Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Letters that aren't

These are some pen-and-ink things I did towards the end of my sophomore year of college for fun that have been kicking around my hard drive ever since. I figured that I'd finally show them to people this way, since I finally have a space and an occasion to do so!

(Forgive the image quality; these are photos, not scans.) I've really liked calligraphy since reading E. L. Konigburg's book The View From Saturday in sixth grade. While it's not something I do that much anymore—for one thing, all of my pens and ink are on the other side of the Atlantic—or something that I ever did very well, it is something that I remain very interested in. 

We consider calligraphy a kind of art form, but from what (little) I know, it seems like we mean this in a very different sense from calligraphy's status as art in China or Japan, where it's possible for writing to stand on its own as an art object, rather than as decoration or application. 

I got interested in the possibility of writing that looks like writing but isn't—"writing" that could stand independent of denoting sounds or meanings by just pretending to be letters. This also raised questions about exactly how we recognize something as a letter or not. What does it mean to "resemble" a letter without actually being one? What criteria do we use? 

The French writer and artist Henri Michaux was also interested in some of these questions. He made a series of paintings that look like writing without actually being writing, like the one below. 

Henri Michaux: "Narration" (1927)
All this—Michaux and the drawings moldering away on my hard drive—came to mind because the Ashmolean Museum here in Oxford is currently showing some of the work of Chinese artist Xu Bing, consisting of long sequences of what appear to be Chinese characters. The only problem is that they're not actually Chinese characters. They just look like Chinese characters to a Roman-alphabet-reading audience. 

Xu Bing, "New English Calligraphy" (1998)
This recalls some of the crazier ideas that Ezra Pound had about Chinese writing—that it was possible to attribute meaning to them and "use" them in poems without knowing what they actually mean. It also raises questions about what it means to "look" Asian in relation to actually "being" Asian or not (topics with which I have some firsthand experience). And I think it offers an interesting analogue to lorem ipsum text, and other examples of things that appear to have meaning while actually declining to mean anything. 

Anyone who does calligraphy will tell you that a capital R is the best test letter, because it contains all three principal strokes that go into any other letter. I was interested in this idea, and so on the note cards above, I was trying to make something like variations on or studies of the elements of the letter "R."

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