One of my more unusual get-rich schemes as a teenager was persuading my mum to let me dig the pond three feet deeper, so that we could get Japanese koi carp. Koi carp are highly valued for the patterns on their scales. The location of a dot can be the difference between a fish being worth a few hundred pounds and a million. At the koi centre they have all the young fish in a giant pool, and you are never told which ones are potential goldmines. Faced with a colossal amount of reading on koi culture I abandoned the idea, having turned our pond into a watery death trap.
Looking around this exhibition of Japanese calligraphy, I had the same sense of abstract beauty tied to tradition. Akemi Lucas, who goes by the calligrapher name Koshu, is from a line of masters stretching back to the great Kusakabe Meikaku. Being heir to such a famous lineage no doubt informs Koshu’s awe-inspiring dedication to her art. One triptych, “1,000 Chinese Letters” (pictured), involved her self-isolation for a month while she undertook the project, with every stroke made in the knowledge that one mistake would mean starting again.
Japanese calligraphy is painted quickly, its connection to Zen meditation meaning it is often painted as the artist takes a single breath. For Koshu to achieve such a balance between precise form and freedom of line shows masterful technique. She favours brushes that create lines with a dark edge and a lighter one, giving them a three-dimensional quality. Figurative art appears in several works, such as the elegant “Plum”, featuring falling blossom. Like the flowers arranged tastefully around the exhibition, they subtly counterpoint the dynamic monochrome of the calligraphy.
…giving the sense of love bursting out from the word itself…
Koshu’s places one of her poems alongside every artwork, each based around the featured word. The themes of love and loss, the smallness of a flower or the vastness of the universe – the ancient yin and yang symbolism of Zen Buddhism – give a personal dimension to the exhibition. Koshu’s presence is felt throughout. In one of the highlights, “Love” (pictured), ink is splashed across the letters, giving the sense of love bursting out from the word itself. It’s no wonder abstract expressionists such as Franz Kline found calligraphy a potent source of inspiration.
The difference between abstract art and calligraphy is that an artwork is judged on its own merits, while I must admit that I wouldn’t be able to tell a “master” calligrapher from a “student”. Only a person who has read widely on the subject of koi could appreciate the one with a symbolic dot: I am resistant to the idea (perhaps naively) that art could be so seemingly elitist. While I enjoyed this exhibition’s stark aesthetic, I was also aware that many nuances were lost on me: like the koi in the pool, a pattern would appear for a brief moment, before disappearing into the depths once more.