Wang Dongling: 'After chaos comes control'

The famous calligrapher discusses his upcoming shows

There’s a fine line between order and chaos in the recent work of calligrapher Wang Dongling. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: there are many lines of various thickness, sometimes the width of a single brush-hair, sometimes a blob of ink congealed to the point where it can’t reasonably be called a line.

Wang describes his latest work as ‘chaos script’ (luanshu, 乱书), the culmination of his 60-year study of calligraphy and his experimentation with other forms and media. It’s the subject of a major retrospective of his work currently on view at Caochangdi’s Ink Studio, and Wang himself is the subject of a careerhallmark exhibition being held this month in the Working People’s Cultural Palace, which functioned as a site of imperial ritual during the Ming and Qing dynasties (see right).

'Chaos script came about gradually, over a long process of creative practice,' Wang says in conversation with Ink Studio research and media manager Alan Yeung. 'Calligraphy is an art of lines, [and] an artist’s lines evolve over several decades.' The textual references of Wang’s recent works, such as his 2015 Heart Sutra, often come from Daoism and Buddhism, in keeping with tradition. Their formal execution, however, represents a progressive break with history. At its most chaotic, Wang’s style bears a passing resemblance to the work of 20th-century Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock: the form and figure of his text swarms melt into amorphous swathes of gradated blacks and greys.

Wang taught in the United States from 1989-1991, where he received exposure to post-modern and avant-garde art movements from 20th-century Western art history. He’s since become known around the world for his combination of tradition with experimentation, appropriating Western innovations in performance, multimedia art, and abstract painting in the development of his craft. Today, he is best known for his 'mad cursive' style: highly gestural calligraphy performances in which Wang writes on a large scale. In May, Wang covered the walls and floor of the Great Court of the British Museum in his 'mad cursive'.

Despite his dialogue with the international art world, Wang is also deeply respected at home. He is the only living artist to have been given three solo shows at the National Art Museum of China, the country’s preeminent State-backed modern art institution. His reputation is further cemented with his two landmark shows this month. This is all the more impressive for an artist who, at this late stage in his career, has set his sights on exploding the rules and customs binding his chosen medium.

'When I was studying in Nanjing,' Wang says of his formative years, 'my teachers told me that columns of characters should not intrude into each other.' He’s now confident to break that dictum as thoroughly as possible. In his chaos script, Wang transgresses not only the boundaries between calligraphic columns, but also between individual characters. As images, his latest works are fluid, chaotically ordered but ultimately abstract. As text, they are practically illegible. That was an intentional choice. 'This opens a door for calligraphy, connecting the classical and the contemporary, China and the West. A major obstacle for Westerners trying to understand calligraphy is that they do not read Chinese characters. Now, even Chinese cannot read chaos script without knowing the textual content in advance. [It] is both calligraphy and painting. It is abstract, but it is grounded in traditional calligraphy,'

Wang explains. 'It expresses the qualities of lines and the structures of characters in a purer manner. So I think of it as a breakthrough.' Wang considers chaos script to be a point in the history of calligraphy, not a rejection thereof. He says that chaos script 'still adheres to the rules of traditional calligraphy. It is not haphazard – it appears chaotic, but is actually not so.' The immutable presence of order in chaos, a fundamental Daoist concept, is intrinsic to chaos script, and inspired its very name, says Wang. ‘Luan [乱, chaos] evokes disorder and mess, but it also implies zhi [制, to control or govern]. After chaos comes control.’

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