What are the attributes of calligraphy? (11/2012)

Calligraphy is said to have both “form” and “meaning”. In this case, the “form” refers to the positioning and shapes in the work – essentially, the features of the lines. Tsutomu Ijima (井島勉), a scholar of Western aesthetics, has stated, “Calligraphy is the art of characters; it is a genre of visual arts.” Also, calligrapher Kanzan Samejima (鮫島看山) has said, “ Calligraphy comprises the beauty of lines – it is the fine art of borrowing the material of characters, and expressing their beauty in lines.” We can see that calligraphy is thought of as a visual art utilizing characters.
 Then what about “meaning”? So long as calligraphy inculcates characters, words, etc., people will inquire as to what is written, and the meaning thereof. Shotaro Koyama (小山正太郎), an artist of Western painting, once said, “Calligraphy is literature.” His idea was that because calligraphy includes characters, it is a kind of literature, rather than an art form. Moreover, calligraphy can attach a great deal of meaning to the characters and words which cannot be fully expressed in printed letters alone. This is because it is possible to interpret not only the personality of the calligrapher, but also his/her thoughts, emotions, and more by viewing how the calligrapher has written those characters and words.
 In addition to the above-mentioned “form” and “meaning”, I have come to consider the attributes of calligraphy to include ‘body’, “time”, and “nature”. This is a viewpoint that calligraphy delineates the tracks of the body’s motions, and is at one with nature. I came to feel this strongly through my work abroad.

Calligraphy and ‘body’

A piece of paper is laid out on the floor. I do not face the paper, but rather I ‘enter into’ it. First, I spread my feet on the paper, lower my body a bit, and then draw arcs with my hands and feet. This is similar to the movements of the Chinese exercise method tai chi chuan (太極拳) . Rather than me writing characters using my head and hands, the characters are left on the paper as tracks of my body as it writes.

Although these days we can enjoy comfortable daily lives thanks to high tech, on the other hand, we have also lost opportunities to use our bodies freely. For instance, concerning characters themselves, formerly we wrote them skillfully with brush and ink. This method was later replaced with writing utensils, but from antiquity to today, humans have always carried out the act of writing by hand. However, with the explosive spread of computers, cell phones, and other devices, characters are changing from something we “write” to something we “type”. This historic change we are experiencing is a dramatic one with no precedent in the long history of character transcription.
 Writing characters by brush and ink is now rare; in such an environment, calligraphy has taken on a significance it did not have before. That is the recovery of ‘body’ due to calligraphy – in other words, through calligraphy, one can experience using one’s body consciously, or recognize again the power residing in one’s body.
 While teaching calligraphy in Japan and Italy, I came to wonder if calligraphy is not a kind of physical exercise. In calligraphy, a model example to be imitated is placed to the student’s side, and then to the degree possible, the student attempts to write so that the features of the example piece are portrayed. When finished, the student’s work is compared to the model, checking for aspects needing improvement, and the process is then repeated. If the method of moving the brush is mistaken – in other words, the body is used incorrectly – the result shows up on the paper. It is not necessary to take a video to see this; when the written lines and shapes are seen with an experienced eye, the problems in the usage of the body are clear.
 In calligraphy, once one starts writing, there is no going back, and there is no way to re-do something. One must focus one’s attention until the end, while continuing to correctly control the movements of the body.
 Once I realized that calligraphy is a kind of physical exercise, I modified my teaching method so as to ascertain how students were utilizing their bodies. In the classroom, I would not check the students’ brush movements, but instead would check how they moved their bodies while writing. When the form was correct, a correct result followed. The exact same method worked well for both Japanese and Italians.
 On the other hand, what about the works being created? Rather than me thinking with my head, I came to depend greatly on the strength of my body. So long as the piece is not extremely small, I do the writing on the floor, rather than on a desk.
 Here is my blog entry from when I moved to a new atelier (studio):
“I was busy moving from the end of last year until the beginning of this one. Leaving behind the location I had grown used to over seven years of commuting, I moved to a spacious, new studio. With the move, I thought to maximize the usage of the new floor. For that, I boldly got rid of the workbench I’d been using at the former studio. The floor at the new facility is the only thing which stands out, and I now lay all my drawing paper directly on the floor to do my work there. Working at the workbench is certainly easier, but in that case, the skill of my hand overwhelms everything else. From now on, whatever I write will be done on the floor. As much as possible, I want to transmit my body’s movements to the paper. Because I’m focusing on my body, regardless if the piece is large or small, I make myself write it on the floor.”
 From the beginning, calligraphy’s movements have had elements in common with the dances and physical arts of the East. The poet Makoto Ooka (大岡信) conjectured, “Can we not say that the thing called “calligraphy” is close to being a dance?”
 In many of the dances of the East, the dancer drops down low, and then, while in that same position, moves their body horizontally. The movements of the hands and feet are basically comprised of slow circles. In contrast, in the West – in ballet, for instance – the dancers jump high in a vertical direction, energetically spread their hands and feet outward, etc. These kinds of straight-line motions are common in the West. If Western movements accompany a specific rhythm, Eastern movements are like the flow of water, moving on continuously without interruption. I first got to know tai chi chuan when I was 20 years old. Tai chi chuan is precisely that style of movement unique to the East. A dancer drops down low and carries out circular movements continuously, while maintaining their spiritual energy.
”When your soul shines like the moon, your spirit will flow like water.” This saying exemplifies the ideal state of a tai chi chuan practitioner. There is a common thread in calligraphy and tai chi chuan – when the movements of tai chi chuan are introduced into the production of a work, the brush movements continue without pause, so it is possible to leave tracks of body movements on the paper surface. Then, by using the whole body, chance and unconsciousness come into effect, and something beyond one’s own expectation happens there. The tai chi chuan which I started for enjoyment became strangely connected to calligraphy.

