Vivien Chan is a design historian, educator, writer, and imagemaker based in the UK.

Wang Dongling

Calligraphy performance at London Craft Week, British Museum, 2016

This post was published on the Design China blog on 8th June 2016, which you find here.

On the 6th May, The British Museum welcomed the world-renowned calligrapher Professor Wang Dongling for his first public performance in London for this year’s London Craft Week. Taking centre stage in the Great Court, four rolls of paper were laid and taped onto the marble floor at the entrance of the museum, where a crowd gathered in wait of a performance by ‘China’s greatest living calligrapher’.

            Wang took a slender brush in his hand, a sixty-centimetre-long bamboo handle with a short drop of hair, and dipped it into a red bucket. He wore an all-black outfit with bright red socks, matching the bucket of ink.
Beginning in the top right hand corner, Wang starts to paint; he holds the brush but the very end of the handle, his body in a constantly hunched position, knees slightly bent. After a few characters, written vertically on the page, Wang walked back up towards the bucket to re-ink his brush. The pace is efficient, confident, perhaps less sentimental and more calculated than I imagined the process to look like. The ‘mad cursive’ script is difficult to decipher – the characters become abstract lines and gestures, pulling out the traces of the body from the painting.

We were lucky to witness such a large piece. In contrast to his wild, heavy works with enormous brushes, finished in one swooping round of black, this piece felt bird-like, fluttering and dainty with its small characters on a vast page. This piece took time. A meditative hour was created in the hot and noisy atrium, with Wang solely concentrated on the calligraphy as we looked on in awe. He didn’t even stop for water. The lines fade in and out of focus as the ink dries on the brush, forming an undulating surface from the paper. The occasional swift flick of the brush for elongated characters surprised the audience, bringing his movement back into focus.
As he came to the end of his performance by signing the piece in the bottom left corner, a round of applause echoed through the hall. He went to the microphone – he smiled and told us that the script is the Heart Sutra, and that the piece is meant to be seen as both calligraphy and abstract painting. While the piece lay out in the bright light to dry, we walked around it in reverence to what he had just seen; Not only had we observed the product of a master maker, but also the dance of his craft.