The Way is not in the Sky 《借周易自勉》

120 x 120 x 200 cm (estimated)
Chinese ink, paper, felt, furniture.

The way is not in the Sky was conceived for the second annual ink exhibition of experimental Chinese ink works held in the NAFA galleries. It is of the Self- encouragement series《自勉系列》following an instalment presented at the same occasion in the previous year. The work presents a convergence of two seemingly distinct poles in Chinese and Western art: Calligraphy and Conceptual art.

Connecting conceptual art and ink art, this work relates the shared emphasis on concept and intent in both art-forms. Assembling the artist’s past years’ calligraphy practice papers as a ready-made-sculptural-installation questions assumptions about materiality, form, and particularly the art-making process. The latter is relevant since most art audiences are no longer aware of the training put into Chinese ink arts, the actual physical works of which are typically executed in a short time, not unlike the calligraphy displayed as part of this work. In contrast, traditional ink audiences would be familiar with the learning and art making process since they are typically users of ink and brush, or practitioners themselves.

The four calligraphic characters at the top were executed most recently, and culminate the years of training symbolised in the display below.

The practice papers are folded in the manner of preparing joss papers offerings to the Jade Emperor, or Heavenly Duke (天公 pronounced tian gong literally also means “sky duke”). Commonly understood as the sky deified, the Jade Emperor is the most esteemed deity in the Daoist pantheon. This associates calligraphy practice with religious practice, for both acts are similar, both in being misinterpreted as being ritualistic and out-of-date, and in being truly meditative, cultivating, and spiritual, carried out in hopes for transcendence from the mundane. Since joss papers are intended for burning ultimately, ideas about impermanence and transience are suggested as well.

The Jade Emperor festival, which features the joss paper offering using this method of folding, is held on the ninth day of the Lunar New Year, and is traditionally regarded by many Chinese as part of Lunar New Year celebrations. The contextual relevance of this installation is this annual ink exhibition and the annual Huichun exhibition that is held in conjunction in the same gallery; Huichun is a fundraising exhibition which typically showcases classical Chinese calligraphic Spring Couplets for the Lunar New Year festivities. The red rice papers used in the work deliberately reference to those used for Huichun.

The calligraphy states “天道酬勤”, which literally means “the way of the Heavens is to reward diligence”, again, referring to the Jade Emperor. This phrase is from the Chinese classic Zhou Yi 《周易》and has been referred to since time of Confucius for “self-encouragement”, especially by students. Diligence is emphasized upon in Chinese ink arts, which values keen practising to hone ones’ skills with the brush and materials.

Complementing these ideas is the English title, which is part of an anonymous quote, “The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.” Those literate in Chinese may also uncover a message displayed by the practice papers, which reads, “真书为天人合一” meaning, “True calligraphy is for (or is regarded) (as that which is executed when) the heavens (or nature or sky) and man become one”, suggestive of a calligrapher’s ultimate aim.

Fundamentally, the work is a form of self-encouragement of a Chinese ink painting student, especially as a final year student of the Fine Art diploma programme, the artist produces this work as a form of self-motivation, and to remind herself the true purpose of ink practice.