Crossing the line
'For calligraphy to move forward, one must leave the traditional system behind,' says David Chan, one of Hong Kong's most widely collected avant-garde practitioners of the art. Chan (left), who took years to develop the perfect classical stroke before pursuing his own style, says modern calligraphers' attempts to adhere to classical principles are like 'trying to repeat history'.
'You can always uphold ancient traditions, but we are living in different times. Art should always reflect the times we are living in,' he says. 'It's like architecture. I admire great palaces built in the past but I will not choose to live there, simply because they are not built to modern standards.'
Chan, who is exhibiting his work in the trendy Xintiandi complex in Shanghai, represents the future of Chinese calligraphy. He is among the first to use coloured ink and to look at each character as a creative motif rather than a construction of strokes. And there is increasing acceptance in China for modernists. 'Many people I met in China are thrilled to see that calligraphy is moving forward,' he says. 'They are beginning to understand that I am not trying to destroy the art but to ensure that it continues. There is no reason why classical and modern can't stand side by side, such as ballet and modern dance.'
The Hong Kong-born Chan began studying calligraphy as a child and practised under the strict supervision of his parents and teachers. Although he won acclaim for his classical works, they brought him no satisfaction. He became so disillusioned with calligraphy that he looked to the worlds of cinema and advertising for a career, writing scripts, producing movies and visuals for advertisements. It wasn't until about 10 years ago when he was travelling in China and eating the traditional dish of ma po tofu (a Sichuan speciality of bean curd with minced meat in hot sauce) that his interest was rekindled - albeit a little sloppily.
'I accidentally spilled the dish on the table and the red sauce was running,' Chan recalls. 'Then, just for fun, I dipped my finger into the sauce and wrote the characters Ma La [hot and spicy]. It gave me tremendous satisfaction when I realised that art is something personal, a form of free expression.' The incident led to further experimentation. 'In classical tradition you are always told to balance the strokes and to make the characters look uniform,' he says. 'But I don't care about positioning, I am driven by my sentiments.'
Chan says there are still die-hard traditionalists who are against this form of free expression in Hong Kong and on the mainland. But he believes art should be judged by the next generation. 'I don't think of myself as destroying an ancient art form. In fact, if I wasn't interested in continuing our tradition I would have chosen to become a conceptual artist, or use some other medium,' he says. 'By making calligraphy modern I am actually helping to preserve it.'