Fung Ming-chip might well be the first and last individual to ever compliment my handwriting. The eminent calligraphic innovator does so mid-interview, unsolicited, as I’m scribbling away in the spidery, strange, illegible-to-anyone-but-myself script that once incensed teachers. Happily, Fung’s critique is a bit a different: he appraises it as expressive. This idea of how personality can be read in the way we physically write is one that Fung is highly enthusiastic about. It is a concept that is deeply embedded in the tradition of Chinese calligraphy that has developed since the discovery of paper – and even before that, ascribed great intellectual activity to the pursuit of self-knowledge and artistic expression through poetically playing with the pictograms that have come to shape the language used today.
Bright-eyed and beaming behind tiny, round frames that recall those of the last emperor, Fung talks buoyantly about how no two signatures are the same, how everyone’s script reflects the uniqueness of its owner – and what it says about their emotional landscape when pen, or brush, meets paper. He has a philosophical outlook on how fate, spirit and emotional courage blend together to invoke art, drawing from Chinese mythology and conceptions of the world to create expressions that are applicable to modern society. With a love of the world of meaning that stands between words and images that bears a particularly important legacy in the world of Chinese, Fung has devoted his career to pushing the boundaries of calligraphy with elegance, ingenuity, and wit.
We are talking just ahead of the opening of Fung’s latest exhibition at Galerie du Monde, which showcases a body of work devoted to exploring the Chinese language and symbolism in three dimensions as much as in two dimensions. Putting together pieces from disparate themes and times, the show expresses the diversity of a career that has seen the fruition of over one hundred unique scripts. The exhibition feels something like a wonky and wild adventure through Fung’s mind – a mind that has stayed as open as it can to new influences and possibilities for calligraphic expression. For someone whose practise is so orientated around drawing from tradition’s daunting canon, Fung is refreshingly flexible and whimsical about the prospective avenues of script, using among his materials a laptop from 1987 as a canvas.
One corner of the exhibit tells stories that nods to the origins of Chinese language as expressed by its oldest relics, the oracle bones, on which pictograms evoke scenes of clouds and thunder, two recurrent themes in Fung’s works that nod to ancient Chinese ideas about divine retribution. These scenes are stretched across a mural in a dark corner of the room that needs to be lit up by the viewer with their own phone, playfully creating a sense of being in a cave with a torch. Fung’s devotion to traditional Chinese culture made him somewhat démodé in the 1990s and 2000s, at the height of cynical realism and Western-inspired aesthetics. That trend has abated, and artists like Fung, who have stuck to the work of rejuvenating old expressions to break new ground, are becoming increasingly recognised.
Fung’s cloud scenes are also recreated in a little animation that shows rows of clouds floating in one direction. Occasionally, a cloud floats by out of sync with the others, and is swiftly struck by lightning. Watching it, Fung giggles. The animation speaks to an old Chinese idea that lightning strikes down those who go against the grain. This thunder is nature’s amoral way of making the world and the forces within behave in a more harmonious fashion. I ask Fung if he identifies with the struck-down, misbehaving cloud, and he responds in the affirmative. “When I chose to be an artist, my family would not support me, I had to go on my own way,” he says. Conservative and practical, Fung’s family did not think much of the career prospects of an artist, and turned their back on him.
Born in Guangdong, Fung’s family moved to Hong Kong in 1956 when he was a boy, and then later moved to New York. He completed his primary school education and went straight to work. While working as a delivery boy in Chinatown, he felt a longing for a more creatively expressive life, a sad stage that colours several poems he has since used as texts for his calligraphy. At the age of 30, after much unhappiness, he faced rejection from his family and steered himself on a bumpy course as an artist focusing on traditional Chinese culture with no formal training. While acquiring recognition was a struggle, Fung is now thankful to have developed his own artistic voice away from the prescriptive world of academia and scholarship. “My lack of education liberated me from the metal box the system puts on so many people,” he has said.
Fung started off carving seals, the ancient stamps crafted for emperors that have become artworks in their own right, and which are used by artists to sign their own works. Living in New York, Fung was exposed to a wealth of galleries. He later took on artist residencies, including one at Cambridge University, where he learnt to hone and develop his craft. But as an artist he has always very much gone down his own path. While in New York, artist friends of his scoffed his interest in traditional culture. “Chinese characters are deep down in my blood,” he says. “My friends saw my carving and they said it had no creativity. But creativity isn’t about the medium. Creativity comes from the artist, it’s about how you give the media new life.”
Fung eventually focused on calligraphy, while writing poetry taps into ancient wisdom, managing to feel both timeless and idiosyncratically fresh. Chinese ideas of balance and a harmony of opposites run as a strong undercurrent in his works, a Taoist philosophy that resonates today as it would have millennia ago. One such example is in his poem “Night”:
Freezing quiet streets
Occasional passing cars
Faint north winds
Revives the dancer with a kiss
Deep within the emptiness
the colour turquoise
The idea that a life worth living is one with an emotional spectrum that encompasses both the light and the dark is also expressed in Fung’s monument to pain, which is featured in the new exhibition. It takes the form of a corrugated freestanding cardboard structure, which he shows me while steering the interview into a dialogue about the meaning of life. Intensely inquisitive, Fung is a rare breed of interviewee who turns the interview on its head, transforming what is usually a download of information into a real conversation. His wife, Yim Tom, who has been hovering nearby, chimes in with her own philosophies, which compliment those of her husband. Whip-smart and warm-hearted, she insists, along with Fung that if you want something, you might very well have to suffer greatly for it. Pleasure and pain are sides of the same coin, and art arises out of the tensions that come from grappling with life’s messy and strange ups and downs.
As our interview comes to an end, I ask Fung the questions crucial to any interview about the written word and calligraphy: where does he think the language is headed, and what does he think of the case of the disappearing brush in modern Chinese society? Of the former, he’s quite clear that someday we will all be speaking a universal language, and that this will be quite boring. Of the latter issue, he’s surprisingly unruffled about the prospect of an end to his chosen art form. “If you tell me calligraphy is going die, that’s not my problem,” he says. “If it vanishes, it vanishes, and if everyone is using their cellphones to write, that’s okay. The energy is in the person who makes the art.”
Fung Ming-chip’s recent works are now on show at Galerie du Monde until June 30, 2017. On June 10, in conversation with art critic Catherine Maudsley, Fung will discuss his sources of inspiration and the exhibition’s wide range of media. For more information, click here.