Bicycle Poem

I have been interested for a while in the interaction of different surfaces with calligraphic writing. In China calligraphy is traditionally found on objects as well as flat paper, so a variety of surface shapes and textures are interacted with; it may, for example, be found on fans, lanterns, ceramics and screens. By contrast Western calligraphy is generally only found in books and letters (although in contemporary culture it may also be found on skin and walls, as tattoos and graffiti). As part of my research into the possibilities of cultural exchange regarding calligraphy, I thought it would be interesting to write a poem in Western script on my old racing bike, which I was in the process of renovating. (See figs. 1-8)

I had practiced a foundation hand font for the poem (fig. 9) but it proved to be impossible (for me) to write on the tightly rounded frame tubes, so I used a rounded nib instead of a chiseled one and neglected the weighted strokes. One verse of the poem was written on each side of the frame; the poem reads:

In a rising wind
from the shore’s cold rim,
the memory of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.

Yet I ride, I ride
exulted on the day’s last breath,
the evening light a brimming cup,
and every inch of the road
precious to me.

The words were adapted from some lines of the Stanley Kunitz’ poem The Layers. The original reads:

In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

It seems to me that calligraphy and painting are traditionally more “participated in” in the East compared to the West. According to De-nin Deanna Lee, “Chinese paintings functioned as physically manipulable objects: screens to frame and elevate the sitter, fans to embellish and cool the body, and albums and scrolls to be opened, put away, or transported by the hands. The very vulnerability of materials like silk and paper further encouraged regular manipulation in the form of repair and remounting. Thus, Chinese paintings should be conceived not as static images on the wall, but rather as objects in motion and undergoing change, whether the slight effects of insect appetites or the marked interventions of voracious collectors.” It is certainly true that Chinese collectors and connoisseurs have thought it normal to add appreciative comments, art criticism or their seals to the famous works of art they own. The Qianlong Emperor (1711- 1799) in particular made thousands of inscriptions on his vast collection of paintings, often poems that he had written but also personal notes to simply record his feelings at the time. The art critic and sinologist Michael Sullivan notes that such inscriptions can only be understood if we view painting as the Chinese do: “not as a complete artistic statement in itself, but as a living body, an accretion of qualities, imaginative, literary, historical, personal, that grows with time, putting an ever-richer dress of meaning, commentary and association over the years.” (1974: 20)

Related to this notion of finished or static art, as opposed to that which is supplementedused or lived, are the different spatial arrangements in Eastern and Western paintings. In fact, one of the main differences between Eastern and Western painting is the notion of perspective. Since its formal “discovery” in the renaissance and until the beginning of the twentieth century, Western art has emphasized a fixed spatial organisation whereas traditional Chinese painting has not. As the encyclopedia Britannica says of Chinese painting (landscapes and scrolls in particular) “no single vanishing point organises the entire perspective […] as a result the observer’s eye moves with freedom.” Moreover, according to the artist Feng Xianbo, “[t]raditional Chinese art represents different perspectives of the same object on the same plane, and so demonstrates a more fluid relationship between reality as it is observed and space.” In Chinese landscapes fixed perspective is disrupted by painterly devices such as low clouds, rivers and waterfalls, which divide the scene into different sections, each with their own spacial aspect. This allows, indeed encourages, the “roving” eye that Feng discusses (see below).

This difference is generally taken to reflect the different status of man in Eastern and Western culture. In the West, perspective places the viewer at the center of the world and evinces his mastery of it; whereas in Chinese painting there is a “submerging of the individual in the whole of the natural flow in the world”. This reflects important principles within Eastern (particularly Daoist) and Western (particularly Humanist) thought. In the later, man is split from the world (mind from body) which underpins notions of individuality, objectivity and a philosophical tradition that emphasises being; in the former, there is a continuity between nature and man, a rhythm of constant flux and transformation in the world, and a philosophical tradition that emphasises becoming.

This is a simplification of course, but a useful framework within which to conceive new forms via East -West cultural exchange. It seems to me that one cannot be more inside a landscape than cycling through it (apart from walking across it possibly), and further, that an unexpectedly glimpsed poem is experienced by its viewer in a different way to one laid flat and subject to his or her gaze; closer in fact, to the partial intimacy of a scroll than to a framed and glazed painting.

Feng, Xianbo: interview

Lee, De-nin Deanna (2012) ‘Chinese Painting: Image-Text-Object’ in A Companion to Asian Art and Architecture, Ed. Rebecca M. Brown and Deborah S. Hutton. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Sullivan, Michael (1974) The Three Perfections, Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy. London: Thames and Hudson



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