Though the lines and shapes in front of me were certainly written by me, there are mysterious times when there is no actual feeling of my having written them at all. Also, there are moments when I happen to notice that something good was created unexpectedly. If there is a blueprint drawn up beforehand, no matter how well the work is done, the end result based on the blueprint can only reach 100%. But when this form of power from outside is involved, an unexpectedly fine piece which attains 150% may be born.
 Once when I appeared on the satellite broadcast TV program The Principles of Modern Japanology (現代日本学原論), from the famous journalist Chikushi Tetsuya (筑紫哲也), I learned of the expression “Shu-kou-Soku-shi” (“The hands consider, and the feet think.”) of the potter Kanjiro Kawai (河井寛次郎). Mr. Kawai did not over-think things, but rather called upon power from outside himself by using his hands and feet. He once stated, “I would like to see the me I have yet to see.” Since then, I have always valued these expressions, because I consider the true essence of calligraphy to be in this physical aspect.
 By the way, when I do a workshop overseas, the word “koshi” (腰, “lower back”) is used quite frequently in explanations – for instance, in expressions such as, “the lower back is dropped” and “using one’s lower back”. But a term which precisely expresses the Japanese word “koshi” is not easy to come up with in foreign languages. In English, it generally is translated as the word “back”; in Italian, it becomes “schiena”. But these words indicate the whole back, including the lower back. A word to specify “lower back” was scarce in Europe, and I learned that this part of the body is not considered as important there as it is in Japan.

Calligraphy and time

By following the flow of a line I have drawn, it is possible for you to visualize the movements of my brush. One can conceptualize how the brush moved through time, as if the viewer was at the production site. A painting expresses colors, shapes and space; on the canvas, I’d like to express time – as evidence of my having lived there then.

In calligraphy, once you set your brush to the paper, there is no going back. It is impossible to erase a line which is written. At that point, the calligrapher must simply continue on with the writing. So long as a person is writing characters, they begin with the first stroke and finish up with the last one. From start to finish, in a fixed period of time, the piece is gradually realized together with the flow of time. This is a reason people point out the similarities between calligraphy and music, dance and other forms of artistic expression.
 When looking at an exceptional piece of calligraphy, I often find myself unconsciously following the brush strokes with my eyes, from the starting point of the writing to its finish. Then I can imagine how the calligrapher’s brush moved – in one location energetically with a burst of enthusiasm, then in a different location slowly and carefully – as if I had also been at the production site.

