Paris. Fashion.The A-List. Last week I saw a bit of all three.The Belgian fashion genius Dries Van Noten asked me to do some social calligraphy. Not my thing, normally, but for Dries! The brief was to write the names of the guests on their plates. One hundred plates, list ready just a few hours before the dinner. The black marker raced like greased lightning over the porcelain. Mistakes – there were plenty with a list of names from half the countries in the world – could be wiped off if they were found straight away. I worked in a swirl of lighting people, clanking silverware, catering wagons and barely sane party planners. Nothing could be more entertaining.
In the first room of the exhibition “Obedience” by Saskia Boddeke in the Jewish Museum, Berlin, an immense wall is covered with the words “I am Isaac” and “I am Ishmael” in a dozen languages, as if written by children. To achieve the necessary naivety in the writing, I resorted to the old tricks: eyes closed, left hand, back to front, and so on. It is very satisfying to pretend to be a Chinese child barely in command of the characters; but my crude, childish scribbling still looked a bit like Zen calligraphy. Untutored Arabic and Hebrew script came more naturally!
The Golden Room in the exhibition “Obedience” by Saskia Boddeke in the Jewish Museum, Berlin. Texts from Judaism, Christianity and Islam describing the Sacrifice of Isaac in red calligraphy on golden walls. In the foreground, glass cases with manuscripts from the three religions, open to the relevant pages. The video described in my blog of 22 January is projected onto the wall on the right. Expressive calligraphy in Hebrew, Latin and Arabic is edited together with choreography of dancers representing Abraham, Isaac, the Angel and the Devil.
Just back from Berlin, where I spent an exhilarating and exhausting week covering the walls of the Jewish Museum in calligraphy for an incredible exhibition curated by Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway on the subject of Abraham and Isaac. Saskia takes a bold and controversial approach to the most troublesome story of the Old Testament, presenting it from the viewpoint of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is not praised as a sign of unswerving loyalty to God, but criticized as a license for the abuse of the weak by the strong. In each of the fifteen rooms there is a video, historical objects from the three religions and a calligraphic wall text. I spent a week at the top of ladders and scaffolds under the demanding and creative gaze of Saskia, creating compositions from scratch and without preparatory drawings. This was always my approach for Greenaway installations, since I never received the texts in advance, was always faced with last minute changes and ideas, and could not evaluate the wall surfaces from architectural plans or photos. So I make it up as I go along, starting in the most logical position on the wall and building my composition from there, one phrase at a time. This exhibition follows a trajectory of increasing violence, beginning with videos of children speaking the words “I am Isaac” and “I am Ischmael”, and culminating in Room 14, The Sacrifice, with a huge video triptych in which abstract and very elegant choreography is combined with footage of children in war zones. It is impossible not to be moved. In the final room, one is confronted by the words “Or are you an Abraham?”, my first attempt at graffiti in a public space!
Congratulations to the Jewish Museum for presenting an exhibition that challenges fundamental tenets of the Jewish faith!
Last week I was back under the lights for opera director Saskia Boddeke, wife of Peter Greenaway. She is creating an installation for the Jewish Museum in Berlin on the subject of Abraham and Isaac. The story is central to Judaism, Islam and Christianty, so I was asked to write the relevant passages in Hebrew, Arabic and Latin. The team had devised a new writing table, which allowed a length of paper to be pulled past the camera while I wrote in a fixed position. Keeping the pen on screen is always the challenge, so a monitor is installed directly in front of me. I watch the monitor, not the pen – calligraphic laparoscopy! This delicate operation went well in Latin, even better with the wonderful flowing forms of Arabic, but was a real challenge in Hebrew, which I do not read. We crawled forward letter by letter, with Saskia checking the spelling along the way. Suddenly she would shout out, “spelling error” and we would have to cut and redo the take. I can tell you that a day of trilingual calligraphy under hot lights and with Father Abraham looking over your shoulder is exhausting. But the results were stunning. I can’t wait for the opening, to see what the editor does with all the footage.
