Creating New Blueprints for Traditional Calligraphy

J.J. Shih, Director
Museum of Contemprary Art Taipei

Hsu Yung-Chin has long been devoted to bringing innovation and experimentation to the field of calligraphy. His career has produced many accomplished works.  Hsu’s recent exhibition at the Taipei Museum of Contemprary Arts, entitled Beyond Calligraphy, displayed some of his newest creations. The exhibit featured traditional brushwork mixed with digital animation and industrial design. It was a truly interdisciplinary exhibit. Although there were not many works on display, the exhibition highlighted several exciting new directions that traditional calligraphy may take in the future.   

Contemporary art and industrial design are both made stronger when they are mixed with other fields. While mixing traditional calligraphy with contemporary art and industrial design has its own unique challenges, it is not without precedent. Zhang Xu, a renowned Tang dynasty calligrapher, was inspired to create his wild cursive style of calligraphy after watching Gongsun Daniang perform her graceful Sword Dance. This is an example of how someone can be inspired to create something new after experiencing something seemingly unrelated to their field.  

When the Flower Blossoms, All is Complete,
sculpture, Hsu Yung-Chin
We see the reverse in the work of Lin Hwai-Min, a dancer and choreographer who interprets different calligraphic styles through dance. His Cloud Gate Dance Theater has produced three acclaimed works: Cursive 1, Cursive 2, and Cursive 3. All three works investigate the structure of Chinese characters according to the Eight Principles of the Yong Characters and superimpose the dancer’s movements overtop large Chinese characters. By the end of the work, the spirit of cursive calligraphy is evident. What’s more, the works break through the traditional boundaries of both dance and calligraphy and create a uniquely Taiwanese form of modern dance. 

Hsu Yung-Chin’s work always begins with the written word and yet becomes something much more. The creative and emotional act of creation remains alive in his words and the cursory meanings of the words are transcended. Something akin to “pure writing” is created. 
This type of intensely creative and emotional calligraphy offers a new and interesting direction for calligraphy. Within this new genre, the boundaries between high and low culture are quickly forgotten. For example, when looking at the work Life Code, the viewer encounters a large golden maze created out of ancient script which  is also a vulgar word written again and again.    

The multimedia component of Beyond Calligraphy combines Hsu’s calligraphy with digital animation and drumming from the U-Theater. The music approximates the rhythm of a heartbeat and the characters move like dancers. Here we see the lines and inherent motion of calligraphy clearly adding vitality to the visual side of digital art. 

Cursive calligraphy has always given the artist more freedom of expression when writing characters. Hsu Yung-Chin’s Taiwan Dreams: A Fusion of Calligraphy, Music and Motion broadens calligraphy’s appeal by incorporating the elements of modern culture and aesthetics. Characters move quickly and their entire form is not always visibile. Instead of a static image on a page, dots and strokes fly around the panoramic screen to the rhythm of primal drumming. Taiwan Dreams not only lifts traditional calligraphy off the page, it enhances it’s qualities for the modern art lover while showing where calligraphy might go in the future. 

As well as incorporating new media into his work, Hsu Yung-Chin has also begun to work with industrial designers. Here, Hsu breathes new life into everyday objects.  The few examples of Hsu’s lacquerware in the recent exhibit were reminiscent of both lacquerware during the Warring States period of the Kingdom of Chu and also more recent designs coming out of Japan. That Hsu Yung-Chin could combine his calligraphy with so many different aesthetics to create beautiful everyday implements should come as no surprise. Before taking on industrial design, Hsu created the now ubiquitous Taiwan logo. The logo ingeniously integrates the Western alphabet, the strokes of calligraphy, and images synonymous with Taiwanese culture. 

Hsu’s massive calligraphy statue, When the Flower Blossoms, All is Complete, was featured in the front of MOCA’s entrance.  The sculpture’s bold red color beautifully complemented the museum’s old red brick and produced a feeling of spiritual renewal.  Transforming traditional calligraphy into three dimensional statues is yet another possibility for calligraphy. In contrast to Robert Indiana’s Love statue, which used a readymade typeface removed of any human personality, the characters in Hsu’s statue convey cursive calligraphy’s uniquely powerful and flowing movement.  When situated in a public space, the statue reenergizes all those who pause and take in its beauty.  

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