“She has invaded all of our lives” – Tong Yang-tze, the artist who makes calligraphy cool | Art

The most striking thing about Tong Yang-tze, sitting in her modest Taipei studio residence, is her self-confidence and the feeling that she always had it. Now 70 years old and considered one of Taiwan’s most prominent calligraphers and artists, Tong smiles and jokes over cups of green tea and local sweets, believing her fame and cultural significance. “Of course I’m fine! She laughed at one point, remembering an offer early in her career from her old college to teach. “I said no, I don’t want a teaching job. At that time, everyone needed a job, but I wanted to be an artist. No regrets.”

Last week Tong’s calligraphy with a touch of modern art welcomed visitors to Hong Kong’s highly anticipated M + Museum, an ambitious decade-long project to create what has been dubbed Asia’s Tate Modern. The 33-gallery space, in a harbor-side building designed by “starchitects” Herzog & de Meuron in collaboration with TFP Farrells and Arup, opened last week.

Tong’s work – broad, rough strokes of ink brush chaotically sweeping across and around space – is ubiquitous in Taiwan. It is signage in stations and airports; it is the branding of theaters, bookstores and a Chanel anniversary campaign; he appears in collaborations with jazz musicians (“the only music that goes with calligraphy”) and fashion designers. It is the stamp of your passport when you arrive in Taipei.

Tong moved to Taiwan in 1952 with his family, leaving a comfortable life in Shanghai. They settled in Taipei, where she says they were poor and had no friends. His father gave him and his four siblings the task of learning calligraphy – practicing 100 large print and 200 small print every day, throughout their school years. “I fell in love with it,” she says.

After a fine arts degree from National Taiwan Normal University, postgraduate studies at the University of Massachusetts, and a “very easy” stint as a graphic designer in New York City, Tong built a career by merging the old traditional practice of calligraphy with modern art, deeply illustrating significant ancient texts. She is notoriously shy of the media and does not recall ever having done an interview in English before. She doesn’t like strangers at home – journalists for example, she says apologetically – or posing for pictures. Credit for this temporary exception is apparently due to his close and peer friend, the internationally renowned founding director of the Cloud Gate Dance Theater, Lin Hwai-min. Sitting around her glass, crochet-top table, Lin entices, praises, and teases her old friend from 1970s New York.

‘I like a challenge’… Tong’s installation in the M + Museum of Modern Art in Hong Kong. Photography: M + / Tong Yang-Tze

When Tong talks about his private studio in college and spending time with wealthy parents on Madison Avenue, Lin laughs at him as a princess. When she casually notes that she entered Taiwan’s most prestigious business school but chose art instead, he berates the “stupid girl.” But he doesn’t think so: later, when asked about their parallel rise in the Taiwanese artistic elite, he becomes lyrical.

“It has really taken over all of our lives over the past few decades,” he says. “Or we should say she cultivated it.” Calligraphy was once everything, and now you look and you see the new design. But it brought calligraphy into society. It’s really unbelievable. He looks at her and laughs.

Tong almost rejected the M + commission when she saw the plans for the space: no walls, all these galleries. Boring. How to appreciate art? But, she said, leaning forward and smiling mischievously, “I like a challenge. Her first thought was to use a contemporary poem for the contemporary city, but instead she did the opposite, choosing passages from the I Ching, a seminal 3,000-year-old Chinese text.

One pillar houses four distinct pieces, each an interpretable message for an individual, another a four-sided enveloping image, forcing viewers to circle the pillar to integrate it – ensuring that no matter where anyone is in that open space and without walls, he will have a different experience of his work.

When creating for herself, Tong says she prefers to work at more manageable sizes, but her larger pieces have filled the showrooms. Often working to order, her work “adapts to the space,” she says in a neutral tone. But there is a caveat. “Every art show will be different,” she says. “Art cannot be repeated.”

Lin shows me a video on his phone. It’s Tong creating a work that hangs nearby in the National Concert Hall – she holds a paintbrush almost about her waist, sliding it around the sheets of paper stuck to the floor. “It’s physical labor, using my whole body,” she says. But, when asked what her main feeling was while working, Tong replied, “Pleasure”.

Tong with her longtime friend and founding director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater, Lin Hwai-mi.
“She has invaded all of our lives”… Tong with his longtime friend, founding director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater Lin Hwai-mi. Photograph: Helen Davidson / The Guardian

Tong is not outwardly political, claiming that she “never touches it”, and avoids questions of the upheaval in Hong Kong that has sent so many artists to flee to Taiwan. Tong’s work will be on display at the M + Gallery at a time of extraordinary political repression in Hong Kong, with overwhelming censorship, cultural blacklists and an exodus of artists. In September, the National Security Police raided the Tiananmen Museum, confiscating its historical exhibits and paraphernalia. In October 2020, the history museum was closed for renovation, but the uncertain climate prompted independent efforts to digitize the entire exhibit, fearing it would be politically sanitized once reopened.

M + has already felt the heat. Earlier this year, pro-Beijing lawmakers told the museum about its intention to include Ai Weiwei’s art in its exhibition, saying the exhibition of some of the Chinese dissident artist’s work could spread the ” hatred against China ”and violate the National Security Law. When it opened last week, the highly anticipated exhibition included a few nods to the political upheavals of the past two years, including artwork featuring police riot shields.

Tong’s approach allows for experimentation and a respectful rebellion against the traditional which she says is driven in part by her hope of seeing young people move away from the digital world towards calligraphy. Her work, she says, can be read as meaningful text, or simply appreciated for its appearance. Both are of equal importance: while she consults teachers to interpret and choose her sentences, if they don’t look good on paper, she won’t use them.

Lin says this makes her work accessible to people who cannot read Chinese or who haven’t studied the ancient texts from which she draws her characters. Tong’s work has been exhibited primarily in Taiwan, but has been sought after by collectors around the world. “The meaning for all of us goes beyond the characters she presented,” says Lin. “Most of us appreciate the special design, the musicality, the grading of the different shades of ink. You can take it as an abstraction.

His friends and colleagues note, with mild exasperation, Tong’s penchant for being dissatisfied with and rejecting his own work. This habit will fuel part of his next job, sitting teasingly in the next corner. “I am an artist,” she says. “I love my time and I just want the freedom. I lived by it. I was – I am – lucky. The only thing is that I need a challenge.