September 10, 2010

Saved by the Small but Interesting

The day after an art opening is generally a quiet one I am tempted to say an exhausted one as well but would rather not because tomorrow brings more commitments and deadlines: the delivery of new work to Charleston, publishing deadlines, and grant deadlines. They all preclude being tired. But it is always worth spending a little time away from the desk top and the easel to reflect upon an exhibition - what went well and what could be improved for the next time.

Although there was a decent crowd there was just one person from out of town in attendance. That could mean for one thing that publicity did not travel to Charleston or Columbia. It may also mean that while Orangeburg is located conveniently between those two cities, the distance may be just beyond the miles people are willing to travel for an event. On the other hand it was heartening that there was a local arts-supporting population.

When planning an event, one never knows what might capture people’s attention. Almost as an afterthought I added a table of notecards, postcards and miniature ceramic tiles of zhuan calligraphy stamps. These small items are what saved the day and helped pay the costs of putting on the exhibition. Some of the tiles that weren’t in the exhibition are shown above to illustrate what they are. I’ve explained their significance in previous blog entries but will expound a little here.

Zhuan is an ancient form of Chinese calligraphy initially found in inscriptions on bronze vessels of the Shang and Zhou dynasty (hence they are sometimes called Zhou script or metal script). Although Chinese writing changed its morphology over the centuries, various ancient scripts were preserved by artists and shamans, for their beauty by the former and for their purportedly magic power by the latter. It was believed that stone seals with zhuan characters on them could have an effect on the natural and supernatural world when they were stamped onto the area in question. A pond that was suspected of harboring evil spirits, for instance, could be exorcized by a shaman stamping a seal into the mud around its periphery. The stone stamps were often carried in beautifully embroidered pouches so that travelers could use them to banish ghosts away from the places where respite was taken. The same zhuan characters came to be used to embellish scrolls and paintings - they are the little red seals pressed onto the corners of a page, often below an artist’s name. The seal below the artist’s name is generally a writing of that artist’s name in zhuan calligraphy but other seals may show patron’s ownership of the art work. Other seals have pithy little inspirational sayings on them.

I learned the art of stone seal carving years ago as a graduate student at the Beijing Central Art Academy and have continued to use it in various ways in my art work ever since. It is an incredibly beautiful pictographic language but unfortunately one that no one can read unless trained as an archaeologist or a Chinese artist. I emphasize artist here because most contemporary Chinese students of disciplines outside the study of their own ancient art and language cannot read zhuan. ( I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this past summer looking at some recent acquisitions of stone seals when a small entourage of Chinese students came in to see them as well. The leader of this group addressed his companions, explaining to them that zhuan is an obscure language that no one can read any more. I piped up in Chinese of course to tell them what dictionaries to buy in order to relearn the script. I don’t think I made an impression because they sort of stared at me as if they had just been addressed by the likes of a small monkey. Oh well. I had wanted to tell them that I have been slowly translating these texts).

To bring things back into the here and now, however, I had stamped a number of my stone seal carvings into the ceramic clay to make these little tiles, some for use as pendants, others just to keep as an object. I translated the text onto the back of each tile so that patrons would know what they had. So many people have little pieces of jewelry or clothing with Chinese on them not knowing the meaning of the words they wear and what is the fun of that? To make my rather long story short, my enthusiasm for the stone seal script stamps filtered out into the crowd last night and they, too, became possessors of these little bits of magic.

It is my belief that anyone who desires to learn something new and has the patience give it their time and attention, deserves to be compensated for their time. So for reading this longer than usual entry you have earned the right to a free lesson on how to read zhuan, or seal script. The little picture to the right is number eleven in my painting series, Thirty-three days of the Puma. This one features a large stamp of the words of a line from the most ancient book of poetry known, the Book of Songs. It reads “Don’t make a hunter’s dog bark.” It is not too hard to read this in zhuan but I will take you through it character by character. Starting at the top (you read Chinese from top to bottom) there is a large character that looks like two people hanging from a horizontal pole. It is the character, “Wu” for “nothing” but in this context a verb for “not doing” or “don’t.” The second one down is “shi” for “make” or “compel.” This is an interesting one for some of its component parts. The pitchfork shape, for instance on the lower right side of this character is the ancient form of the word for a person’s hand. Next you see a character for a hunter’s dog or “mang.” If you look carefully it actually looks like a stick figure of a dog with long ears. The next character is “ye” which is hard to explain - it is like a la la de da extra sound. The last character is the fun one. It is the word “bark.” If you look carefully you can see the word for “mang” or dog again only turned on its side. But there is an additional little square by it with two smiling prongs projecting from the top. This is the word for a mouth - indicating that there is a sound coming from the dog’s mouth - a bark. Enjoy your ancient reading.

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