The Human Spirit of Calligraphy: Kurt Chan’s Radical New Work

In traditional Chinese calligraphy, the structural integrity of each character is emphasised, as is the hang4 hei3 (行氣) which can be loosely translated as the “breathing space” between the characters. Kurt Chan’s most recent calligraphy works, on display at Touch Gallery until November 28, respect none of that. As with artists before him, he mastered the form before proceeding to break it. 

Born in Hong Kong in 1959, Chan learnt Chinese calligraphy at a young age. ”I was already interested in Chinese calligraphy, but back then, I was copying works of masters,” he says with a chuckle. In the 1980s, after reading fine art at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), he completed a Masters of Fine Art in painting at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, a Michigan school reputed for its art, design and architecture studies, which produced such luminaries as designer Charles Ray Eames and architect Daniel Libeskind. The rise of collages and mixed media art in the 1980s would have a life-long impact on Chan. “When I was younger, I wanted to make art that had a sort of contemporaneity to it – art that is reflective of its age,” he says. 

As an artist, Chan is still better known for his mixed media art pieces that often look halfway between art and design. Consider “A Collection of Daily Specimen” (2000), an assemblage of various materials including planks of wood, a column of stacked chairs and a red ball. Or take “Homage to Magritte’s Hegel’s Holiday” (1996), which puts a three-dimensional spin on Rene Magritte’s “Hegel’s Holiday.” 

But these art pieces weren’t only inspired by his time in the United States – they were also anchored in his training in Chinese calligraphy, an art form for which Chan’s love is unabashed. He speaks of Chinese characters as something you can build with different elements coming together to form a whole. “It’s like how you construct a building,” he says. 

While the artist exhibited his works throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including at the 51st Venice Biennale of Art in 2005, he poured most of his energy into teaching at CUHK from 1989 until 2016. During his long tenure, he taught the likes of Lam Tung-pang and Luke Ching Chin-wai, artists whose practices couldn’t look more different from each other but who exhibit the same inquisitiveness about the place of art in the modern world. 

Chan was a well-respected professor. When he retired, over 100 former students turned up at the two dinners held to mark the occasion. But leaving his teaching post felt like a necessary step. “It’s really difficult to make art when you’re teaching,” he says. “As a teacher, you need to be inclusive of the different ideas or approaches students have. This is the number one enemy to art-making. Because as an artist, you need this strong belief, which you need to translate into your art.” 

When he finally started to make art again, he didn’t turn to mixed-media art. “I hurt my back, and my doctor asked me how to move heavy stuff around,” he says. “So I needed to come up with a way to still practise art.” That’s where calligraphy came in. But it wasn’t just a practical consideration; there was something more philosophical behind the decision. Chan says he’s not as concerned about the “contemporaneousness” of his art anymore. “I will visit VR exhibitions, but if you ask me what I like, I like to look at something static,” he says. “I prefer photography over videos. I’m not sure if it’s an [age thing]. I’m also increasingly drawn towards art that lasts.” 

But it doesn’t mean that he’s less keen to break barriers. In fact, he’s most excited about speaking about what he calls his “mini experimentations.” These include the works at Touch Gallery, which don’t look like your typical Chinese calligraphy works. While some of the pieces feature mad splatters of paint, others feature wobbly strokes or mini swirls of dots, akin to dust and barely legible even for those trained in the art form. “The form itself is traditional, but I’m always looking for [room to experiment in],” he says. “When I was younger, I copied the masters – and I was really good at it. But I’m not satisfied with that anymore.” 

Chan’s experimentation with the traditional art form is showcased in red/flower/emptiness/electricity, a piece featuring lines from a poem by famed Song poet Su Shi. “If you read the lines quickly enough, it’s kind of like rap—bak bak bak bak—so that’s how I wrote it. The poem has such a strong rhythm. I was thinking to myself, ‘Am I writing or am I painting this?’” 

Indeed, there is a sort of frenzied motion to the work in which the characters are knitted together in a web-like form instead of being arranged in rows, as one would expect in a Chinese calligraphy scroll. “Pao Ding dissecting ox 1” and “Pao Ding dissecting ox 2” are, as their titles imply, inspired by Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi’s The Dao of Cow, a story about a butcher whose dexterous skills is attributed to practice-he has butchered so many cows that he no longer relies on eyes but intuition to slice directly into cow’s flesh, avoiding the bones and ligaments. 

But Chan doesn’t only want to copy the story. He wanted to paint in a way the skilled butcher would have, which is to say, intuitively. What transpired are two works filled with wobbly characters, as if all the energy has been sucked from them. The text is barely legible. It’s inevitably a nightmare for those trained in classical Chinese calligraphy, where each character is a grid in itself. In Chan’s works, structure is flung out the window, leaving behind the lines and dots that make up the characters. 

Pao Ding dissecting ox 2, by Kurt Chan, ink on paper, 2021 – Photo courtesy of the artist

Does the artist see these pieces as calligraphy? ‘Of course!” he replies. “I’m not revolutionising Chinese calligraphy. I’m just looking for—you know—gaps, within which I could move. But you know, people say it’s really difficult to bring anything new to the art form. Traditionally, that is not encouraged. In fact, pupils are encouraged to copy whatever the masters have done.” 

Looking at Chan’s work, one might also think of abstract expressionist works by the likes of Jeff de Kooning or Robert Motherwell. “I mean, if you look at the stuff by Motherwell, that is Western calligraphy,” he says. Which begs the question: just how does he define calligraphy – if he attempts to at all? “In traditional Chinese culture, [it is] always attached to text, anchored in character. In the West, they got rid of the character but retained the movement.”

Chan’s script appears to be a mix of the two, retaining the mind of the Chinese literati whilst emphasising the instinctiveness of Western abstract expressionists. And perhaps provides the entry point for those who aren’t as familiar with Chinese calligraphy, or the inherent structure of Chinese characters, to appreciate the artist’s works. 

Does he wonder what those trained in classical Chinese calligraphy might think of his art? “They probably won’t like my work very much,” he says. “But that’s alright, since I don’t fancy their styles either.”

While Chan says he thinks about pushing the boundaries of Chinese calligraphy, he also insists “you cannot plan too much when you are actually putting ink to paper.” He says he needs a “drink or two” to loosen up before he paints, or else he won’t be able to transfer his energy onto the canvas. Of all music types, he finds jazz and painting to be ideal bedfellows. “As art forms, they’re both dependent on a kind of spontaneity,” he says. The last—and perhaps most important—ingredient in his process is the artist’s studio. “The studio is key for me, as it is where you enter into a dialogue with your art.” 

For all the talk of pushing the boundaries of Chinese calligraphy, he also insists that the art-making needs to be intuitive. “No two pieces of calligraphic works should look the same,” he says. All of this comes together in the exhibition’s title: Perhaps Words – Bone, Dust, Skin. For Chan, these three words are stand-ins for “lines, dots and surface of the ink or paint,” the basic elements making up a painting. “There is warmth to bone, dust and skin rather than strokes, dots and surfaces,” he says. It is this transfer of the artist’s energy and emotions that he values the most. 

Perhaps Words – Bone, Dust Skin runs at Touch Gallery until November 28, 2021. Click here for more information.

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