Sansan (“三三” in Chinese, in which “三” stands for “three”) used to be a regular staff at Form Society, an Art Space in Sham Shui Po district. When Sansan and I first met, it so happened that she took on her first commercial project to calligraph for a movie poster. From then on, whenever I see a billboard with calligraphy on it, I’d wonder, “Maybe this is calligraphed by Sansan?”
Sansan’s name itself is intriguing. As far as I can recall, she is one of those who are very much obsessed with words — to an extent that you might call her bigoted. Her calligraphy gives a light and flowy feeling. If you take a closer look at the second character of her real Chinese name (i.e. “慧”) and remove some strokes and dots from here and there, what remained is the nom de plume, “三三” that she gave to herself. The font she developed also has a name and it’s called “Weak”.
I was a little puzzled at first because her calligraphy, though light and flowy, doesn’t look weak at all. “I took inspiration from a verse in the Bible which says, ‘For when I am weak, then am I strong.’ If sincerity is to be materialized and turned into a tangible form, it’d be soft and amorphous. It can hardly be seen and might even look vulnerable, but it has a power within that can make you stay strong even when the world tries to defeat you. Weakness is the same as sincerity, for it also has that vulnerability and power within. It fascinates me a lot, and I want to put these feelings in my calligraphy.”
This is the definition of weakness I reckon: Vulnerable, yet powerful. Being able to show your weakness is indeed a strength.
Sansan was once a student in a calligraphy class, and the daily practices were merely repetition to her. She is not someone who likes to follow the rules when writing, she said. So what are the differences between now and then, I asked. “I remember that at the first calligraphy class, my teacher said, ‘The most important thing in calligraphy is the “soul”. People can tell whether there is a “soul” in your work.’ Though I was not 100% sure what ‘soul’ means, I was intrigued.”
As her life moves on, the meaning of “soul” becomes more obvious. “After that, I kept writing. I wanted to be better and surpass myself. Eventually I started to feel anxious and lost my spirits. I realized that I was trapped by the idea of surpassing myself. Calligraphy practice, though seemingly repetitious, is actually a process which allows me to witness and understand changes along the way — from dissecting a character, to giving it a form and injecting it with emotions. Chinese calligraphy starts with proper brush-holding and the practice of centred-tip technique. Once you learn how to hold your brush properly, you can then start breaking the rules and bring in your own imagination.”
Picking up calligraphy as a complete beginner is like living your adolescence years once again. Being all intuitive and fearless. Disregarding the others and even ourselves. As time goes by, the sharp and rough edges would be sanded down. We are able to waltz through the ups and downs. At the end of the day, some roughness might still remain, but it’s now up to you to decide whether to cause someone’s pain with it. As in, whether you want your brush to break the paper, it’s all up to you.
“What is ‘soul’? It’s a technique and also an accumulation of experience. When I practice calligraphy, another self would come up to replace my normal self. These two selves coexist. Sometimes they learn, and sometimes they defy traditional rules.”
Later on, she began to write down her own weakness. For some people, it will take them several attempts to finally understand her writing, and for some others, “the writing is simply unrecognizable. My thoughts seem to have found a home, and they’d just stay there. As natural as it is. My calligraphy is also like that. Like a fantasy.”
I asked her whether calligraphy should be readable and understandable to people, and she said, “It’s a bit like asking people whether they understand music or not. Not everyone can play musical instruments, but all of us can feel the emotions in music and guess what the last note will be. Calligraphy is similar to music in a sense that they both have different depths and scales. There is the juxtaposition of virtual and reality, past and present, sadness and happiness etc. Whether people want to read and understand the characters with their five senses, it’s totally up to them. It’s their free will. I really like Yūichi Inoue and Yan Zhenqing. Their work goes beyond the characters’ form and shape, as if they have forgotten about these things. However, the beauty of the characters always remains.”
Life experience transforms into words and sentences in her mind. She has to write them down before they disappear. “Otherwise they will be blown away, just like dust.”
Calligraphy lets her mind roam free. “The act of writing is deeply profound. It warps all sense of time.”
Is she nurturing a gentle heart? Gentleness is like sunshine. Yet I wonder which part of the day this sunshine is coming from.
“The color of the sky near the ocean in the morning or afternoon. The sun glitter on the sea water sparkles like the tinkling sound of a brass bell. And there must be dust particles. They give a sense of disturbance and imperfection. I’d let loose, forget about time, and immerse myself into that time and space.”
Lastly, I asked what gentleness means to her.
“It’s that absorbed look on Léon the professional assassin’s face when he watches a movie alone in the theater in The Professional; the moment when Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg read the poems by Jack Kerorau in front of his own grave; and the guitar solo in AMK’s “You are born to be romantic”. Gentleness is like an electric shock. It’s not a one-way thing, but a connection between things. It’s absurd and straightforward. Gentleness is when you are completely absorbed in something.”