Constructing the Abyss: An Interview with Wei Ligang

Wei Ligang, Alan Yeung

November, 2016


Y: In the 1980’s and 90’s, you turned from traditional calligraphy to modern calligraphy and abstract painting. Are the boundaries between them significant to you? Or do the boundaries even exist?


W: Of course the boundaries exist. I started with traditional calligraphy, and later became frustrated with it, finding its trajectory too obscure and too difficult to navigate. So I started to do modern calligraphy. In 1995, when I had just arrived in the artist village of the Old Summer Palace, I was doing both modern calligraphy and abstract painting. At the time exhibitions had to fall into these distinct categories and were not completely free. One day, I decided to take on the mission of creating a unprecedented form of art. Then the boundaries disappeared: there was calligraphy, both traditional and modern, and there was abstraction. Everything was mixed together. Only then could truly new things arise. To create is to find one’s own form of art.


Y: You have settled on shuxiang [“writing-image”] as an encapsulation of your art. Can you speak about its meaning?


W: Mr. Liu Xiaochun was the person who came up with term shuxiang. It’s conceptually broad and can be fruitfully extrapolated. In my Rhapsody on Writing-Image, I define shu and xiang but not shuxiang. I think it’s not that easy to define, and indeed to give it a positive definition is to risk making a mistake. Shu encompasses all kinds of writing from the various peoples, regions, cultures, and countries of the world. It also includes diagrams, talismans, and abstract symbols—not just written language. Xiang is neither image nor abstraction from image. Shuxiang is everything in the universe, and so I don’t define the School of Shuxiang. To put it simply, it’s about abstract art that arises from writing.


Y: Do you see this exhibition as a return to traditional calligraphy or a transcendence of it?


W: I’ve done a lot of experimental calligraphy but so far haven’t found a very sympathetic audience in China. I’m especially touched that a gallery founded by three Americans is presenting my calligraphy. This exhibition is limited to traditional and modern calligraphy, although it includes a few works that don’t fall into these categories.

Four years ago, wanting to publish a big catalog, I began to create many works of traditional calligraphy. I made my first attempt at Shadow Cursive. It allows modification and reworking, and its character forms require more conscientious planning. Some of the forms cannot be found in dictionaries. But I’ve always felt a distance from my vision, and so I’m still preparing for this catalog.

One of the chapters will be titled “Destiny and Aspiration.” Calligraphy is intimately connected to my destiny and my aspirations, and to the quintessence of Chinese culture. I want to join traditional calligraphy and abstract calligraphy. Pure abstraction on its own lacks spirit, which calligraphy can give you—although calligraphy is also abstract, its spirit can be strongly felt. On the other hand, abstraction frees calligraphy from many of its traditional limitations. The two illuminate each other and stand like twin towers.


Y: Like the “deconstruction” and “reconstruction” that you often speak of.


W: Right. Fan Di’an was the first to talk about “reconstruction” in my art, but insofar as “reconstruction” refers to separating and recombining elements, it is not entirely accurate. When I reconstruct, I also introduce much new content. I am a student of mathematics. I’ve always had a fantastical side, and I’ve always been interested in exploring complex and mysterious things. A painter can make a complex magic square, but my forms are recognizably calligraphic and are not purely visual. They are like new characters.

I also work with the Oracle bone script, great seal script, and Northern Wei steles. I magically transmute the ancient scripts. Every single magic square of mine occurs only once: in different renditions of the “bird” character, for example, I put a flame, or a vegetable, or soil. None are the same. When I speak of “magic,” I’m referring to this specific context and mood.


Y: Do your lines contain emotions?


W: Of course. Emotions are the soul. They’re very important.


Y: But you’ve expressed dissatisfaction with the poetic expressionism of the traditional literati.

W: Yes, because that’s not the highest state. The highest state is anti-expressionist. The existence of the myriad things of the universe isn’t affected by any particular thing. It has no emotion. It’s what we need to give voice to.


Y: Would you call it something metaphysical and spiritual?


W: Correct. I think spirit sometimes doesn’t encompass material existence itself. Materials have a spiritual dimension. We’ve simply confined our definition of “spirit” to animate objects. An iron board, a ceramic shard, or a piece of wood may ultimately be the most compelling and intelligent thing. It may be a great source.


Y: How do you relate to textual sources in calligraphy? Is there some connection between your rearrangement of literary fragments with your “reconstruction” of calligraphy?


W: I’m attracted to texts with complex characters, difficult pronunciations, and profound and resonant meanings. When I come across them in my reading I copy them out. I like phoenixes and other mythical animals, which excite my imagination and lead my mind to faraway realms.


Y: You speak about “dragons and snakes lurking in the arm” and refer to Kang Youwei’s “ghost under the wrist.” How does the occult and magical relate to your calligraphic training?


W: If one writes tidy, rule-bound calligraphy exclusively, one can’t feel those dragons and snakes. When I was still in university, before I’d started studying Fu Shan, I’d sit on the kang back home and copy Zhang Xu’s Cursive Calligraphy of Four Ancient Poems. I’d also studied Huaisu’s work early on. I always knew how to do linked cursive. Later I was drawn to Fu Shan in part because of our Shanxi connection and in part because of my own sensibilities. I don’t like standardized cursive. I enjoy being set adrift in a mirage, in an abyss. Cursive script is about the strange and unexpected rather than legibility.

