A Walk Through the Met’s “Out of Character” Exhibition with Curator Joseph Scheier-Dolberg (Closing this week!)
If you’re looking for a great show to check out this weekend, be sure to see The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s stunning presentation of “Out of Character,” before it closes on Sunday. Last week, I had the opportunity to walk through the exhibition with Joseph Scheier-Dolberg, Assistant Curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Met, to hear his insights on organizing the exhibition, which he intended to appeal to calligraphy specialists and novices alike.
Recounting the words of a mentor in the calligraphy field, Scheier-Dolberg said, “Birdwatching isn’t fun until you know the names of some of the birds,” and with this in mind, even before entering the exhibition, visitors may first watch an informative video showing a master calligrapher writing the same character in five types of script. From the laborious ‘seal’ script to the expressive ‘cursive,’ each script serves a different purpose. Interestingly, calligraphers typically abide by a system of etiquette, which governs the type of the script used for a particular work. This is similar to the way we associate the gothic font of the New York Times with factual authority, and the youthful Comic Sans with cartoons.
Drawn from Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki’s calligraphy collection, the exhibition includes 40 stunning, diverse works, including Wen Peng’s masterwork, Thousand Character Classic (1561). Originally conceived as an 85 leaf album, each leaf has been taken out and arranged as a massive mural across the gallery wall. While the text itself is standard practice material, inconsequential in its content (“much like, ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,’” Scheier-Dolberg explained), what is surprising is the calligrapher’s decision to use the second oldest and most archaic script at such a large and powerful scale. Scheier-Dolberg noted that this creates a similar result as writing in all caps, emphasizing the graphic impact of the calligraphy. The physicality and “brashness” of Wen Peng’s work is juxtaposed against some of the religious scripts like Zhao Mengfu’s The Lotus Sutra (ca. 1315), which as Scheier-Dolberg described, “was written with such regularity and elegance that you could imagine the writing of it as an act of meditation.”
Largely chronological, the exhibition concludes with a surprising contemporary ‘coda’: Xu Bing’s The Character of Characters (2012). Commissioned to create a work for the exhibition, Xu Bing began by studying Jerry Yang’s collection; not surprisingly, he was ultimately mesmerized by the meditative qualities of Zhao Mengfu’s long handscroll. The resulting 20-minute video is Xu Bing’s own reflection upon the history of calligraphic practice and early myths regarding the creation and formalization of Chinese characters.
“Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy—Selections from the Collection of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang” closes Sunday, August 17 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.