find it again in the East. Or we discover some new experience, have no explanation for it or even words to account for it, and we find the other half of the puzzle, as it were, in the East. Indeed, we keep reaching limits, but they are only the limits of our culture – beyond them lies, not nothing, but Asia.

 

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