Kurt Chan

“When Cangjie created writing, Heaven rained millet, and the ghosts wailed through the night.” This line from the ancient Chinese text Huainanzi describes the birth of the written word and the beginning of rational civilization, where words are the products and vehicles of rational communication. But in the Internet Age, the role of words as communicators of facts is diminishing. Words and their meanings increasingly have become little more than sites of power struggles in the public arena, constantly being reinterpreted, censored, and extended. In the end, words become mere signifiers of ambiguous messages, awaiting the manipulations of different interlocutors.

It is the inherent power of different word morphologies and the way words are subject to random manipulation that most interests me.

Calligraphy is the aesthetic system of the Chinese written word: it is a coded system of steps, developed over more than a millennium, which the writer follows in a certain order. In my work I apply facets of the Western painting tradition to deconstruct the morphology and methodology of the Chinese writing system, while still retaining core elements of calligraphy and brushwork.

In the process I have discovered that the contemporary method of writing which most closely resembles Chinese calligraphy is street graffiti. The main tool and technique of graffiti (spray painting) is very similar to brush-and-ink in terms of qualities of immediacy and relative uncontrollability. And while graffiti’s inherently vibrant colours differ completely from the monochrome tonalities of brushed ink, I have sought to reconcile and juxtapose the two by appropriating the Western painting technique of multiple applications of layers. I recognize that when introducing alien elements into tradition, one must be prepared to lose some comfortably familiar and even precious things along the way.

Calligraphy and graffiti can be described as the writing systems of two different social classes. But it is between the emotive expressiveness of the literati and the declarative messages of the graffiti artist that I find a space for my own artistic expression. My work moves between these two extremes, oscillating from the precise significance of words to the looseness of visual images: exploring the gravitational pull between "it is" and "it isn’t."

Kurt Chan

6 June 2023

Translation by Valerie C. Doran

Artist Statement
Critical Essays