Luo Qing’s Rewrite

Visual artist poet and scholar Lo Ching (Luo Qing) has been now and again inclined to rework famous pieces of the Chinese tradition. In most cases, the “rework” has to do with visual interpretations of the literary tradition, itself much overlapping with visual. In some cases, though, Lo also rewrites the poems, taking one jueju 絕句 line at a time as the basis for his own new poetic line. In the following poem, the very well known “Deer Hermitage” 鹿 柴  by Wang Wei, Lo takes the final image of sunlight penetrating a deep forest and illuminating moss, and militarizes it. Wang Wei’s poem is in bold, and Lo’s lines follow beneath.

空山不見人     (Empty mountain, no one seen)

因為我是原始太初
    Because I am the very first

第一個
                      Primeval animal

自覺為人的
             To become suddenly aware of my

獸

                                            Humanity

但聞人語響     (But human voices are heard)

因為我是大千世界
     Because I am the last person

最後一個
                      In the whole wide world still able

還能獸語的
                  To speak

人

                                                Animal talk

返景入深林     (Reflected light enters deep forest)

因為世上最後一線
     Because the very last thread of the world

爆炸光閃
                      Explodes in a flash

射穿我空洞肋骨的
     Penetrating deeply

深處                                            My bones and flesh

復照青苔上     (Again shinning on green moss)

因為整個黑暗的地球上
     Because what remains of the dark world

只剩下一小塊彈片
     Is but a bit of shrapnel, shimmering

在一層薄薄的青苔中
   Upon the thinnest layer

明滅                                            Of moss

Among the many versions of visual performance of the opening lines of this poem (empty mountain, no one seen), the one below is my favorites:

I like this image in particular for the way that the word for person (人) appears in the word for mountain (山) –where, in terms of the characters themselves it does strictly “belong”– is a bit lost even so, drifting about the bottom of the word, slightly off kilter. The two characters at the right, in fact, have come apart from themselves more or less entirely, with the center of emptiness falling down on to the mountain, leaving two watery dots above.

In terms of self-referentiality, a feature notably most out of sync with the Chinese literary-art tradition, there is the obvious presence of Lo’s ink stamp, again not where it “should be,” appearing in the center of the painting. This bold demonstration of self is deftly mitigated, however, by the even more central location of the word NO () that separates the two characters of Luo Qing’s name, becoming something like “Lo NO Qing,” or “Qing NO Lo,” or simple graphic (non-sequential) demonstration of negation.

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Abstract art/poetry in contemporary China

The question of abstraction hinges on the question legibility or intelligibility, with communication of visual idea divided semiotically between the semic and asemic forms of expression. Works can be plotted along a spectrum, and I am particularly interested in relationship between word art and visual art in this context. But before this, perhaps a reference to the very eloquent defense of the illegible or ‘asemic’ side of the spectrum, provided in this case by T.J. Clark who was writing in this case with regard to the innovation of Jackson Pollock:

What Pollok invented from 1947 to 1950 was a repertoire of forms in which previously marginalized aspects of self-representation –the wordless, the somatic, the wild, the self-risking, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled, the “existential” the beyond or before our conscious activities of mind—could achieve a bit of clarity, and get themselves a relatively stable set of signifiers

(T.J. Clark, Farwell to an Idea, 308)

Such a stable set of signifiers the like of which Clark describes has long been in existence in ink painting and calligraphy in China. I am reminded of  Zhang Xu 張旭 and Huai Su 懷素, two great Tang calligraphers whose works exhibit asemic qualities (in Zhang’s case often because he was just drunk enough to “stop making sense”).

Huai Su

Zhang Xu

In the contemporary era, the tradition continues, reinvigorated by by a century or so of modernist practice in the West, but fundamentally no departure from the eigth century. This brings me back to my (ever!) ongoing (contemporary) visible (Chinese) poetry project.  I am trying to work out a nexus of visuality, Chinese poetry, modernism, and contemporary Chinese aesthetics. A thorny mix, perhaps, but conveniently summed up in the following image by Li Zhan’gang 李占剛 .  Here Li is echoing the Chinese literary tradition in calligraphically performing a well-known poetic text in this case namely, “A Generation” 一代人 by Gu Cheng 顧城

First, the poem,

黑夜给了我黑色的眼睛,我確用它尋找光明

The dark night has given me darkened eyes And I use

   them to look for light

Next, the calligraphic execution of the poem by Li Zhan’gang:

 

the tradition of re-inscribing a well-known poem can now be introduced into the realm of contemporary poetry. It is now possible to “return” to that work, to borrow from yet another medium, and “harmonize” 2009 sentiment (when Li inscribed it) with the 1979 “original.”  This in effect gives legs to a now considerably more mobile visual-verbal tradition, one which evolves anew into the future precisely for its solid anchor in the past.

Chinese Contemporary word and image

My usual weekly post now slowed by the poetry-art project. I’m now returning to visual-verbal intersections in contemporary era.  At the upcoming AAS we will be presenting on Modernism in Chinese poetry (Panel 81), and I will be focusing on visuality.  In the latter part of the presentation I return to the artist-poets associated with the rather inelegantly titled (in English anyway) “Calligraphy School of Contingent Revelation” 書 法 妙 悟 學 派.  I’ve written about these works elsewhere, particularly Luo Qing 羅青 and his leadership of this group. In this case I begin with a look at Qi Guo’s 祁国 poem “A few words I often think of while in Ningxia”

羊肉

羊肉串

西夏

西夏王

西夏王酒

全集,下卷 1301)

The poem rendered literally:

Lamb

Lamb meat

Lamb kebab

Western Xia

Western Xia King

Western Xia King Wine

 

 

The poem, I suggest, lingers at the level of poetic method, not entirely deciding if its wants to be an image- or a word-based work of art.  As word-based, it is still a form of graphic meditation on the materiality of “line” (as part of Chinese characters) and material world to which it refers.  In this case, the geography suggested in the title bolsters the territoriality of the Chinese characters themselves, bordered, discrete spaces (“west”; “meat”; skewer”) just as they formally echo each other to the point of oblivion just as cultures in northwestern China contend and ultimately absorb one anther.

Following Qi Guo’s expression further into the visual, we can observe his performance of the single word “yuan” 缘 (something like “fate” but not quite):

 

 

In Qi’s work I find another argument for long-standing modernist advocacy of “the Chinese character as a medium for poetry” (Fenollosa/Pound).  Of course, with the above image we have slipped into the strictly visual.  But looking at another work by an artist-poet of the same Contingent group, we have “Black Eyes” by Li Zhan’gang:

 

 

Li Zhan’gang 李占剛 is echoing the Chinese literary tradition in calligraphically performing a well-known poetic text (一代人 by 顧城)

黑夜給了我黑色的眼睛

我確用它尋找光明

 

The poem: 一代人 (“This Generation”)would be rendered:

 

The dark night has given me dark eyes

And I use them to look for light

What is striking about this to me is the way in which the tradition of re-inscribing a well-known poem can now be introduced into the realm of contemporary poetry.  Gu Cheng’s work, from 1980s, was cutting edge at the time, and served to catalyze, along with similarly styled works by Bei Dao, Mang Ke, Yan Li and others, the introduction of new aesthetics for an entire generation of artists and writers. It is now possible to “return” to that work, to borrow from yet another medium, and “harmonize” 2009 sentiment (when Li inscribed it) with the 1980 “original.”  This in effect gives legs to a now considerably more mobile visual-verbal tradition, one which evolves anew into the future precisely for its solid anchor in the past.