The most putting factor about Tong Yang-tze, sitting inside her modest Taipei studio residence, is her confidence, and the sense that she’s had it all alongside. Now in her late 70s and regarded one in every of Taiwan’s foremost calligraphers and artists, Tong grins and jokes over cups of inexperienced tea and native sweets, belying her fame and cultural significance. “After all I’m good!” she laughs at one level, recalling a suggestion early in her profession from her former college to show. “I stated no, I don’t need a educating job. At the moment, all people wanted a job however I wished to be an artist. No regrets.”
Final week Tong’s calligraphy with a contemporary artwork twist greeted guests to the hotly anticipated M+ museum in Hong Kong, an formidable decade-long undertaking to create what has been dubbed Asia’s Tate Trendy. The 33-gallery house, in a harbourside constructing designed by “starchitects” Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with TFP Farrells and Arup, opened final week.
Tong’s work – broad and tough inky brushstrokes sweeping chaotically throughout and round the house – is ubiquitous in Taiwan. It’s signage at practice stations and airports; it’s the branding of theatres, bookshops and a Chanel anniversary marketing campaign; it options in collaborations with jazz musicians (“the solely music that goes with calligraphy”) and style designers. It’s the stamp in your passport once you arrive in Taipei.
Tong moved to Taiwan in 1952 along with her household, leaving a snug life in Shanghai. They settled in Taipei, the place she says they have been poor and had no associates. Her father set her and her 4 siblings the activity of studying calligraphy – practising 100 giant characters and 200 small characters each day, all by means of their college years. “I fell in love with it,” she says.
After a superb arts diploma at Nationwide Taiwan Regular College, a postgrad at the College of Massachusetts and a “very simple” stint as a graphic designer in New York, Tong constructed a profession fusing the historical conventional follow of calligraphy with trendy artwork, illustrating deeply significant historical texts. She is notoriously media shy, and might’t recall having ever accomplished an interview in English earlier than. She doesn’t like strangers in her dwelling – journalists for instance, she specifies apologetically – or posing for pictures. Credit score for this momentary exception is seemingly owed to her shut good friend and peer, the internationally lauded founding director of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, Lin Hwai-min. Sitting round her glass and crochet-topped desk, Lin prompts, praises and teases his previous good friend from Seventies New York.
When Tong talks of her personal studio at college, and time spent with wealthy relations on Madison Avenue, Lin laughingly calls her a princess. When she offhandedly notes she obtained into Taiwan’s most prestigious enterprise college however selected artwork as a substitute, he chides “silly woman”. However he doesn’t imply it: later, when requested about their parallel rise by means of Taiwan’s creative elite, he waxes lyrical.
“She actually invaded all our lives in the previous few a long time,” he says. “Or we must always say she cultivated it. Calligraphy was all the things in the previous days, and now you look out and also you see the new design. However she brings calligraphy by means of to society. It’s really wonderful.” He appears over at her and laughs.
Tong nearly rejected the M+ fee when she noticed the plans for the house: no partitions, all these galleries. Boring. How will you recognize the artwork? However, she says, leaning ahead and grinning mischievously: “I like a problem.” Her first thought was to make use of a up to date poem for the modern metropolis, however as a substitute she did the reverse, selecting passages from the I Ching, a seminal 3,000-ish-year-old Chinese language textual content.
One pillar hosts 4 separate items, every an interpretable message for a person, one other a four-sided wraparound picture, forcing viewers to circle the pillar to take it in – making certain that wherever somebody stands in that open, wall-less house, they are going to have a unique expertise of her work.
When creating for herself, Tong says she prefers working at extra manageable sizes, however her grandest items have stuffed exhibition halls. Typically working to fee, her work “matches the house”, she says matter of factly. However there’s a caveat. “Each artwork exhibition will probably be completely different,” she says. “Art can’t be repeated.”
Lin exhibits me a video on his telephone. It’s Tong creating one work hanging close by in the Nationwide Live performance Corridor – she holds a brush practically her measurement, gliding it round the paper sheets taped to the ground. “It’s bodily work, utilizing my complete physique,” she says. However, requested what her fundamental feeling is whereas she works, Tong says: “Enjoyment.”
Tong is just not outwardly political, saying she “by no means touches it”, and sidesteps questions of the Hong Kong upheaval that has despatched so many artists fleeing to Taiwan. Tong’s work will characteristic at the M+ gallery in a time of extraordinary political suppression in Hong Kong, with crushing censorship, cultural blacklists and an exodus of artists. In September, nationwide safety police raided the Tiananmen museum, confiscating its historic reveals and paraphernalia. In October 2020, the Historical past Museum was closed for renovation however the unsure local weather prompted impartial efforts to digitise the total exhibition, fearing it would be politically sanitised once reopened.
M+ has already felt the warmth. Earlier this yr, pro-Beijing legislators rounded on the museum over its plan to incorporate artwork by Ai Weiwei in its exhibition, saying the show of some works by the Chinese language dissident artist may unfold “hatred in opposition to China” and violate the nationwide safety regulation. When it opened final week, the a lot anticipated exhibition included some nods to the political upheaval of the previous two years, together with artwork that includes police riot shields.
Tong’s method does enable for experimentation, and for a respectful rise up in opposition to the conventional that she says is pushed partly by her hope to see younger folks drawn away from the digital world in the direction of calligraphy. Her work, she says, might be learn as a significant textual content, or just loved for its look. Each are equally vital: whereas she consults with professors to interpret and select her phrases, in the event that they don’t look good on paper she received’t use them.
Lin says this makes her work accessible to individuals who can’t learn Chinese language, or who haven’t studied the historical texts from which she attracts her characters. Tong’s work has largely proven in Taiwan, however has been wanted by collectors round the world. “The that means for us all is past the characters she’s introduced,” says Lin. “Most of us take pleasure in the particular design, the musicality, the grading of the completely different shades of ink. You possibly can take it as abstraction.”
Her associates and colleagues word, with mild exasperation, Tong’s penchant to be dissatisfied along with her personal work and discard it. That behavior will feed a part of her subsequent work, teasingly sitting in the close by nook. “I’m an artist,” she says. “I take pleasure in my time and I simply need freedom. I’ve lived by that. I used to be – I’m – lucky. The one factor is I want a problem.”