The freedom of the book format is astonishing. The order of the pages continues to change, bringing new combinations into being. Of course, you have to settle on a final order at some point. Or perhaps not. Books do not have to be bound. At the center of each gathering there is always a single composition, as here on the “Dancing page”. The abstract writing running horizontally across the page is based on Arabic khufic calligraphy.
In recent years my work has become very large. Sheets of calligraphy are often several meters long. Not so good for books. But I have learned to back these huge sheets of calligraphy (done on thin kozo paper) with a second sheet of kozo paper and then to cut the whole thing up to make the pages of books. These pages are the “givens” to which I respond while building the book. Page by page decisions are made about the flow of images and text. Marks, words, paintings are added to the pages, receive meanings, lose them again as their context changes, then find new meanings. Deciding when to stop is the challenge. Here is the “foetus page” of the Book of Errors. Should I have been born into a different calligraphic culture?
For years I have used the book format to teach everything I know about text art and calligraphy. Books, I have always told my students, bring you right to the heart of the matter, allowing every form of writing (including the most personal journal work), drawing, painting and just about anything else to be brought together between two covers. But how many of you have actually seen one of my books? In the last few years, I have made only one or two. The truth is, I did not practice what I preached, but have concentrated for a number of years on large collages, canvas, sculpture and media.
Now, thanks to an invitation from the Triennial of Artists Books in Vilnius, I have returned to my first love: the manuscript. But now with the stories of a lifetime to tell. What a mind-blowing experience! Suddenly everything in my sketchbooks finds a place on the page. The words come right from the heart (“nobody said it was easy”) and find a match in a drawing made at some other time and in some other place in my life. You know the feeling: you wake up and want to get right back to work. The oilfields are producing again!
I will post a few pages of the book, called “Errors”, in the next few weeks. It is probably best to avoid explaining the work, but I will say a thing or two about how they came about, including some technical issues. Having a big studio filled with all sorts of incompatible materials is an important part of the process. India ink confronts house paint, Chinese collage techniques are applied to three meter long sheets of kozo paper, drawing, painting and all sorts of writing have to learn to get along in one work of art.
Strolling, sweat rolling down South Congress in Austin, I passed a young lady with an old typewriter. Pause, check it out. “Do you need a poem, Sir”. I love the Sir and Maaaam in Texas. Yes indeedy, go right ahead young lady. She asked three pointed questions, to which I gave three suffering artist answers, and told me to check back in ten minutes. Went off looking for a cowboy hat I had no intention of buying, and returned to her little table with Smith Corona and tin can stuffed with dollar bills. She extracted a small sheet from the machine, swiveled towards me, cleared her throat and read me her finely sharpened poem.
Staying with the theme of wounded books for a moment, I present this collage called Bellerophon, made a couple of years ago. My good friend Caroline Neve de Mevergnies, who is a book restorer, gave me a box old end papers and blank sheets culled from a number of books dating back several centuries. I marvelled at the subtle colors, ranging from beige-greens to ivory-ochres. My plan was to paste them onto a sheet of Rives BFK paper, as I so often do, to make a background for calligraphy. But as you can see, the antique papers were so beautiful without writing that I stopped (pen poised, doubts crowding in) and left the collage as it was. Only one sheet bore typographic letters, the word Bellerophon, the slayer of the chimera in Greek mythology. What could be better? The monstrous chimera gave its name to phantasms that exist only in the imagination. These ancient bits of blank paper can each hold any number of texts (truthful or otherwise), making this collage into an endless library of possible books. My hero Borges would surely approve.
I have made a couple of installations for the summer arts festival in Damme, near Bruges. They are not typical of my work, but probably still typical of my approach. Here are a couple of shots of one installation, a skeleton house I built with the help of my friend and rowing partner, Koen DeVaere. The garden is part of a monastic site in continuous use for 800 years (Blog 2 July), now abandoned for modern buildings nearby. I felt the need to comment on the end of this long tradition. And I felt the very practical need to use the beams and plaster coming from my studio, which is being renovated. Always good to kill two birds with one lump of plaster. My “Black Library” also went into the pile. It is poignant to see the books swell and burst their spines in the rain. Standing in front of the installation when it was finished, with the smell of plaster dust and the fluttering of book pages, I can imagine the feeling in Dresden after the bombing; or in Timbuktu after the libraries were ravaged.