I’ve made some breakthroughs in the history of calligraphy, too. For example, Xu Wei’s calligraphy is excellent but lacks monumentality and a sense of infinitude. Fu Shan’s calligraphy is also excellent, but someone living centuries ago can’t possibly satisfy all the requirements of our time. The fruits of industrial civilization, the beauty of machines—these have their own allure, which I’ve incorporated.


Y: Fu Shan’s world was different. At the time epigraphy was just beginning. He embodied this with his own transition from cursive to epigraphic styles.


W: The resources available to us today are different again from what epigraphy gave Fu Shan. When he made a turn with his brush, he might be thinking of the bend of a vegetable or a cloth, but when I do so, I’m bending concrete or a steel bar.


Y: Is that kind of power palpable in your creative process?

W: Of course. In my experimental film, I’m writing with a brush above a mine. You can see how my muscles twist. When past calligraphers wrote in cursive, they had to abbreviate first before linking characters, whereas I can link any character you give me. I can even write in great seal script in a single breath. Although I don’t follow any score when I play the piano, I can play for four hours continuously and without repeating myself.


Y: You’re a student of mathematics, but you have a penchant for magic and ghosts. A critic has written that you combine Eastern spiritual abstraction with Western rational abstraction.

W: I don’t see them as opposed. Every culture has shortcomings in comparison to another. Eastern cultures privilege implicitness and vagueness, whereas Western empiricism enforces a certain rigor. This is a lesson we should learn. We must improve and substantiate ourselves so as to retain Eastern gentility without being feeble.


Y: In your thinking you seem to be a direct descendent of the Qing-dynasty evidential scholars.


W: It’s not exactly the same. Qing evidential studies were primarily textual and literary, whereas my research encompasses all disciplines and things. The best structure comes about from not constructing—it is construction itself. My structures point from calligraphy to all types of visual forms. In fact, my research exceeds visual structures and encompasses the structures of all things—it encompasses structure itself.

It’s good that there are potters, ironsmiths, and beggars in this world. They make up the great currents of society and enrich them. If there were only intellectuals, something would be missing.

Why do I pick things up from garbage heaps? I’m looking for a sense of vastness, of impersonal vicissitudes. I don’t want human rules and conventions. I want to open a book and find dust on one page, a fire on another, and on yet another a pure stream. It’s not nature as expressed through words and images. It has a smell, a taste, texture.


Y: This nature is not the nature of empirical experience.


W: No. It’s an idealized nature, an ultimate nature. What we can see is finite. There’re many places beyond the reach of human powers.


Y: Were you already aware of modern Japanese calligraphers like Inoue Yūichi (1916-1985) while in university?


W: At the time Inoue was not recognized even in Japan. The famous ones were Yūkei Teshima (1901-1987) and Sesson Uno (1912-1995) and their followers. I came to know about them through Modern Japanese Calligraphy, an important book translated and edited by Zheng Liyun. Later I saw exhibitions of works by Teshima and Uno and their schools at the Tianjin Municipal Museum and the History Museum of China. They left a very strong impression. I learnt about Inoue in the 1990’s in a course taught by Mr. Chen Zhenlian at the Sha Menghai School of Calligraphy.


Y: The thoughts you express in the videos from the 1980’s and 90’s are remarkably consistent with what you say today.


W: Right. In one of my exhibitions, I put up on a wall the sentence that I “fell from an alien place onto earth at a certain time on February 12, 1964.” Death for me is a homebound journey. This is about something innate, a genius. Perhaps I was really inspired by something in the womb, something that has freed my thinking and suited me to calligraphy. I’ve made the project of my life the study of lines arising from calligraphy and their permutations.


Y: Why do you say that calligraphy will reach a new height around the year 2030?


W: Today, many young calligraphers are already more virtuosic than their historical predecessors. In fifteen years, they’ll be even more mature. I don’t mean modern calligraphers, but traditional calligraphers. In the two or three decades since liberalization, seal-carving in China has already surpassed any historical period. Seal-carving is all about design. It’s become a pure art, far richer than the functionalism of historical seals impressed on works of art and letters. We contemporaries tend to be superficial and impatient and lack the tranquility of the ancients. Seal-carving can help us with this.


Y: You said earlier that you haven’t found a very sympathetic audience in China. Are your educational endeavors a way to create a community?


W: I founded a school for two reasons. The first is that for we Chinese to establish our own abstract art, we must look towards calligraphy and ancient writing. This is the best way. This is a people’s mission. Secondly, I have the right experience and abilities for teaching. I stumbled my way through hardships to where I am now. I am a living example. So I’m eager to help others and enable them to succeed.

China has a rich and deep history, but we’ve been impoverished for too long. Wealth and material satisfaction are very important—and this is normal. I say, if you want to be a tuhao, be a tuhao and show off all you want. This is a necessary phase to go through. In a few decades, we’ll have the refinement of Western aristocrats.

But you can’t care about nothing but money. This is true in education and in our institutions of higher learning. Factory-style education won’t do. I want to be educator because education is different than profiteering enterprises. I want someone half a century from now to remember that someone started a private school and produced some masters. I want to set an example for educators in the future.


(transcribed by Chen Siyuan,

edited by Dong Xiaokun, and translated by Alan Yeung)