The question of abstraction hinges on the question legibility or intelligibility, with communication of visual idea divided semiotically between the semic and asemic forms of expression. Works can be plotted along a spectrum, and I am particularly interested in relationship between word art and visual art in this context. But before this, perhaps a reference to the very eloquent defense of the illegible or ‘asemic’ side of the spectrum, provided in this case by T.J. Clark who was writing in this case with regard to the innovation of Jackson Pollock:
What Pollok invented from 1947 to 1950 was a repertoire of forms in which previously marginalized aspects of self-representation –the wordless, the somatic, the wild, the self-risking, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled, the “existential” the beyond or before our conscious activities of mind—could achieve a bit of clarity, and get themselves a relatively stable set of signifiers
(T.J. Clark, Farwell to an Idea, 308)
Such a stable set of signifiers the like of which Clark describes has long been in existence in ink painting and calligraphy in China. I am reminded of Zhang Xu 張旭 and Huai Su 懷素, two great Tang calligraphers whose works exhibit asemic qualities (in Zhang’s case often because he was just drunk enough to “stop making sense”).
In the contemporary era, the tradition continues, reinvigorated by by a century or so of modernist practice in the West, but fundamentally no departure from the eigth century. This brings me back to my (ever!) ongoing (contemporary) visible (Chinese) poetry project. I am trying to work out a nexus of visuality, Chinese poetry, modernism, and contemporary Chinese aesthetics. A thorny mix, perhaps, but conveniently summed up in the following image by Li Zhan’gang 李占剛 . Here Li is echoing the Chinese literary tradition in calligraphically performing a well-known poetic text in this case namely, “A Generation” 一代人 by Gu Cheng 顧城
First, the poem,
The dark night has given me darkened eyes And I use
them to look for light
Next, the calligraphic execution of the poem by Li Zhan’gang:
the tradition of re-inscribing a well-known poem can now be introduced into the realm of contemporary poetry. It is now possible to “return” to that work, to borrow from yet another medium, and “harmonize” 2009 sentiment (when Li inscribed it) with the 1979 “original.” This in effect gives legs to a now considerably more mobile visual-verbal tradition, one which evolves anew into the future precisely for its solid anchor in the past.