Wang Dongling and the Pearl of Creation

Britta Erickson
Wu Changshi, Wisteria
Wu Changshi, Wisteria
Inscription:"The branches are messy and overflowing [but] please do not chop off the vines! Changshi."

Art is a grand bridging force. It links the artist’s complex interior realm, replete with ideas and feelings that often may be inexpressible through words, with the exterior world. Having done that, it then forms a bridge between the artist and others. To convey to others the indefinable via a concrete work of art is a wonderful capability. In the case of Wang Dongling, there are even more dimensions to this bridging capacity. These are fourfold. First, when writing calligraphy, he is communicating a very specific statement in a way uniquely possible through language. Second, in his strong belief that calligraphy should have a presence in public places he creates a bridge for a broader, less elitist understanding of calligraphy than has previously been the case. Third, in his equally strong belief that calligraphy should take its place in the world of contemporary art, he produces an entry point for those who appreciate contemporary art also to appreciate calligraphy. He has strengthened dramatically the latter bridge by developing and exhibiting a body of abstract paintings based in the calligraphic line. And finally, he has forged a bridge to the future by creating a new style of calligraphy, Chaos Script. Ink Studio presented the artist’s first major solo show of abstract works, The Origins of Abstraction (November 2013-January 2014). Now we are honored to present his first major solo show of Chaos Script, Writing Chaos (September.17 –Novmber.20, 2016).


Until his recent retirement, Professor Wang was Director of the Modern Calligraphy Study Center at the China National Academy of Arts, Hangzhou. This is the only calligraphy center of its kind in China, and it was established specifically as a vehicle for Wang to further his many pedagogical and research pursuits. Professor Wang has the singular status of being both China’s top calligrapher when judged by traditional standards and the leading avant-garde figure in the field. He credits his daily practice of calligraphy in established styles for his accomplishment in both arenas: regular practice is essential, as without a sound foundation, it would not be possible to innovate in the dramatic fashion for which he is known. He feels that his nature is particularly suited to calligraphy, and has often stated that within calligraphy, he found himself. There is a deep harmony between artist and medium.


Living as he does in Hangzhou, Wang is particularly cognizant and appreciative of the famously beautiful natural surroundings of West Lake, with its little islands, its expanses of lotus, and willow trees whose branches drape down to touch the water which ripples gently in the breeze. He has internalized the forms and movements of nature effortlessly throughout his long life. They have become a part of him, just as the techniques of calligraphy are by now thoroughly internalized.


Wang’s new creation, Chaos Script, is the organic melding of nature’s effortless grace with his life-long immersion in calligraphy. He is letting nature as embodied in himself guide his calligraphy. This is a revelation. Before Chaos Script, nature had of course been present, but the formal art of calligraphy was always dominant.


How do we see and understand this major breakthrough? As Wang Dongling begins a work of Chaos Script, he seems to be writing any lengthy, large-scale text. With ease he writes the first line of vertical text, down the right edge of the paper (as all traditional calligraphy is done). The second line, however, surprises. Wang deliberately overlaps the second line onto the first. He continues in this manner until reaching the end of the work of art. If one were to watch him write the piece, one could see that the artist has chosen a favored text and written it beautifully. Yet with the layering, legibility all but vanishes. We are left to appreciate a marvelous composition of lines, laid down by a hand that represents the apogee of traditional Chinese calligraphy as it exists today; the hand guided by a mind replete with the natural forms and the ease of their everyday beauty. This is a rare thing, and we are privileged to be in its presence. As the artist now embodying both nature and calligraphy pours forth his very being onto the paper, the result is loosening it ties with some of the absolute strictures of calligraphy as an art. One way this is revealed is the frequency with which he allows the edge of the paper to cut off the edge of a line of calligraphy. Another way lies in the disinterest he shows in the occasional miswritten title or mislaid character: these things no longer matter. Chaos Script is to be appreciated as it is.


Before Chaos Script, there had been only six major calligraphic styles: Oracle Bone, Large Seal, Small Seal, Clerical, Regular, and Grass–all of which were first put in use between the thirteenth century BCE and the fifth century AD. Wang Dongling’s Chaos Script is thus the first new style in sixteen hundred years.


The closest comparison to Wang’s long cascades of intertwined lines that comes to mind are the vines painted by Wu Changshi 吴昌碩 (1844-1927), Professor Wang’s teacher’s teacher. One of the greatest calligraphers of the twentieth century, Wu Changshi employed calligraphic scripts in rendering natural forms. His loose, twisting renderings of vines brought together the artist’s understanding of nature, and of calligraphy, and he would allow the vines to be cropped by the paper’s edge, so that the viewer would then consider the wide spaces into which those vines stretched, beyond the frame of the painting. Wang Dongling’s Chaos Script similarly engages the mind to extrapolate beyond the paper’s edge to consider the breadth of the world into which his writing expands. The expanse can feel infinite.


Frederico Fellini (1920-1993) once remarked that “All art is biographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” [i]  A pearl is something that grows over the course of many years, and the more time it has to grow, adding layer upon layer, the more magnificent the result. The growth of Wang Dongling’s oeuvre quite resembles the pearl as it is founded on layers upon layers of accruing experience and action. The pearl will continue to grow, and we can consider ourselves privileged to witness its current intensely vibrant state.


[1] The Atlantic, December 1965.