Our ninth and eleventh installment of Good Company features Master Calligrapher Aoi Yamaguchi. Aoi began studying calligraphy at age six, earning the distinction of Master Student Calligrapher at age 14. She practiced calligraphy under the tutelage of Master Zuiho Sato for over a decade before moving to the United States as part of her journey in cross-cultural exploration. On her own and away from the traditional calligraphy world back home, Aoi grew her practice in new directions–pushing boundaries as a calligrapher and embarking on a path that led her to become a performer, collaborator and an ambassador of her art form in groundbreaking and visionary ways.
ET: Your mother is a calligraphy master and you began calligraphy at a young age. Can you share how your calligraphy journey first started?
AY: I started calligraphy when I was six years old when my mother enrolled me in Master Zuiho Sato’s Calligraphy School. At that time, we lived in the rural countryside–a small town in Hokkaido–and the school was at my master’s home. Part of it was renovated to house around 30 kids at a time and it was an after school activity. I would finish elementary school and my mother would take me straight to calligraphy school at 3 PM. I did that once a week, every month, for 13 years. As a student, every month you were given a set of words or a phrase to practice every week. And at the end of the month, you turned in your best work to the teacher and the teacher would send it to the International Calligraphy Association where masters and jurors would evaluate. If your work passed that month, you would ascend one rank higher. It’s similar to karate, where you start from the very bottom of a ranking system and rise through the 14 set ranks. If you achieved the highest superior ranking six years in a row, you’re awarded the title of master calligraphy student. I was able to achieve this title when I was 14 years old.
ET: To receive the title of master student at 14 is quite an achievement. What was your experience practicing calligraphy at such a high level when so young?
AY: My father was a highschool teacher and we moved towns every two or three years. Even when we moved to towns that were far away from my calligraphy school, my mother would drive me two hours to attend sessions. I worked diligently, practicing my calligraphy on my own, mailing in my work to my master for correction. He would evaluate my work and mail it back to me. I did that for many years, and I’m deeply thankful to my mother for her support. When I achieved the highest ranking at 14 years old, I was invited to join an exhibition group visiting China by the Japanese Ministry of Education. It was kind of a study group organized by the International Calligraphy Association, and we went to Beijing to meet Chinese calligraphy students. Together we did some calligraphy sessions and exchanged our work. That experience really opened up my mind. Even though I did not have the language ability to have any smooth conversation with the students from China, through our calligraphy exchange experience, we were able to connect. It was a groundbreaking experience for me, and I felt the power of art. Even after I went back to Japan, I wrote and exchanged letters with the students I met in China, and it's a wonderful memory. That was the moment where I thought, this is what I want to do with my life, to breach and bridge cultures with the power of art–with calligraphy.
ET: Calligraphy is a lifelong practice. Do you practice calligraphy everyday and where are you on your journey as a calligrapher right now?
AY: Where am I? I feel like I'm not there [at the destination] at all. I'm still in search of what I want to create, and I also have many ideas for things I know I want to create. Words that I want to write, exhibitions I want to have, or collaborations I want to start. There's so many ideas, but we can't do everything at once, right? We have to do things, one by one. I'm also a perfectionist, and never satisfied with my work. Every time I work on anything, even framed work, there's always something I want to do differently or a feeling that I can make it better. I'm always thinking about what I can do next or improve. Ideas are infinite and there's just not enough time or an environment to do everything at once. Artists will dream, and I always dream about things I want to make and have visions in my head of doing something that nobody has ever done before. Calligraphy is also a very humbling practice. There's much to practice when it comes to the basics of calligraphy, like the classic works from Chinese calligraphy. Rinsho is writing and observing classical models, and you always want to keep your basic Rinsho practice strong as a base to find your own line for your creative work. There’s still so much work to be done in calligraphy that I know I will be continuing this work until the day I die.
ET: Who or what are your biggest influences as a calligrapher?
AY: It would definitely be my master. Master Zuiho Sato. He’s no longer alive, but he taught me about life beyond calligraphy. And even now, when I look at his work, I feel like I'm not even close to his level, but I’m pleased to see his resemblance in my work. Because I know, in my heart I am his student and I want to be as close to how he writes while finding my own strokes. I also studied with another teacher in high school, Kobayashi Masazumi Sensei, who was the opposite of Master Zuiho Sato Sensei. He was a free spirited calligraphy teacher, who asked students to bring their favorite poem or lyric or word to class. In calligraphy, you’re trained to recognize what looks good and what doesn't. But with Kobayashi Masazumi Sensei, he would evaluate a student who had imbalanced chunky strokes, and exclaim, “Whoa, this really shows your personality!” or, “This bold stroke is exciting!” and bring positive energy into your work. He is the person who helped me realize that calligraphy can be a way to express yourself, not just a perfection of skills. Besides teachers, nature and music are the two major influences in my life as a child growing up in the countryside of Hokkaido. When I listen to music, I see strokes moving in the air like rhythm. When I am in a performance, there's a rhythm or motion to the character and I seek it out, and follow it with my body while holding the brush.