When one has this viewpoint, it can also be said that the tracks of the brush are the traces of the time flow at the production site. Stating it in a slightly exaggerated way, can we not say that writing calligraphy is the work of setting on canvas in a visible form the otherwise invisible flow of time at that unique production location?
 While overseas, I have seen various abstract drawings directly. There were numerous ones which resembled calligraphy. However, with many of those, I could not follow the drawn lines well from the start of the drawing to the finish. Also, there were few works which attempted to give expression to the lines themselves. More than the quality of the lines themselves, priority was given to the composition of the lines – in other words, the composition of the canvas as it concerned the relationship between the lines drawn. So it was difficult to read the speed or depth of strokes which had been written over several times. It was difficult even if I merely attempted to ‘read’ the overall flow of time in the work.
 Through my comparisons of calligraphy with European and American abstract paintings, I came to feel that in the end, calligraphy contains a sense of the beauty of time.
 There is a teaching in Zen Buddhism which translates as, “Be here now”. The past has passed and will never return, whereas the future has not come yet. If a person regrets the unchangeable past, or feels gloomy about their future which has not yet come, nothing will start. All we really have is “the present in front of us”. Zen teaches us the importance of being completely absorbed in living “here and now”.
 Since I learned about this teaching, at performances, I have become very conscious of the present moment, the irreplaceable present. A one-time-only performance takes place that day, at that time, as I am being observed by the people who destiny has kindly gathered together with me. During each once-in-a-lifetime performance, I have come to feel a strong sense of sharing the “now” with members of the audience. I think one should be able to leave behind traces of such performances, like proofs that the “now” was shared.

Calligraphy and nature

When I lay down my brush at the end of a performance, the ink takes on a life of its own, and slowly begins to spread on the paper. Finally, it dries, and leaves gradations of a blur. This is an unexpected phenomenon. But even so, I do not try to constrict it. Technology controls nature. Instead, I wish to intentionally accept the beauty of the unplanned, while working hand in hand with nature.

After a performance, I am often asked, “What do you do with your finished works?” I answer, “After they’ve dried, I bring them back with me.” Hearing this, many questioners follow up with, “So how much time does it take until you can leave?”
 But to tell the truth, a performance still continues after the applause is over. After an audience has left, the ink set onto the paper is still moving – like a living thing. Until the ink is completely dried, the lines continue their ‘performance’ as they change, moment by moment. The audience has only seen the first half – the part in which I participated.

When I lay down the brush, the ink slowly begins to spread on the paper. When the pooled ink finishes drying, it leaves a specific pattern. I want to incorporate such effects which are not due to human hands into my works.
 The spreading or pooling of ink are phenomena of nature, which a writer cannot totally control. But even if they cannot be controlled, this is no reason to exclude them; rather, I try to positively accept this, and complete my works together with the power of nature.
 Below is a blog entry from when I had just established a studio in Milan. I was then producing a work with acrylic paint on canvas.
 ”The canvas has outstanding chemistry with the acrylic paint. But there’s no “play” or “miscellaneous flavor” in acrylic paint, like there is in Chinese ink. As industrial products, acrylics are always uniform and stable; on the other hand, as material, they have no room for chance to enter. So I was really struggling about how to get used to this.
 Then the other day, I found a canvas which seems compatible with Chinese ink. The fabric is fine, and agreeable to the touch. I was waiting for a chance to try using this sometime.
 This past week, the weather has been like the rainy season; it also rained all day yesterday. I opened wide a window of the studio, and took in lots of humidity. I dropped pale Chinese ink on the canvas quietly. Then immediately the ink began to ‘swim’ on the canvas – like a creature which has returned to its home after a long time. The spreading and pooling of ink changes every moment. To see what would happen with the ink, I left the window open all night.
 The next morning, putting on my clothes was a bit frustrating after I got out of bed, because I wanted to quickly see the result of my work from the previous night. The work had completely dried, and the traces where the ink and water had ‘frolicked together’ during the night were left behind.”

When they come into contact, ink and water metamorphose into something mysterious. The ink pools and spreads as it wishes, acting like a strange illusion, never behaving as one expects. This is precisely why I never get tired of it. I should not put my own self into a work to an excessive degree. My work is half, while the other half involves relying on the natural power of the material. The moment I lay down my brush is not the time of completion. I complete a work through ‘borrowing’ the natural power residing in that material.
 On the other hand, Western painting has a totally different viewpoint. Particularly in the case of oil painting, depending on that day’s temperature and humidity, if factors such as the coloring or elasticity of the paint change, the paint may become inappropriate for use. Many Westerners hold strongly to the view that technology is a means of controlling nature. In terms of language, the word “Nature” in the West exists as a concept which is relative to “Man”. Therein, the subject “Man” confronts the object “Nature”. Nature is deemed to be an object to be controlled by humans. In contrast, in the Orient, the word “Nature” indicates the whole of creation, including human beings. Humans are part of nature – living our lives while respecting and fearing it. Anyway, as I said earlier, I wish to intentionally accept the beauty of the unplanned while working hand in hand with nature.

Translation: Ray Hrycko