Invisible Writings：Golnaz Fathi’s Painting and Maximalism
By Gao Minglu
It seems impossible to use an existing style to define Golnaz Fathi’s works. They are at once traditional yet highly individual.
Furthermore, her work cannot be seen as graphic design, as her use of detailed processes and expressive brush strokes go far beyond the boundaries of design. These strokes have their origins in ancient Persian calligraphy. The contrasting black and white of the strokes remind us of ancient Chinese inscriptions on stone tablets. Some works are similar to the decorative patterns created by modern-day electronic technology. Her light boxes made of acrylic cases containing LEDs, suggest pieces of black paper carved with strokes reminiscent of the exquisite, elegant lines and free rhythm of Persian calligraphy.
We cannot view her works simply as some kind of modern abstract art, nor a derivative of Minimalism, because what the artist wants to present is not the physical form of the image, but the subtle, almost imperceptible handwritten marks, which lie hidden within the composition. These marks are not material, but reflect the artist’s psychological, sensory, and emotional experiences at a particular moment in time. It is difficult to use observation alone to capture these traces, it requires the viewer’s active participation, and for the viewer to experience the artist’s calligraphic progress as well as the feelings and state of mind that inspired this process. Therefore, if we look through the dictionary of art history and attempt to discuss Fathi’s art within the framework of a particular movement or style of a Western or Eastern artist, it will cause our criticism to be awkward and unproductive.
The brilliance of Fathi’s art is that it begins with an impulsive, personal and expressive form of writing, but the ultimate effect is a tranquil and rational image. However, despite the fact that writing is a significant element in Fathi’s artwork, the aim of these writings is not to present calligraphy, nor to present the structure and meaning of the written text. On the contrary, she has strived to hide the existing aesthetic values and form of traditional calligraphy, whilst uniting these values and forms with images that can be easily appreciated in today’s world. Her compositions conceal the calligraphic attributes to which she attaches so much importance.
The conceptual and aesthetic value of Fathi’s works lies in these “invisible writings”. It is completely separate from the Minimalist physical concepts of brevity and starkness. Minimalism refutes the artistic concept of hidden depth and meaning, whilst the simple imagery of Fathi’s paintings is only a façade. The artist hopes the viewer can experience the state of freedom and meditation that she achieves with this daily ritual of writing, as opposed to merely reading the images with their eyes alone.
Fathi has described how her works are inspired by the technique of Shiah Mashgh, translated literally as ‘black practice’. This is the calligrapher’s warm-up exercise repeating letters over and over again. These writing exercises are not focussed on the final result, but are practised in order to achieve an optimum state of the calligraphers’ own mood and mindset. Therefore, these ’black practice’ writings are actually the most natural and the most representative of an artists’ state of individual freedom.
The training methods of traditional Iranian calligraphy and traditional Chinese calligraphy are very much alike. Chinese calligraphy training advocates the constant emulation of old master pieces as a long-term exercise. This emulation is not only about training in a certain style or technique, but it is more a training in cultural and aesthetic tastes. Furthermore, this training requires students to emulate ancient calligraphy by reverting to the cultural state of the old master calligrapher they are seeking to emulate. The goal is to achieve the ultimate source of this ancient calligraphy, rather than merely imitating another calligraphers’ personal style.
‘Repetition’ and ‘imitation’ are positive concepts in the Eastern calligraphy training, without any shameful or negative meaning. This ‘repetition’ is, of course, completely different from the appropriation and simulation of contemporary art since the post-modern period. Post-modern appropriation and simulation comprises deconstructive and satirical aesthetics triggered by our market-oriented, mass-production, industrialised society. The aim of the repetition and emulation of traditional calligraphy is to retrace the roots of previous culture and aesthetics.
Inspired by traditional Iranian calligraphy training methods, Fathi has implanted her own personal insight and artistic freedom into her contemporary art works. She attempts to remove the meaning of the words and the traditional rules of calligraphy whilst entering into a state of meditation. It reminds me of a Chinese contemporary artist, Qiu Zhijie, who between 1990 to 1995 emulated a thousand times on one piece of rice paper the ‘Orchid Pavilion’, a work by Wang Xizi (303-361), the most famous calligrapher in ancient China. In the end, the piece of rice paper was covered all over by a mass of turbid black ink and the individual calligraphic brush strokes could not be seen any longer. [Illustration, ‘Orchid Pavilion’ by Qiu Zhijie]. Moreover, Song Dong, another active Chinese artist, has been writing his diary on stones with a brush dipped in clear water (not ink) every day for the past decade. The works of Golnaz Fathi, Qiu Zhijie and Song Dong all offer the viewer unrestrained imaginative possibilities, as opposed to a limited visual language or calligraphic text.
During the past three decades, a group of Chinese contemporary artists have created similar artworks to Fathi’s. Perhaps we can also take Li Huasheng as an example. [See image]. Every day for the past ten years, Li Huasheng has been drawing grids on rice paper with an ink brush. However, his lines are derived from traditional Chinese landscape painting and subtly embody the artist’s mood and skill.
Although the works of Fathi and these Chinese artists look very simple and straightforward, what lies behind is an invisible complexity. This depth and complexity is achieved through a writing (and meditative) process of daily repetition, sometimes for several years. These artists pursue a ‘Maximalism’ that lies hidden in something similar to the condensed forms of Minimalism. What is Maximalism? It is something, which seems to be unremarkable, contains no grand narratives but rather possesses an extremely everyday, habitual spirit. Maximalism is the essence of the artist’s daily experience. Its aesthetic characteristics are natural, simple and minimalistic. Fathi’s works conceal the handwritten word forms whilst still retaining the cultural information that emerges from the writing process and moves beyond the image itself. This process of concealing and meditation thus becomes a limitless creative pursuit where the contemporary artist moves beyond traditional and rigid calligraphic forms, transforming their art into a personal and daily way of creation.