Nadine and I visited Caen on our way back from Brittany, heading straight for the Abbeye aux Hommes. It is not always wise to revisit the past. Thirty years ago, while studying Romanesque architecture at the Courtauld in London, I thought this church built by William the Conqueror very beautiful. Now it seems heavy and heartless, like the man himself. But what did we spy lying on William’s tomb? Rolls of paper, clearly messages of some kind. I sneaked across the red cord and snatched one, returning quickly to a pew to read it. Prayers to the brutal Duke!!! Thanks for the healing of illnesses! Requests for help in following the true path in life! Will William generate a cult? It happened with Genghis, so anything is possible. But in the land of Voltaire? I was shocked.
Living in a medieval house has its benefits. We have 14th century wall paintings in our dining room.Every now and then people ask to see them.Today it was a group of singers rehearsing in a nearby church for a concert of early music. I showed them into the room and left them in the hands of their capable guide, Marjan Buyle, who restored the paintings in the 1990′s. When time came to go, they invited Nadine and me to take a seat, and then sang for us the most exquisite early Baroque chorale, with the wall paintings as backdrop. The room exalted at the honor. I have to admit that tears came to my eyes. Here we live in the oldest house in town, and without effort these beautiful moments fall into our laps.
Earlier this year Igor De Baecke and I produced a film for Psallentes, a choir specializing in Gregorian chant. It served both as backdrop to a concert and as the score from which the singers read as they sang. A full eighty minutes of film with a double function.
Here is a still from the film, in which my hands piece together a collage book on the theme of the Trinity. This gave me the chance to dig around in my sketchbooks, which are piled high on my desk, and show some favorite images collected over the years. A postcard from Chalons-en-Champagne on the left, an Egyptian mask superimposed on the phases of the moon, the medieval manuscript for the singers to read from.
I increasingly trust my intuition in these things, not thinking through the pairings. And yet the work, they gather meaning. As Heidegger said, “Thing gathers world”.
For several years I have engaged in an email exchange with the young French scholar Karine Bouchy, who just completed her doctorate in Paris on the gesture in contemporary calligraphy and art. I described to her an experience I had in Samarkand. After visiting endless madrassas and mosques, all decorated with exquisitely patterned tiles, I went to a pre-Islamic building and suddenly saw a fresco of a human face. The shock of coming eye to eye with dead matter, of seeing a human psyche look back from a painted layer of mud, was intense. From this arose an exchange about the power of mimesis (representation or imitation of the visual world in art) versus abstraction and calligraphy. It is a fascinating, but difficult topic. I think that the big question for me is, “What would it be like NOT to be soaked in the art of images?” What does Islamic society have that we do not have, because we are addicted to images and they are not (or were not, before television, and why does TV escape the prohibition on images???). What price do we pay for creating ourselves in our own likeness, and is that what the Semitic law against images is all about? Can we go back to the Ur-moment when an image, scratched in dirt with a stick, first spoke to our eyes, and the first image maker was shocked by dead matter looking back at him, showing him his own face?? In this sense, abstract art and calligraphy are very advanced, images very primitive. It could never have begun with abstraction. With the first image mankind was suddenly different to the animals. Animism could be questioned, the long road to creating gods and then god could begin. In Samarkand: acres of patterned tiles and then, suddenly, a face and a psychology. The reverse would be just as powerful. Rooms and rooms of Rubens, as at the Louvre, and then a page from a Koran. The sharp black lines would shock and draw one in by their purity. Perhaps calligraphy and drawing can be seen as studies of the laws of nature, or at least of our visual perception of nature. Distillations of the laws of form and contrast by which we recognize things as separate from one another. This would be the “truth” element in art. I will never figure it out. Time to go back and check what Gombrich says. I forgot long ago.
