Flouting Calligraphic Conventions: Tong Yang-tze Breathes New Life into an Old Art

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2017 / October

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Jonathan Barnard


Septuagenarian Tong Yang-tze has long stood at the cutting edge of her era, bringing Western techniques of composition to the narrow confines of Chinese calligraphy. Her unruly character forms, energetically applied to paper, have lifted contemporary calligraphy from traditional handicraft to modern art. She aims to pass along the art of calligraphy to the young, and her calligraphy in recent years has grown only more playfully unruly, as she has deconstructed her characters’ brushstrokes and brought them to the realms of fashion, jazz and multimedia. In the process she has given calligraphy, an art richly imbued with ancient Far Eastern aesthetics, a new life in the Westernized era of today.

 


Famous calligrapher Tong Yang-tze holds the spirit of an artist and the cultural concerns of a proud East Asian.

The renowned architect Eric Yao, who has known Tong for 20 years, says, “Most notably, Tong is very persistent in finding the meaning inherent within Chinese characters.” She takes beloved traditional calligraphic styles, such as official script and standard script, and breathes new life into them, erasing the boundaries of traditional calligraphy via modern interpretations.

In truth, Chinese calligraphy, a classical art that has been passed down for thousands of years, holds greater meaning than simply serving as an important representation of Asian and Chinese culture. Calligraphy is a product created by hand. It represents the application of human effort to a soft brush and flowing ink that renders unique versions of textual symbols on paper. As opposed to the Western emphasis on “man gaining mastery over nature,” it adheres more to the attitude expressed by ­Laozi in the Dao De Jing: “The pliant and weak triumphs over the hard and strong.” Behind calligraphy, there are profound Asian insights.   

Tong does not so much fear the loss of calligraphy, as worry that in modern, Westernized society, we are slowly but surely losing cultural roots of which we should be intensely proud. Consequently, she frequently looks to foster cross-disciplinary collaboration through calligraphy as she transmits this constantly evolving cultural tradition to the younger generation.

Deconstructing calligraphy

Tong doesn’t regard herself as a calligrapher per se. From the standpoint of art, she believes that ancient Han- and Tang-Dynasty calligraphic styles can be moved into the present day, but she aims to give them a greater variety of forms and expressions that will help to raise calligraphy from the stuff of historical records to the realm of art. 

From past works of hers that she had rejected, she picked out a total of 100 that she felt had satisfactory parts, and in late 2011 created an exhibition of core calligraphic components entitled “Silent Symphony, Musical Calligraphy.” Those deconstructed brushstrokes ended up looking like a series of captivating abstract paintings, challenging people’s preconceptions about calligraphy.

Eric Yao, who curated the exhibition, invited pop singers, including Cheer Chen and May Day’s lead singer ­Ashin, to find musical inspiration from looking at Tong’s works. Yang then matched the calligraphies with the music. The exhibit ended up attracting many young people who might have originally held negative impressions of calligraphy to come and enjoy.   

Calligraphy involves character forms, the mixing of ink, the rendering of ink marks, the overall arrangement of brushed black ink and blank white paper, the sound of the characters read aloud, and the aesthetic beauty that comes with works that are created in one go without any possibility of revision. Add to that mix Tong’s frenetic lines, and the result is a rich artistry well suited to different creative realms. Reinterpreted by a young generation of musical artists, classical calligraphy has been given a youthful twist.

Sao: In the moment in multiple disciplines

“Your music is a bit like the strokes of my calligraphy.” The first time jazz musician Kunter ­Chang heard Tong say that, he was taken aback.

After collaborating on the exhibitions “Evoking the Soul” and “Sao” (meaning “disturbance”), ­Chang gradually come to understand that the strokes of Chinese calligraphy, which can be rounded and smooth or wild and crazy, do indeed resemble his constantly changing lines of music on the saxophone. Even more importantly, both are improvised, never to be recreated in identical fashion.

Beginning in 2014, and continuing for three years, productions of Sao, Sao Plus and Sao 2016—all multidisciplinary mashups of calligraphy with modern dance, jazz and multimedia—were performed in theaters. Echoing the spontaneity of calligraphy, these productions were staged without directors, scripts, scores or choreo­graphy. The performers relied on multimedia projections in a three-dimensional space that created a structure for the improvised music and dance to fill in and flesh out. The performances thus demonstrated tremendous exchange and flow among the artistic disciplines. To blend these three artistic realms, the dancers, musicians and multimedia designers were all ­required to participate in the entire creative process, so that their individual characters and strengths, as well as their personal understandings of the calligraphies, would help to shape that particular version of Sao.

Noting that conflict and choice can raise artistic rapport and precision, ­Chang says, “You could almost describe it as like the state that a medium enters.” He adds, “Once that rapport is established, the need for language gradually disappears, as the performing artists can communicate with their eyes. By simply looking at a dancer, you can predict her next move, know that she is going to leap, and the music can immediately move to help.”

