Words worth 1,000 pictures
Two new Museum of Anthropology exhibits straddle the watershed between oral and written culture
In such writing, “the medium” is the entirety of “the message” (pace Marshall McLuhan). By its sheer form, the script itself – quite apart from any semantic content – becomes “an extension of the person and a way in which to interpret one’s relationship with the world and extract deep knowledge,” as London-based social anthropologist Yen Yuehping puts it in her contribution to the exhibit’s catalogue.
Cutting edge calligraphic installations in Audain Gallery. Photos: MOA
And this disengagement from semantic meaning increasingly marks today's cutting edge calligraphy, as exemplified in the MOA’s Audain Gallery, hard by the Multiversity’s Asian exhibits.
One of the featured Japanese artists, Yugami Misao, daubs classic sumi ink on decidedly non-traditional, extra-absorbent media. The resulting ghostly images look more like cloud chambers or dental X-rays than any kind of orthography. Another innovator from Japan, Kimura Tsubasa, digitizes her free-associative dream journal and scrambles the sequence of kanji through a computer-randomizer. She then hand-transcribes the result, over-writing her own cursive to create a meticulously unintelligible, room-sized palimpsest.
Yet another room-sized Japanese installation dispenses altogether with ink and paper. Instead, the hi-tech Teamlab collective beams floating projections of kanji onto the walls of a darkened chamber. Visitors chase the ambient ideograms like kids collecting fireflies.
When they catch one, the screen unfurls into a stylized depiction of the thing denoted – “fire,” “butterfly,” “water,” “rain,” “mountain,” “tree,” “moon,” “sun,” “void,” “lightning,” inter alia. Strikingly poetic juxtapositions, as long as there aren’t too many viewers at a time; when the room is crowded, the imagery clots into an indecipherable mishmash.
Instantly decipherable, however, is the blunt statement of Norbu Tsering’s installation that fills the whole of the Audain Gallery’s central floor space. It’s an array of Buddhist sutras laid out in a tidy 4 x 10 grid such as one might find in lamasery’s prayer hall. Except the sutras are all scorched into charcoal ingots that rest on palettes of ashes rather than brocade. And there are no monks anywhere to be seen.
Curiously, this dissident work is the only representative of China – arguably the original fountainhead of Asian calligraphy – in the Audain exhibit.
Calligraphy-as-protest also marks the Afghan entrant in “Traces of Words.” Graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani typically spray-paints her own figure, veiled head-to-toe, right into the inscriptions she unfurls across the shattered streetscapes of Kabul. Tellingly, she’s not always able to scrawl on actual walls, reverting instead to work on digital panoramas of the city, which results in eloquent scale effects.
Still, even when she’s scribbling on photos, Hassani’s al-abjadiya (the Arabic alphabet used for her native Dari) retains some of the jagged, furtive, hasty energy of an iconic graffiti “tagger.” But at the far end of the Audain Gallery, an exhibit from the Aga Khan Museum offers a diametrically opposite take on the same al-abjadiya as an object of deeply contemplative deliberation.
Such (dare I say it?) "semiotic" transcendence goes back a to the very roots of Islam. As Edinburgh art historian Alain George points out in his catalogue essay, the unlettered Prophet Muhammad’s initial religious intuition “arose from a culture of orality” that, like our own Northwest Coastal First Nations, relied on bardic recitations to transmit its core tenets. It was only after the passing of the first Muslim generations that the burgeoning faith had to turn to written Arabic transcription to retain canonical integrity.
No wonder, then, that the act of writing took on a religious aura as a mainline, almost mystical, communion with the founding Prophet (pbuh) and his Companions. The Aga Khan exhibit picks some of the most exquisite calligraphic exemplars from the Museum’s collection and rehearses the inking of the inscriptions in lilting sequence.
The effect is mesmeric, like a time-lapse loop of a flower unfolding. Curator Nakamura sums it up in her own catalogue introduction. “Viewing and feeling these works is like listening to songs in a foreign language we may not understand: we can still appreciate them precisely because there is more to them than the meaning of the lyrics.”