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The other day I went to the Japan Shodo Show at Kyoto Wang Inter-Art Museum / JARFO Art Gallery in Kyoto.
The exhibition organisers pose the question: ‘What is ‘Shodo as Contemporary Art?’
It’s a question encompassing significant artistic and philosophical issues.
In response the show presented a myriad of stimulating visual explorations. While some artists used the traditional media of shodo – sumi ink and washi, many used other materials such as acrylics and other media. Some work was clearly based on language, both Japanese (all script forms) and English, it was often semi or completely illegible. Other work was purely abstract and in a few cases it was gestural, which reminded me of the shodo heritage. The works were for the most part in traditional shodo colours-monotone black and greys and some red. Notably, quite a few were mounted on simple scrolls, very chic and very effective.
Visually the exhibition was exciting, but as an exhibition exploring shodo as contemporary art I was surprised there was no display panel outlining the issues involved. In addition, none of the artists were identified and the works had no captions. I assumed this anonymity was deliberate. Stripping the viewer of any linguistic clues as to the meaning or concept of the artwork, we had to confront it directly and to interpret it for ourselves.
This is a challenging demand for any contemporary art. We rarely pick up everything the artist is trying to express. In this case I felt it was a great pity. I would have gained much if there had been explanatory captions to the individual pieces. Indeed, talking with one of the artists about his digital piece I was able to appreciate it fully – visually, intellectually and emotionally. I would never have been able to respond so completely without his commentary.
Last week I visited this rare exhibition of North Korean ink paintings at the Kyoto Wang Inter-Art Museum/JARFO Kyoto Gallery. The artwork on exhibit had been bought by the director Chun-II Wang from the North South Korea Art Council .It had originally been donated to the Council by the National Museum of Korea to help them raise money.
It is unusual that so many artworks from North Korea can be seen together like this in Japan.
The ink paintings are in the traditional landscape genre. They depict dramatic mountain scenes in North Korea: towering mountains, rocky cliffs, trees clumped together on mountain sides, and rushing rivers and cascades.In some paintings there was the odd building or two, but other than that there was no other sign of human life.
All of them clearly belong to one school of painting, but despite the parameters of that style and the set motifs, there were differences between the works, most noticeably in their energy and dynamism. Some were more controlled, others much more spirited. What I found striking about the paintings was the brushwork.
Diluted ink is commonly used for clouds and skies in ink painting, but interestingly in some of the works the brush strokes were vertical or at a diagonal, with the ‘halos’ of water visible where the strokes overlap. All the paintings were on Korean paper (similar to Washi) which allowed for some bleeding of the ink. Mid-grey washes were used on the cliffs and, unusually in a few paintings, dark solid black areas of ink for areas in shadow, or perhaps caves.However, it was the linear brush work of the mountains and water that carried the life of the works. In some paintings the dark brushwork on the mountains resembled rapid scratches, seemingly divorced from their function of depicting rock face. Water was painted with dynamic rhythmical sometimes very gestural strokes in light ink. In contrast, trees and bushes were often portrayed more quietly with complex, subtle layers of colour and ink, wet into wet and with final dots of colour onto the dry ink.
The grandeur of the landscapes in the exhibition goes without saying, but my lasting impression of the paintings as a whole was of energy and propulsion. There was one exception,’Along the Shores of the East Sea’ by In-Gu Park. It was more lyrical and calm, I felt I could relax.
Shinoda Toko died last week aged 107. She was a giant among abstract calligraphy artists, and for many years more well known abroad than in Japan. I had the good fortune to meet her once,. It was at the Opening of a Retrospective of her work celebrating her 90th birthday at the Hara Museum in Tokyo. I was struck by her composure and grace. She was dressed in a grey kimono and courteously greeted the guests one by one as we arrived. She didn’t sit until she had received us all.
I have one image of her brushing work which I saw in an old video of her. She was dressed as usual in a kimono. She held a long brush vertically over the paper spread out on the floor, and swaying sideways left and right she let the brush stroke the paper in straight, grasslike lines. She slightly altered her position and the brush changed direction. The movements were minimal, just enough to allow the arm to redirect the brush. The lines were delicate and free. They seemed to come straight from her soul.
Last week I went down to the Okayama Museum of Art to see this exhibition. Both artists came from Okayama although they moved away from the Prefecture as they grew older. Both are ink painters and calligraphers. Sesshu Toyo (1420 -1506) was a painter-monk, Uragami Gyokudo (1745 – 1820) was a literatus (Bunjin) . He was famous during his life time as a zither player.
Here are some impressions I had of the exhibition.
First of all it was a shock – the artwork itself is so beautiful! I know ink work reproduces badly on the computer screen and in print but I had forgotten the extent of the difference.
It was pure delight to enjoy the subtlety of sumi ink, its infinite gradations, the modulations of the line work, the balancing of forms, the build up of textures. So much is lost and blunted in reproduction. .
Overall the feeling I had was of calm both in the exhibition and of the artworks themselves. This was surprising because in both artists’ work there was agitated brush work – the excited sometimes manic brushwork of Gyokudo and Sesshu’s black jagged line work .
One reason for this calm may have been that both artists use washes to modulate the space, and this helps to mitigate the extremes of their linear expression. They also leave the paper or silk free of ink in many cases. One of Gyokudo’s screens (‘The winding path round the mountains’, my translation) was transparent in its lightness, pulling us beyond the layers of busy brush work in the foreground. In Sesshu’s work the strong line work is limited to the mountains and trees, it is balanced by other motifs painted in a variety of lighter brush work.
Sesshu is famous for among other things his textured ‘axe strokes’ for mountains,. I was surprised by the lack of these strokes in the works on display. Instead outlines were soft, and not so jagged, and, rather than using line work, he used washes on the mountain sides to produce sculptural effects. These softer artworks relate to the Haboku, Broken ink landscapes for which he is also famous.
Gyokudo’s work is an adventure in energetic line and composition. His works often look as if they are about to collapse. A few of them made me laugh they looked so unstable. But within this wildness there was a natural control of movement, probably rooted in his musical practice.
Gyokudo’s painting surfaces are complex build ups of dry brush stroke, soft washes and short line work in different ink concentrations, ranging from light to very dark, and often two toned, His musicality is reflected in the rounded forms repeated in sequences in the compositions of the paintings
Coming away from the exhibition I was aware of the different ways in which we use ink nowadays. Sesshu and Gyokudo were seeped in environments which were deeply connected with the natural world. Both used ink as their natural medium of expression.Light, shadow, air, water the natural elements pervaded their consciousness as they did the ink medium itself. Our worlds are different , as are the ways we make and use ink. We use the medium in new and original ways, I wonder what Sesshu and Gyokudo would have made of them!
We are living through a digital revolution. Writing, once executed by human hand with brush or pen is now almost all done by computer. The translation of script into computer fonts depends on each letter being represented in its own unique binary form of 0 and 1
In my work I have used my own binary code for SHO.These three codes are repeated over and over.
S= 01010011 ＿ ＿ ＿＿ ＿ ＿ ＿＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿＿ ＿＿
H= 01001000 ＿ ＿ ＿＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿
O= 01001111 ＿ ＿ ＿＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿ ＿＿ ＿＿ ＿＿ ＿＿
It is written on drift bamboo I picked up at the beach. Before paper was used for calligraphy, bamboo and wooden slips were the main media for written documents.
The work combines the most recent developments in Sho art with one of the oldest surfaces used for the art form.