Bringing “art” to “fashion”

“Most artistic creation comes with an imagined high point,” says Tong, “but with a truly new concept, where is the high point? We let people find it for themselves.”

Apart from bringing calligraphy to performance art, she has also been staking out a space for calligraphy in the realm of fashion.

The exhibition “From Ink to Apparel: A Crossover between Calligraphy Art and Fashion Design” began in 2016 and will run for five years. Last year, young designers were invited to create clothes inspired by the brushstrokes of Tong’s calligraphy. By deconstructing calligraphy, the shackles of the Chinese characters were discarded, turning the individual strokes into pure elements of form that could be easily appropriated into fashion design. It was right up fashion designer Chen Shao Yen’s alley.

He was especially captivated by the sense of rhythm in the ink: “Her calligraphy’s lines are flowing and powerful, and they offer a sense of space and order.” Through the abundant use of skeletal frameworks, puffy skirts, padded cotton and pleats, which help to support a sense of three-dimensionality, “I hoped to express a sense of flow in my clothes, and allow the lines to wrap around the wearer’s body, so that the body and clothes together could engender a sense of space.” From start to finish these works were in a continual process of evolution, so the name Chen gave to them was “Metamorphosis.”

To promote the beautiful art of calligraphy, Tong Yang-tze has gathered some young friends who have returned to Taiwan after studying abroad to take part in these cross-disciplinary collaborative performances. She says that the collaboration gets her, a housewife, out of the house. Similarly, by turning calligraphy into contemporary art, she is also getting more young and old people alike to move from a state of never encountering calligraphy to taking a new look at an important part of their cultural heritage.

繁體中文

董陽孜當代藝術新解 將書法提升至世界性語言

文‧蘇俐穎 圖‧林旻萱

今年已是從心之年的董陽孜,依舊站在時代浪頭的尖端,她運用西方藝術構圖的技法,將書法從規矩的九宮格中釋放出來;文學家臺靜農說她「運筆如椽」,她以巨大的中鋒挑戰書法尺寸的極限,狂狷不羈的字體,力道直透紙背,一舉把書法從傳統工藝提升到現代藝術的境界。近年,為了將書法傳承給年輕人,她將書法越玩越狂,恣意解構文字成抽象的點、橫、豎、撇、捺,再試圖置入服裝、爵士樂、多媒體影音等領域,讓饒富東方美學的書法藝術,在高度西化的當代綻放出新生。


作為一名書法藝術家,董陽孜的精神是藝術性的,關懷卻是東方式的。

與她結識超過20年的建築師姚仁祿說:「董陽孜最特殊的一點,就是對於文字存在的意義,非常的堅持與執著。」她把自己喜愛的書法,從「漢隸唐楷」等傳統字體提升到藝術的境界,減少傳統書法的界線,作現代性詮釋,也活化了書法藝術的能量。

事實上,作為一項流傳千年的古老藝術,書法意味的可不只是東方、中華文化的重要象徵而已。書法是手工的產物,藉由人力去操縱柔軟的毛筆與流動的墨水,在紙張上形成一個個造型迥異的文字符號,有別於西方強調的「人定勝天」,更貼合老子《道德經》中所說:「柔弱勝剛強」的姿態。書法的背後,是博大精深的東方思維。

與其說董陽孜擔心失去書法傳承,不如說是憂慮在今日高度西化的現代社會中,會一點一滴地流失我們本該引以為豪的文化根底。因此,她頻頻以書法作跨界合作,為的就是要讓這項逐漸式微的文化傳統,從年輕一輩延續下去。

解構書法,釋放文字魅力

就算可能沒聽過董陽孜的名字,事實上只要生活在台灣,我們就與她的文字共存。好比「雲門舞集」、「孽子」、「一代宗師」、「臺北車站」、「金石堂書店」……從企業行號到電影劇場,都有她的墨寶。

即便如此,董陽孜始終不以書法家自居。對她來說,只被動接受商業合作,為建築、商品題字,或者是在過年時臨場揮毫、寫春聯,不僅缺乏新意,也無法吸引年輕人注意。她回歸藝術家立場來思考,既然書法的字體都可以從漢唐跨越到現代,那應用上也該有更多元的形式吧,於是她把書法從紀錄的功能拉高到藝術審美的層次。

董陽孜的作品以規格巨大著稱,由於揮毫時需要多張宣紙相連,她從過去淘汰的作品中,挑選出局部滿意者,一共100幅作品,作為2011年底《無聲的樂章》展覽的核心元素,這些解構後的筆畫,雖然不成字形,雄渾的筆觸仍保有強烈的視覺美感,看上去就像一幅幅迷人的抽象畫,也淡化了一般人對書法的刻板印象。

