WANG HUAIQING, Vertical and Horizontal, 2009, mixed media, 100 × 244 cm. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. 

Calligraphic Time and Space: Abstract Art in China

Power Station of Art

The exhibition “Calligraphic Time and Space: Abstract Art in China,” at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, the very first state-run museum dedicated to contemporary art in the country, is curator and deputy director Li Xu’s prescription on the future of Chinese abstraction. Founded upon centuries of artistic endeavors and cultural values, his resolution to how abstract art in China might forge its own evolutionary path away from the Western-invented language of expression lies in the tradition of Chinese calligraphy. The earliest oracle bone script (jia gu wen) comprises pictograms derived from shapes and forms in nature. Then characters were developed and standardized in clerical script (li shu) and regular script (kai shu). In aestheticizing writing, Chinese literati and scholars produced cursive scripts, the most stylized and abstract of which is the wild cursive script (kuang cao). Illegible to many, this type of script moved beyond its purported function of communication to become a formal study of compositions. It is in this direction, Li believes, that Chinese artists can perhaps find a distinct vein of abstraction that ties the genre back to their civilization’s aesthetic, philosophical and cultural legacies.

TAN PING, from the series “Sketch,” 2014, charcoal on paper, five works: 79 × 109 cm each. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. 

To illustrate the myriad ways in which the formal, gestural and even spiritual qualities of calligraphy can fuel conceptions of abstract art, Li has invited 28 artists from across China to present works that include painting, sculpture, photography, installation and video. Most were specially commissioned for the show—Li asked that no characters or texts be included in these works, insisting that “this is not a calligraphy exhibition”—and the rest were selected from pre-existing, but mostly previously unseen, pieces. Artists in their 50s and 60s form the crux of the show—such as Wang Huangsheng, who is also director of the Central Academy of Fine Arts Art Museum. The roster of participants also features several elder figures, such as painter Yu Youhan, as well as four emerging talents, including installation artist Yang Mushi.

The element of the brushstroke was a major component connecting almost all of the works on display. Tan Ping’s sheets of charcoal drawings feature crisscrossing lines of varying width and graduated shades, as if mimicking the overlapping of strokes when one writes a character in calligraphy. Juxtaposing curt brushstrokes in ink with pieces of wood shaved into shapes resembling said brushstrokes, Wang Huaiqing creates optical tricks with the simplest of materials. 

LEAH LIHUA WONG, Floating Memory, mixed -media installation, dimensions variable. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. 

Also riffing on the brushstroke, albeit indirectly, are works by painter Chen Guangwu, installation artist Leah Lihua Wong and photographer Li Shun. A highly accomplished calligrapher, Chen has segued into painting in recent years. At over three meters in height, Various Forms of Ancient Bell, Cauldron, Censer (Yin/Yang) (2015) comprises two sheets of paper; the artist designates the top layer as the “yang” and the bottom as the “yin.” To make the work, he placed one sheet on top of the other and, with ink, painted onto it his interpretation of scripts found on ancient Chinese ritual bronzes, such as bells or censers. The “yin” sheet below, therefore, becomes a behind-the-scenes look at the wax and wane of the calligrapher’s brush. Characters are similarly indecipherable in Wong’s suspended installation Floating Memory(2015). Twisted and contorted versions of characters form the shapes of white, gray and black paper cuts, which are strung on pieces of thread hung close together. The result is a wonderful disarray of curves and loops that casts a mesmerizing shadow on the neighboring walls. A similar sense of lightness is also found in the small photographs of Li Shun. These “light drawings,” which are exposures made by moving a hand-held light source while taking a long exposure photograph, visually capture the path of the artist’s writing motions. Li then casts these shapes in concrete and mounts them against steel panels, transforming an initial weightlessness into extreme weight.

YANG GUOXINNothing, 2007, still from video: 3 min 6 sec. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. 

CINDY NG SIO IENG, Inwalk, 2015, still from video: 7 min 25 sec. Courtesy Power Station of Art, Shanghai. 

The most unexpected of artistic interpretations that take calligraphy as their departure point are perhaps the two video works in the show. Nothing (2007) by Yang Guoxin echoes the ideas behind Tan Ping’s charcoal drawings: against a blue background, tree branches—obscured and rendered into black lines—drop from above and form haphazard stacks, recalling the layering of calligraphic brushstrokes. Meanwhile, in Inwalk 201503 (2015), Cindy Ng Sio Ieng manipulates water and ink to lyrical effect. A camera is affixed to the bottom of an aquarium tank with two ducts: one for water to flow in and the other for it to flow out. Against a custom soundtrack, the artist’s deft maneuvering of the water current, coupled with strategic drips of ink, generates a moving composition that captures the rhythm of calligraphic motions. To watch the dollop of ink turn into lines, and then for the lines to sway left and right, is not dissimilar to witnessing the fluid movements of a tai chi master.

Li makes a sound case for his proposition of the possibilities for abstract art in China. His diverse assemblage of works reveals the versatility of calligraphic elements in the country’s contemporary art. Years from now, it would be intriguing to see a sequel to the exhibition, as young and old artistic minds of China continue to find ways to expand their vocabulary of abstraction.


“Calligraphic Time and Space: Abstract Art in China” is now on view at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, until November 22, 2015.

Denise Chu is managing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.