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21 Dec, 2016 / by Kurt Chan

Kurt Chan: A Response to Works by Hidai Nankoku and Nam June Paik

Ink painting on paper with black ink brush strokes forming lines and a circle resembling radicals in Chinese or Japanese characters.

Hidai Nankoku, Work 63–12, 1963. Ink on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Estate of Hidai

When visiting an exhibition, we all remember that one work that inspires us the most. For The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+, we asked people outside M+ to respond to an artwork of their choice from the exhibition, right here on M+ Stories. In this article, Hong Kong artist and teacher Kurt Chan writes about the works that inspired him the most. Below, he shares his insights on calligraphy, the ink art tradition, and where contemporary art will go next.

Kurt Chan: I have chosen three works from the exhibition to briefly comment on: Hidai Nankoku’s two works and Nam June Paik’s Wurzel aus.

Both artists are from East Asia. Their works in the show were created in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Abstract Expressionism was still flourishing in the United States, and a new generation of artists was finding ways of expression that were directly transferable between Eastern and Western cultures—with calligraphy as the bridging form.

My interest in calligraphy stems from its complex artistic qualities and the simple instruments used for written communication. I consider calligraphy the technical foundation of Chinese painting.

Korea and Japan have engaged with Chinese culture since ancient times. It is not hard to understand that cultural symbols and scripts in a language, in this case Chinese, were appropriated by neighbouring regions and then evolved into variants or simpler forms. Today, such variants in turn influence the lexicon used in Chinese-speaking areas. This offers a lot of creative potential. The forms and meanings of words in a language change no less quickly than the development of calligraphy as an artistic expression.

Ink painting on a square piece of paper depicting four eyes painted in black ink, each occupying a quarter of the paper.

Hidai Nankoku, Work 12, 1953. Ink on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Estate of Hidai

The impact of Hidai Nankoku’s two works lies in their deconstruction of Chinese characters, returning them to the vibrant beginnings of character formation and bringing back the concise and clear semiotic linkage between images and words. As stated in M+’s descriptions of the works, the artist deliberately uses the effects of the brush dragging on the surface to express his emotions (Work 63-12). On the one hand, this is in keeping with traditional calligraphy, but on the other, it visually restores a sense of childlike naiveté and simplicity. Meeting the viewers’ gaze, the four eyes in Work 12 can also be interpreted as the Chinese character ‘目’ (lit. ‘eye’). The form and meaning of this word become fluid through artistic manipulation. The artist returns to the way in which Chinese characters were originally formed through pictorial interpretation, similar to how European artists reset formalised artistic traditions in the Modernist movements in the early 20th century.

The other work I’d like to discuss is Nam June Paik’s Wurzel aus. Although consistently returning to the format and material, Paik, unlike Hidai, never developed a serious interest in the ink art tradition. However, a square root symbol painted with permanent marker on a long hanging scroll—a traditional ink art medium—is surprisingly congruous to the ink aesthetic. Its simple composition somehow exudes a sense of Zen. The two major questions that often concern ink painters are: what is painted, and how is it painted? Paik might have considered this work to be a playful attempt at replacing calligraphic techniques honed through years of practice, illustrating his rebelliousness as well a sense of humour: that the expression of art need not be bound by tools or techniques. The square root symbol is freed from literal and pictorial contexts and is in the realm of abstract mathematical concepts. The choice of this particular symbol assumes the multiplication of an unknown value by itself, which, significantly, represents the notion of infinity.

In the exhibition, I witnessed the merging of the forms of contemporary ink art and the techniques and representations of Western art. The next step for contemporary art will still principally be the development of visual styles. While global contemporary art moves towards the intellectual and conceptual, these works, created in the 1950s and 1960s, have offered me some extraordinary insights.

Long hanging paper scroll with a square root symbol drawn on it with dark blue permanent marker on the mid-right section of the scroll.

Wurzel aus, Nam June Paik,1961. Hanging scroll, marker on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Estate of Nam June Paik

The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+ runs until January 14 2018 at the M+ Pavilion. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

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