What's going on in Bai Yiluo's calligraphy?

A witty fusion of media and materials creates a strong effect - but what is it made up of?
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Bai Yiluo Calligraphy Flies (2005)
Bai Yiluo Calligraphy Flies (2005)

China's is the oldest continuous civilisation on earth and one with which we'd all do well to become better acquainted. As you doubtless know by now, The Chinese Art Book serves as a wonderful introduction to its heritage in the arts, both traditional and modern. By cleverly pairing old works against new on opposite pages, it shows not only how alive Chinese art is today, but also how alive it is to its own past. 

For a particularly illustrative example of this, it's worth turning to the image of Zhao Mengjian's Orchid. This is a beautifully delicate ink rendering of a flower considered to be associated “with the steadfastness and morality of gentlemen” and dates from the 13th century. The refined yet discreetly bold brushwork reflects the qualities the flower is supposed to represent – retiring and fragile and yet, through its sweet odour, able to gain attention. Mengjian conveys the captivating quality of the flower in his depiction of the leaves, which, according to one Chinese critic had the “tensile quality of steel”. 

 

Zhao Mengjian Orchid c.1220-64
Zhao Mengjian Orchid c.1220-64

But if you look to the opposing page, and Bai Yiluo's Calligraphy Flies (2005) you'll find a work of similar delicacy yet deceptive strength. At first glance it appears to consist of row after row of pretty, if splodgy inmarks.  

However, on closer inspection, these are revealed to be dead flies. Here, then, Yiluo fuses the ancient (insects have been a feature of Chinese art for centuries), with the modern – one thinks immediately of Damien Hirst's use of dead insects and animals. There's a similar steely, arresting quality in Yiluo's work to Hirst's, while it sits equally well alongside its 13th century companion piece Orchid. 

Would you like to see more? Then read on. Editor Diane Fonteberry introduces the book here; you can browse through a gallery of images here; or read about some highlights here, and when you've done that, why not buy the book from the people who made it, here.


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