World of objects and traces of bodies

by Terence MacNamee

This week I visited an important exhibition of Chinese writing currently on display at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich. The whole tradition is represented, from the ancient to the modern, from the monumental to the dancelike, from the power of the imitations of the “Stone Drums” to the tremendous energy of the “mad cursive”. There are hanging scrolls with poems and pictures, and open, extended scrolls with Buddhist sutras. It is also quite an experience being up close to ancient inscribed objects, notably bronze sacrificial vessels with text intended to be seen by gods and ancestors alone.

Modern Chinese artists are also represented here. Seeing the contemporary artists linking to the old tradition gives a feeling of continuity, although they perhaps find their tradition as oppressive as modern Western artists find theirs – “I feel the urge to paint, but what is there left to paint about?” To say nothing of the competing virtual reality offered by computers and associated visual media.

Chinese calligraphy, like all calligraphy, belongs to a world of things, not of virtual reality like the text I am writing and you are reading now. It involves brushes, and more or less resistant, more or less absorbent surfaces, ink that flows unctuously or runs out at the end of a character, and written text that enters into dialogue with pictures and decorations that share the same surface. It belongs to the world of things, of tangible objects, but also the world of the human body: the spontaneous but disciplined movements of the hand at a particular moment on a particular day leaving an ink trace that may last a thousand years.

Virtual reality has its uses, as this exhibition reminds us. One of the good innovations here is being able to see projected film of the artist at work making the brush strokes for the various styles. This is very valuable and informative. If only virtual media could be at the service of the world of things, helping us to understand it, without supplanting that world and making us strangers to it…