Photographer: Norman Posselt (Interactive Japanese Calligraphy & Sound Performance at Typo Berlin 2017)
ET: Your performances are very captivating. Do you remember your first calligraphy performance? How did it come about?
AY: It just kind of happened naturally when I was a college student in San Francisco. I had envisioned myself doing street performance in the U.S. when I decided to study abroad, and when I overheard a woman talking about her gallery space, expressing how she wanted to host a show, I volunteered myself. I brought along another friend of mine who was a photographer from Japan, and I had a DJ playing music for me. Being a college student I didn't have a nice expensive calligraphy brush, so I remember we bought a cleaning mop. Instead of washi paper made in Japan, I think I bought big thick cardstock paper and pieced them together into a rectangle. We all surrounded this canvas on the floor, and the DJ playing music wore white so I painted on her clothing, The photographer also dressed in white so I painted on him too. Then I painted on the big piece on the floor. That was my very first performance and I believe it must have been 2006.
Collaborative Live Calligraphy with Dance, Cello Improvisation and Sound - 珠在掌 - Treasure Within Your Palm with NowJapan
ET: When you’re performing on stage, what’s going through your mind? Calligraphy is traditionally a solitary practice, but your performances are intensely collaborative. Is there more going through your mind when you’re with that many people on stage?
AY: When I'm performing, I am thinking about the motion and the meaning of the character I'm going to write. If I am going to write the word ‘wind’, I’m imagining all the different types of wind in this world, right? Pleasant spring time wind to super shivering cold winter wind. Storm types and vigorous wind. What kind of wind do I want to write? I consider this in my head and then I follow the movement this image creates. When I'm looking at a white piece of paper on the ground, I can see a gray shadow emerging from the paper, and I take the brush, and I follow the shadow on the paper. It’s being one with the character and the present moment. I close my eyes, meditate, and I am paying close attention to the environment. I take in all the sounds I hear, the energy surrounding me and then just align everything into my body. Then I think naturally, just go for it on the paper.
Conceptual Live Calligraphy Performance for Twelve 十二の記憶: Ode to Piano Classics
ET: There’s a thrill to observing someone completely in their element, and watching your performances is pretty thrilling. Your performances feel like a rare opportunity to witness the actual process of writing even for those of us who know what the finished product looks like.
AY: I'm very happy that you mentioned how you enjoy seeing the process because that is why I wanted to do performance to begin with. When I first came to the U.S. I felt like there was not much Japanese culture known here in this country. There were a few Japanese restaurants that had calligraphy signs on their walls, but almost no other opportunities to see calligraphy in our daily life. And people had no idea about Japanese calligraphy and the deeper history behind it. When I worked on calligraphy alone in my studio, I felt like there was so much happening, like when you see live music at a show. When you go see a concert, there’s an energy that unites everybody in the venue. It can make people dance or sing, and you’re sweating and feeling free, and that feeling is transmitted through the performance and music being shared. I decided to perform calligraphy because I wanted to share and transmit what it feels like to write calligraphy in my studio–the sensations, the energy and the rhythm I am able to feel while I am writing. When you only see a finished work on the wall in a gallery or a museum, you don't know how the strokes were placed, the emotion behind each stroke, the speed, how fast or slowly it was written, how big the brush was, or how the calligrapher’s body moved with the strokes. It just means a lot to me, to be in the same space with people and share my energy with them, and then see together what is created on the paper. I think there's so much power in that moment that we share.
Photographer: Kageaki Smith (Performance for Canada Goose SS19 Nomad Capsule Collection Campaign)
ET: The power in those strokes seems rooted in your decisiveness and your commitment to the present moment. Can you share what it feels like to be decisive and confident when you write?
AY: Any part of you that is undecided or unsure when you’re writing calligraphy will show up on paper. Even a slight hesitation appears on the paper. That's why you envision and rehearse the movement over and over and over until it becomes natural, like a dance. With other illustrations or in painting, you can sometimes go back to fix details, but in calligraphy you only get one shot. If you mess up, you're just gonna start over. The practice of perfecting your calligraphy is a practice of perfecting yourself. You have to be ready. And you have to know where you are going from the beginning to the end and understand that you only have that moment to finish.