也擔任策展人的姚仁祿,為董陽孜媒合了流行歌手五月天主唱阿信、陳綺貞,藉歌手從觀賞「無聲的樂章」所得的靈感,轉譯成音樂語言,吸引許多本來對書法抱持成見的年輕人共襄盛舉。傳統與流行、音樂與書法,都在這個跨領域的舞台遇合了。

書法藝術牽涉到字體造型、墨色的調配、墨痕的渲染、整幅作品的虛實佈局、字音朗讀,還有書寫時必須一氣呵成、無法重新來過的時間藝術之美,加上董陽孜狂放生動的線條,豐沛的藝術性,啟發了不同領域的藝術創作。

她以自己的書法作為引子,邀請年輕設計師、藝術家合作展演,她說:「假如我的創意可以讓他們用,那就用!趕快用!」通過年輕藝術家,讓古老的書法有了年輕的聲腔。

此後,董陽孜越玩越大,橫跨的領域也越來越有挑戰性。抽象的書法線條,結合爵士樂、現代詩,作成《追魂》詩與樂系列作品;融合現代舞、爵士樂、多媒體影音的《騷》跨界劇場,甚至應用在時裝的《讀衣》時尚×藝術跨界展,概念、規模,一年比一年令人瞠目結舌。

《騷》:在時間中即興互動的極致

「你的管樂,跟我的書法線條有一點像。」第一次聽到董陽孜這樣說時,爵士音樂家張坤德愣了一下。

隨著《追魂》、《騷》多次合作下來,張坤德逐漸體會到,書法可圓潤可狂野的筆觸,像極了他吹奏薩克斯風時多變的聲線,更重要的是,兩者都是空前絕後的即興創作。為《追魂》、《騷》製作多媒體影音的陳彥任說明:「爵士樂與書法,都有基本功,也都是即興,雖然有結構在,但在某些時候激盪在一起,就會得到一種新的體驗。」

2014年開始,連演3年,以書法線條結合現代舞、爵士樂、多媒體影音的《騷》、《騷+》、《騷2016》系列跨界劇場,書法線條藝術一躍成為主體,突破一般表演藝術多把書法當作襯托中國古典氛圍的陪襯角色。

就像呼應書法的「即興」,這幾齣沒有導演,也沒有劇本的演出,仰賴多媒體視覺在三度空間中建構出章節骨幹,再藉由音樂和舞蹈的互動,填入血肉,表現跨界的交融流動。為了揉合三個不同的領域,所有的舞者、音樂家、多媒體工作者,都必須放棄配合導演需求的被動工作模式,全程參與創作過程,以各自的實力與個性,加上對書法作品的理解與自我要求,經過反覆的爭辯、碰撞、取捨,磨合出《騷》的作品。陳彥任說:「大家的語言都不一樣,但對作品的完成度都有一定的想法。這也讓我學習使用別的角度去欣賞、理解作品,顧及作品的全面性。」

痛苦的磨合過程,也提升表演現場的精準度,張坤德說:「後來演出時,精神上幾乎是『靈媒』的狀態。」他補充說明:「當默契培養起來,慢慢地就不需要語言,可以在眼神上、意識上溝通。一看到舞者就能預測到下一個動作,音樂隨即就可以做出適切的回應。」《騷》把時間裡的藝術發揮到極致。

拿「藝術」來做「時尚」

董陽孜說:「大部分的藝術創作,都已經有一個想像得到的頂點,但一個新的觀念,最高點在哪裡?有很多可能性,需要我們一起來完成。」

一部時尚產業紀錄片《時尚惡魔的盛宴》,裡頭一句:「Fashion is art. Art is fashion.」在董陽孜心中留下強烈的驚嘆,其實她早已想在時尚產業裡,找到書法藝術可以插足的一席之地。

早在2011年,就有過《唯衣》的實驗,把文字藝術與T恤作結合,2016年起,她展開為期5年的《讀衣》跨界展,邀請年輕的服裝設計師,去年,她提出書法線條作為題目。經過解構的書法,擺脫字型的束縛,成為純粹的素材,更容易運用在造型設計上,與擅長立體結構的陳劭彥不謀而合。

陳劭彥格外著迷於墨韻的動感,「書法的線條流暢、有力道,也有空間、順序的感覺。」透過大量的骨架、蓬裙、鋪棉、打摺,支撐起布料的立體感,「我希望在服裝上表達出流動感,讓線條在身體上環繞,人與服裝之間產生空間感。」這一系列作品,象徵出生到死亡不斷演化的過程,陳劭彥把它命名為〈變態〉。

「我一直很感謝台灣社會包容我,企業家出資贊助讓我完成創意,這就是我們社會的可愛。」為了推廣美麗的書法,董陽孜召集海外學成歸國的年輕朋友,參與跨界遊戲,她說,跨界合作讓她從一個家庭主婦走出家門,而她,把文字藝術作成了當代藝術,也讓更多年輕朋友,從無邊無垠的書藝世界,重新遇見自己文化的源頭。

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