Body and Spirit in Writing
in the East and the West
Towards the end of May 2010 Fondazione Cini hosted a conference on "Body and Spirit in Writing in the East and the West" (here you can download the brochure, mostly in Italian).

Unfortunately I could only manage to attend the first day, and here is a brief recap of what I saw.

First of all, I arrived early enough to get a good look at the fantastically beautiful site of the Foundation itself, as documented in a dedicated gallery. The pictures I took during the conference itself are here, instead.

May 26th - Morning

After a brief introduction by Pasquale Gagliardi, Gian Carlo Calza and Giuliano Boccali the first speech was by Denis Gril, who talked about "Science of letters and graphic Symbolism". 'Ilm al-hurûf' -that is "the science of letters" is part of the esoteric tradition of Islam, (for comparison - consider 'ilm al-nujûm' - astrology). While I can't claim I understood all of the speech (I am really ignorant regarding Islam) I think it's quite similar to Gematria and basically gives different ways (mostly numerologic, but - as explained by Professor Gril, there is also plenty of graphic symbolism in it) to look for "hidden meaning" in words, and unexpected links between names, religious and spiritual elements, numbers and reality.

The second speech was planned to be a "joint" presentation by Meftah Abdalbaki (possibly the greatest living expert on Ibn Arabi) and Paolo Urizzi (of "Perennia Verba" fame), titled "The science of letters in the work of Ibn’Arabi".
Abdalbaki was unfortunately ill and had to cancel his trip. His speech was read by Prof. Urizzi instead, and sort of "combined" with his own. Again, my ignorance of Middle East culture and history made this at the same time fascinating (so much to know) and overwhelming (what the hell is that supposed to mean???).
The "joint" discussion was - again - heavily biased towards numerical interpretation of texts (and words in every context, including proper names). According to the Sufist tradition and philosophy words, considered as sounds, numbers (each of the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet has a numerical value, and every word is a number in itself), symbols, ideas have an enormous importance in understanding reality and the will of God.

Personally I am always a bit wary of anything which involves numerology. This, coupled with my massive ignorance of most Islamic things, means that I surely can't give much of an account regarding the first part of the conference... even if I must admit that now that I know that René Guénon wrote at length about "The Science of Letters" makes me a bit more inclined towards having a second look at this.

The Incense Carpet

After the questions/and answers session with Urizzi we moved to another room of the Fondazione to assist to the "lightning up" of one of the parallel installations.
The Incense Carpet is a work by Oh Yin-hwan, sponsored by ArtHub Asia.

The installation, which I suppose qualifies as performance art, is a large "carpet" made with a green incense - made in Japan, or so I overheard. On this various words are written, using a thicker "line" of the same substance. The author set it on fire and it started burning slowly and without flames (only the thick lines making up the words will burn, actually) and will keep doing so for the duration of the conference.

May 26th - Afternoon

The afternoon was the real reason for me to come here, on this specific day. While I believe all the conference was very interesting and stimulating I could only afford a day and this was the one dedicated to Japanese calligraphy. The afternoon session was moderated by Riccardo Fracasso

John Carpenter talked of "Materiality and Rhythmic Forms of Japanese Calligraphy" - with special emphasis on Chirashi-gaki or the so called "scattered writing". The speech offers a brief excursus on calligraphy in various media and for different uses and styles. A sort of brief glimpse at how much can be expressed (directly or indirectly) by any ShoDo work (including how much you can discover by analyzing the brushstrokes with modern techniques and tools). All with the help of gorgeous images of calligraphic masterworks.

Finally Gian Carlo Calza presented "Painting / Writing / Meditation: three or one?" - a different and in a sense complementary speech - just as Prof. Carpenter gave us plenty of examples of how luxuriant calligraphic art may be, Prof. Calza focused on the strong association of calligraphy and Zen meditation, presenting just three (but striking and poignant) examples of how this type of works can blend writing, pictures and meditation/religious themes. And all with the terseness and simplicity of Zen.

The day was completed by a calligraphy demonstration by Genzan Higuchi, a ShoDo master from Kyoto. I tried to get some pictures of him performing, but the area around him was crowded so I didn't manage to get very good pictures of him working. Which is sort expected, considering most large calligraphies are traditionally done directly on the floor, with the calligrapher kneeling or crouching.