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'Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape': calligraphy connecting body, mind and soul

Taiwanese artist Yahon Chang discusses his solo painting performance, curated by Manu Park, at the St. Elizabeth-Kirche in Berlin.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Jun 26, 2023

The first quarter of 2023 wound up with a fantastic offering for lovers of ink painting and calligraphy in Berlin, as the leading Taiwanese contemporary artist Yahon Chang undertook a rather unique live painting art performance at the hallowed halls of the St. Elizabeth-Kirche. The event, titled Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape, was organised in collaboration between Yahon Chang Studio and Kultur Büro Elisabeth gGmbH, and curated by Manu Park, who has also served as director at the Nam Jun Paik Art Center in the past. Floating Poetry treated audiences to an intimate, in-person engagement with Chang’s performative painting practice that transports the viewer from their present, corporeal reality to a more ephemeral space across flowing water. The Taiwanese artist did not act alone, as the experience was brought together by the music of Adele Bitter on violin cello and Holger Groschopp on piano, who performed compositions by the late Isang Yun. Following the performance, Chang also signed copies of his new monograph Yahon Chang: Painting as Performance, published by Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Ode to Life, 2022, ink on canvas | Yahon Chang | Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape | STIRworld
Ode to Life, 2022, ink on canvas Image: Wei-Tsan Liu, Courtesy of Yahon Chang Studio

In conversation with STIR, Chang explores the instinctual spontaneity of his practice that he draws from calligraphy associated with Zen Buddhism.

"For me, spontaneity means doing what your mind wants, going where your heart likes, and wandering how your soul chooses. In such a creative process, there is an act of finding "balance", that is carried out organically anytime and anywhere as needed,” he tells STIR. One may wonder whether a spontaneous approach to art making is at odds with the standards of “beauty” that are traditionally associated with painting or calligraphy, but a closer look at Chang’s oeuvre will reveal an aesthetic that seems to eschew such notions entirely in favour of establishing a dialogue between recognisability and abstraction. The artist’s own perspective in this regard is a little more nuanced, and he explains this, telling STIR, “As for 'beauty,' I think it can be found everywhere; even in the minute details of the painting such as the dynamics of lines and the texture of brushstrokes.”

nstallation View, Yahon Chang, Yuanqi & Sentient Beings at Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, Taiwan | STIRworld
Installation View, Yahon Chang, Yuanqi & Sentient Beings at Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, Taiwan, 2023 Image: Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, Taiwan, Coutresy of Yahon Chang Studio

The obfuscation and revelation of detail that typify the artist’s aesthetic identity manifest a range of emotional responses to his pieces, however Chang himself provides little direction as to what a “proper” interpretation may be, seemingly content to let audiences pursue their own individual relationships with his craft. With that said, he is not one to totally slacken control over the aesthetic expression of his art, and says that “as a painter, it is only natural to add marks in order to increase the beauty of the work, and putting the finishing touches can echo the ancient saying ‘dotting the eyeball in painting a dragon’.”

  • A performance view of Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape from above, 2023, ink on canvas | Yahon Chang | Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape | STIRworld
    A performance view of Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape from above, 2023, ink on canvas Image: Greg Bannan, Courtesy of Yahon Chang Studio
  • A close-up of the artist's brush, 2023, Yahon Chang | Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape | STIRworld
    A close-up of the artist's brush, 2023 Image: Greg Bannan, Courtesy of Yahon Chang Studio

Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape saw an audience turnout of over 350 spectators. The attendees experienced the meditative flow of the artist’s performance art first-hand, which is where the performative is considered to be its strongest. With that said, Chang does not believe that online viewers who engage with his performances through video recordings are losing out, but rather, that they are establishing a relationship that is simply different than what in-person attendees experience, by way of the high-definition video footage and high-fidelity music that they are presented with. This is perhaps a more holistic representation of the creative process, and in the case of Floating Poetry, includes alternatively interspersed close-up scenes, panoramic scenes and aerial views of the unfolding performance. To Chang, the internet is a valuable point of dissemination, as it is not limited by the number of people that may view his work at once, nor is time an issue here. He tells STIR that the online format allows him to extend the reach of his performances, and adds that video is a particularly critical aspect of documentation for its power to preserve that which occurs live, after the moment has ended.

Scenes from Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape, 2023, ink on canvas Video: Courtesy of MONA Productions, and Yahon Chang Studio

Chang’s performance in Berlin brought together many years of personal experience, not only as an ink painter, but also as a performance artist, and was crafted so as to complement St. Elizabeth-Kirche’s architectural scale and spatial texture, along with the historical texts contained therein. The artist also took into consideration his own personal emotional response to the light and atmosphere at the venue, which reinforced his deep belief in the spirit of Jesus Christ through a performance that connects Taiwan to Germany by way of starkly differing approaches to the same religious iconography. He tells STIR, “Right at the moment when I picked up the brush, I decided to paint a main image of the Passion of Jesus. A secondary image of the Twelve Apostles was combined with several passages of hymns written in large strokes, in a wild cursive style.” Although the resulting work is predominantly impromptu in its construction, it still reveals Chang’s faith, and he hopes to use this piece to spark a spiritual dialogue across history and culture.

The artist signs his monograph, 2023, photograph | Yahon Chang | Floating Poetry, Meandering Mindscape | STIRworld
Yahon Chang signs his monograph, 2023, photograph Image: Greg Bannan, Courtesy of Yahon Chang Studio

Coming to Yahon Chang: Painting as Performance, the book contains four essays that shed light on the artist’s contemporary art practice and influences, along with a wide offering of his striking ink artworks. It also includes a timeline of Chang’s life as well as an exhaustive list of his exhibitions. It will undoubtedly acquire a place of pride on the shelves of the artist’s audiences, and will also serve as a fascinating presentation of his craft to the uninitiated.

The artist has expressed that his practice connects body, mind and spirit. This might lead one to assume that Chang’s visual pieces are comparable to photographic artefacts, however he does not intend for them to be interpreted in such a manner. He explains, saying, “Photographers freeze time with the shutter and capture scenes with the lens; painters also use intuition to capture inspiration and freeze images with their sketches. But for me, the interaction of body, mind and spirit is spontaneous, organic and continuous.” The use of brush and ink and the formation of imagery within his creative process are not meant to capture thoughts mechanically and then freeze them into snapshots, but rather seek to manifest a sense of relaxation, and let the three key entities at play here; the body, mind and soul, decide at random where and when to trigger interaction and produce lines and strokes, texture and colours and forms and composition. Chang adds to this, “The chain reaction of this process is more like dominoes, which is completed in the flow of time and space with different melodies and rhythms.” The artist possesses an undeniably fascinating perspective on the formative elements of his craft, and one wonders if the true creative spirit of Yahon Chang resides not within the strokes or movements that are associated with it, but rather somewhere else; somewhere deeper. Perhaps it is a nameless and indivisible substrate that lives fleetingly within both, creator and canvas, only to be lost the moment that the act of artistic creation is complete.

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