an article about the workshop and exibition at MAO in Turin Italy 2016
This might have been my best attempt, so far, to create a dialogue between Western and Eastern calligraphy.
In Japan the word shodo means “the way of writing”, a discipline of body and mind with philosophical implications. In the West the word calligraphy simply means “fine/pretty handwriting”, and “calligraphic” is also used to define what is overly devoted to form, without content, shallow. Now that we are losing our handwriting, we discover that ours too is a discipline of body and mind.
The arrangement for this event began more than a year ago, when I was contacted by Patricia Parpajola of Turin Educational Consortium. Thanks to Patricia, we’ve been able to organize a double workshop: three days with the Japanese calligrapher Norio Nagayama and three days with me, a Western calligrapher. Norio studied calligraphy in Japan, but he has lived in Italy for a long time, therefore he knows the Italian language and culture.
One of the peculiarities of this workshop is that both me and Norio have been taking part for three days as teachers and for the other three days as students, in other words we have been each other’s student. This swap of position gave us the opportunity to understand each other’s work, and gave the students a chance to see the teacher taking part in the lessons as a student, the instructor being instructed.
During the first three days, Norio has been the teacher and we all have studied Eastern calligraphy. After having learnt the correct posture and the exact brush handling, we started with simple horizontal and vertical strokes made with ink and brush. We slowly got to write logograms (commonly called characters), from the easiest ones to the more difficult. This allowed us to start visualizing strokes in relation to space and to began grasping the balance inherent in those symbols.
In the end, each of us made a big kanji (Japanese word for character), working on the floor with a huge brush. We then discussed the difference between a kanji correctly executed, and one that has been written with whole body energy.
In three days Norio gave us a general idea of Eastern calligraphy, a practice that requires many years of study to be mastered.
On the fourth day, after a half day break, we went to the MAO, the Oriental Art Museum, where Norio and myself had exposed our artworks. This exhibition too, was an idea of mine: I wanted the students and the visitors to see our artworks compared.
Comparing two writing civilizations through the works of two calligraphy artists, in a 6x5 meters room, might seem too ambitious and indeed it was, but in its own little way it revealed to be a useful exhibition. The two of us had both presented a small selection of traditional and experimental artworks. We both showed readable writing, and I also exhibited some asemic writing. The comparison aimed to reveal a series of parallelisms and show how East and West both have a prominent calligraphic culture.
The exhibition gave the opportunity to experience how differently we perceive a mark in which we recognize a semantic value and one that we don’t recognize, a text that we read and one we only see as a set of abstract marks. For a westerner, the risk is to look at Eastern calligraphy only as abstract images, and at Western calligraphy without being able to grasp their abstract value, too influenced by the legible text.
With Norio we deepened this aspect: large size artworks, often made with a single kanji and written with a large brush, are very appreciated in the West because emotionally more engaging (Norio teaches almost always in Italy). In Japan, where people know the symbols and are used to observing well balanced kanji, the emotional aspect is inseparable from the correct balance of lines and space. For those of us used to observing calligraphy, even large Western artworks can appear unbalanced or disharmonious as a whole.
The gestural stroke was the common element in all of the artworks exhibited. This element, present in any handwriting, from any culture, tells the viewer much more than just the verbal content. If we look at these pieces as contemporary artworks, written out in an era in which we are all culturally mixed, we can say that handwriting is a “way” in the East as well as in the West, but while the East has practised and explored this 'way' for centuries, we are just beginning to graps its potential. And besides, the West has an entirely different story of writing, centered on the result, not on the body and the experience.
In the second part I was the teacher and my program consisted in experimental Western calligraphy. I asked the students to use a self-made aluminum pen and Arches Velin, a very good and soft cotton paper. At first we compared the brush with the aluminum pen and found the latter much harder and stiffer, but as students proceeded and got more confident, they were able to obtain pressure variations, although these needed to be much more delicate than with the brush.
With the brush we had learned to keep steady both the hand and the forearm, and to move with the shoulder or even with the entire chest. With the aluminum pen, students discovered they often had to change the pen angle and therefore the arm and all the chest moved, too.
However, what has been most surprising for all the students has been the journey which led them to live their handwriting as a cluster of abstract strokes and the act of writing as a dance between fullness and emptiness, between mark and space: I asked the students to write only in capital letters. I gradually told them to remove spacing between the letters, the lines and around the text. In this way we obtained a texture made of letters. From then on, we began to modify forms, writing them light and heavy, big and small, tilted, thick and thin. Slowly the text became a means to express marks, not any longer the marks a means to express text.
This journey of text deconstruction has been a really private and intimate process for each student. Physically breaking the lines or coming out of the text grid can also mean, in a certain way, breaking the borders of an idea, of a relationship rigidly structured between thought and writing. The re-constructed text becomes a texture in which the position of the new mark is suggested by the previous one in a dynamic relation between mark and space. The logo becomes a composition in motion.
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