Photographer: Akko Terasawa (Conceptual Calligraphy Performance at Ice Hills hotel in Tobetsu)
ET: I think we sometimes forget how powerful our own handwriting can be. We sign documents to legitimize them. We want autographs from our heroes. The act of writing your signature is like imprinting yourself onto paper. When we only type our feelings and thoughts, I think we can start to forget how essential writing is to connect with ourselves and to others. When you teach calligraphy, do you feel like you’re helping people connect to a part of themselves?
AY: Yes, absolutely. I think writing allows you to face your internal self. Calligraphy is a reflection of yourself, and you can see yourself written on the paper. So sometimes people get frustrated, or surprised or feel sad about how their work came out and they’ll say, I was so terrible today. And I always tell my students don't be discouraged because you still learned something about yourself. Maybe it’s a side of yourself that you don’t think about. Are you a patient person? Are you a goal oriented person? Are you more easygoing and relaxed? The key is to embrace these parts of yourself through writing. Because we all have the ability to write something, and nobody's rushing you to write fast unless you have a deadline. So just take a moment, to write something precious with your own hand, and observe how that feels. In ancient times, humans sharpened animal bones or stones to carve surfaces before inventions like paper and ink. We carved symbols on cave walls to express ourselves and leave a mark about our existence. And we can still be as primitive as that, right? Because we are all humans, whatever the era we live in, and we’re all on a journey of self discovery.
ET: In your lessons, you teach students to write a Japanese word even when they may not speak Japanese. I was wondering, as a person whose stronger language is English, would you consider teaching calligraphy in English? Does it help to know the language you’re writing in to write it well or is there a deeper reason to write in Japanese?
AY: Good question. I do write in the English alphabet with my calligraphy brushes, too. I've done writing of logos for film and television in English. There’s beauty when writing English letters with calligraphy. When I think about how I want to introduce Japanese calligraphy to a first-time audience, I want to stay true to how it was taught to me and the practice I grew up with. In the same way that you’re not able to compose an amazing song without knowing Bach or Chopin, you need to know the basics and have the fundamental knowledge to appreciate different expressions of calligraphy. With Western calligraphy as well, there's a lot of amazing Western calligraphers out there who mainly use pens or markers with more formed tips. While calligraphy exists around the world, there are major differences between Western calligraphy, Japanese calligraphy and Chinese calligraphy, not just in the tools that are used but the way the language dictates those words to be written. What is really lovely about Japanese is how much meaning can be expressed in a single character because kanji is a pictograph. There’s so much story and scenery that can be expressed in one single character and it’s very meaningful for me to introduce and share that background of the Japanese writing system.
ET: Do you practice calligraphy everyday? What does your daily practice look like?
AY: Yes, I try to work on calligraphy every day. I find mornings to be a good time to work on calligraphy. I wake up, prepare breakfast for everyone, take my son to preschool and I come back and change into clothing to work on calligraphy. Usually I wear all black, because that's the easiest, you know, when you deal with black sumi ink. I wash my hands first, and then organize my table and put all the tools into the right place. And then I work on my calligraphy for an hour or two.
Photographer: Farid Kati, James Porter, Corey Fuller, Aoi Yamaguchi (SHOINN - Japanese Calligraphy X E-Textile x Sound Art Collaborative Performance Project at Les Moulins de Paillard Contemporary Arts Centre)
ET: Your calligraphy practice is so expressive and you’re always pushing yourself to try new things. What would you like to do with your calligraphy in the future?
AY: I have so many things I want to do. One of my dream projects would be to do a collaborative performance at a beautiful venue like the Guggenheim Museum, where I’d be performing on the floor and people could see me from above. To perform in a tall venue where there’s an atrium-like space where I could be observed from above with music and visual effects would be exciting. I also have been trying to bridge the distance between calligraphy and music, and worked on a series of collaborations with a textile artist in Berlin and a musician in Tokyo, where I wear a costume embedded with sensors. These sensors are reading my physical movements, so when I kneel down or breathe, my chest emotions are taken by sensors and sent to the musician’s synthesizer controls. My breathing also controls the lights surrounding the art, and this is just one project where I try to make calligraphy more visible and expressed in a different form. I want to pursue more collaborations like this to really tell a story.
We're incredibly honored to have Aoi Yamaguchi at Tortoise to teach two workshops, April 29th and April 30th, focusing on the seasonal transition of the moment. Her workshop series, SEASONS, is intended for adult beginners interested in learning more about calligraphy and its basic practice.