Order and Inflection
Chinese calligraphy – the art of brush writing – is not unlike a performing art: a calligrapher in partnership with a brush. Like a dancer, the calligrapher’s hand moves rhythmically in a serpentine path across a stage of paper. The boundaries of the word are marked by a hand in motion; a space is inscribed. A prescribed order for the brushstrokes and a fluid but rigorous brush technique allow for a variety of letterforms. The rules and the training, do no disguise the human presence. Mistakes, or digressions are both opportunities. In writing, the calligrapher constantly adjusts his movements based on the emerging circumstance of the letterform. The final form is a synthesis of planned and unanticipated parts, of system and digression, of order and inflection. The technique neither ignores nor pacifies the unexpected. Instead, the letterformat – stroke order and style – leave the calligrapher free to invest his work with emotion and expression.
The calligrapher Wang Xizhi was perhaps the greatest brush performer. For millennia, his written works have charmed emperors, scholars, and common men. His most prestigious work, “Lan Ting Shu,” written at a small pavilion located near the city of Shaoxing, made the architecture of that building world famous. The Orchid Pavilion, became a setting for a great performance. The event – a drinking party among forty-one friends and family members – the feelings evoked – camaraderie, love of the surrounding landscape – are beautifully preserved in Wang Xizhi’s lines. In his calligraphy, the words and the spontaneous, varied expressive letterform work together to evoke a moment, a place, and the sense of the party. Today, thousands of people come to Shaoxing to share that same space. They believe that the calligraphy, in its form, describes a space and a moment. They come to confirm that belief.
One cannot hope to design spontaneity, but one can design a charged environment – a stage that inspires spontaneity.
Calligraphy is deceptively spontaneous. The finished product – especially in the style of cursive script – is fluid, chaotic, and random, but each part, even at the scale of a single stroke is choreographed, intentionally made. Calligraphy makes the most of the fluid characteristics of brush and ink. Fluid lines seem to mimic the energy and appearance of nature. In China, even things found in nature are deliberately altered and positioned. The constructed experience is no less true than a natural one, a constructed nature is no less suspect. Deliberate intervention, in other words design, makes an object or a circumstance’s inherent qualities visible. The best design comes from understanding the material, its characteristics and context, then leaving room for the unexpected to creep in.
Montage and Scanning
Each word within a finished piece of calligraphy is self-contained, an independent spatial experience. The words have a specific meaning, they describe a particular rhythm of movement, and on the page they are separated from each other across the space of the paper. The finished word of calligraphy is a field, ranked and filed, of spatial experience.
The words in a Chinese text are arranged vertically, and one reads by scanning each column from the top down, starting from the right side of the page. The experience of reading brush-drawn Chinese depends on jumps from one field (of idea, experience) into the next. The reader participates in this experience: the connections between two terms are found in the gaps and the reader does the connecting. Continuous narratives do not exist and they are perhaps not necessary.
The way calligraphy and Chinese landscape painting represent space challenges the traditional sense of space as a continuous line from the eye to the horizon. Chinese space is perhaps more appropriately described as “spacing.” “Space” is a static condition whereas “spacing” is a an active process. Eastern aesthetic practices deliberately make gaps. In calligraphy, the inked stroke is balanced by the paper untouched. In a painting, a scene shifts abruptly from a position up close to a position in the distance; motifs can suddenly appear then disappear. If we do not align spaces in one narrative, if we scan separate fields and make the leap between them, what type of space are we dealing with? Spacing is a liberating act because it breaks the convention of having everything “fall in line.” Time isn’t the “line keeper.” A multitude of circumstance exist simultaneously. The past is mutable, things have happened, can happen again. Circumstances are judged pragmatically, choices are made based on usefulness rather than on provenance. Within a piece of calligraphy, words written in Standard style can morph into a Cursive style, depending on the purpose at the moment.
Movement – the sense of forward motion – reigned in by a few rules, is what keeps this spatial strategy from becoming unnavigable. Motion propels the leaps from one field to the next. Chinese writing isn’t well-behaved. The form can change radically. Chinese art or space doesn’t follow a single arc; there are always several narratives running in parallel to the main story. Things unfold, then disappear, then reappear.
For the Chinese, the events of the past provide valuable lessons for solving problems in the present. The shape of the future, however, is pliable.
As a architect, I’ve always associated clarity with reduction. Calligraphy is incredibly clear even when it is complex and expansive. Any attempt to reduce the art strips it of its potency. Rules clarify. The creative act should be open ended. Instead of making rules that predict and determine an end, perhaps we should design them instead to decipher existing circumstances, to add to the field, to find new patterns.