Just back from Australia, where I taught one of the most talented groups of calligraphers I have ever encountered. The trip was squeezed in between projects in Belgium, so I had no time to see the country, but it was worth it nevertheless. Two classes in five days, each with surprising results. The great reward of being a teacher is to survey the work of your students and say, silently, “I wish I had done that!”
Delayed flights gave me an unexpected day in Doha, where I saw the new Museum of Islamic Art, completed by I. M. Pei in 2008 at the youthful age of 89! A building beyond belief and a collection that stunned at every moment. It was fascinating to see how closely the earliest Korans on display, older still than the monumental kufic Korans, resembled other phonetic scripts. The distance between Arabic script as we know it and Hebrew, Latin, Greek and so on, came with Islam, was created to brand the new book and give it a new look.
In Australia I set the students the task of copying a kufic text, which they did with panache. Solid, physical letters that are sculpted rather than written. Tense black/white relationships that suggest a new metaphysics being born at the head of the Arabian Gulf at the same time that Charlemagne’s scribes were creating a new minuscule letter.
Those early lessons in medieval script are still coming in handy. Here is a set dressed with a whole archive of “medieval” documents. And yes, you guessed it, Henry VIII again, and the wicked Cromwell. The timing is poignant for me. I am working on two installations for a summer arts festival in Damme, near Bruges. The site is a medieval monastery, which continued functioning as a hospice until last month. After 800 years they finally moved to new premises with proper plumbing. Another monastic closure. Another ancient building gasping for life. Can an arts festival really fill this gaping hole? I like to imagine Cromwell clinging to the rails in the corridor of a new, sanitized hospice.
Three incredible days in Corvey Abbey near the German town of Höxter in Westphalia. Charlemagne founded the monastery and constructed the great Westwork as his throne room. From here he governed the eastern provinces of his empire. The building still stands, and has just received the title of Unesco World Heritage site. To celebrate, two days of calligraphic performances with medieval music were held in the abbey.
As a boy I was in awe of Charlemagne, but I never imagined that I would be invited to give a calligraphic performance in his actual throne room. I turned one corner of the room into a scriptorium, unfurled long sheets of calligraphy over a sloping desk, lit the candles and sat down to write. An over-the-shoulder camera projected every movement of my pen onto the 1200 year old arched above, giving the public the chance to follow the work up close. As the choir sang the Pater Noster and Veni Creator Spiritus I wrote a pure Carolingian minuscule. As Gregorian chant gave way to polyphony, the pen also performed more florid movements. At the stately pace of the singing, the texts were complete as the final AMEN was sung.
Very memorable, very moving. My thanks to Hans Hermann Janssens and the whole team in Corvey!
Image credit: Wolfgang Noltenhans
Just back from the Motyf moving typography conference in Warsaw. The conference was interesting on different levels, but the word I am taking away is “algorithm”. Half the lectures, perhaps more than that, were songs of praise to the algorithm by people who have failed to learn human languages (to judge both by their stumbling presentations and by the material they presented). Or perhaps they see mathematical languages as more beautiful than the irregular verbs we use every day. In any case, the uses to which they put their programming genius reflected this worship of a higher computing power. Video installations generated by data interfaces that were as brilliant as they were meaningless from any human point of view. In my opinion, this binary divinity needs to come down to earth, undergo a new Passion and get a life.
Why am I invited to these conferences? I am expected to talk about the work of the hand, real materials, messy studio processes. So that is what I do, and the response is always incredibly positive. Students come up afterwards to ask how they can learn calligraphy, how they can integrate studio processes into their digital work, how they can find a story in themselves that pulses, bleeds and lives. Here is my talk, hopefully not too much like a sermon!
A delightful group of teachers from MassArt in Boston told me that there is a new explosion of interest in calligraphy in the States. A reaction to an overly technical, digital world, they suspect. Music to my ears. When I combine this with all I am hearing from the Arabic and Chinese calligraphers (daily Facebook requests by the dozen), it does seem as if a second calligraphic awaking is on its way.