Chen Li is a contemporary artist, calligrapher, and graphic designer based in Italy.
Chen Li started as a calligrapher in 1994 for more than 20 years until 2015. Calligraphy for Chen Li is learning formal scripts and the history of writing from all over the world. She is interested especially in Western formal scripts and Chinese writing. Her main interest becomes a sign, as a microcosm, the starting point for any artistic work. The sign itself becomes the trademark of Chen Li and a recurrent element of her works. After about 10 years as a calligrapher and as a graphic designer, Chen Li reached her personal style: western calligraphy using the approach of oriental calligraphy: formal beauty that becomes one with the meaning, with particular regard to a contemporary vision. The backbone of Chen Li’s work is the technical expertise that guides her gestures when creating space; this harmonizes with her desire to communicate.
This interview appeared first on Planet China Vol 11, Celebrating Women who push boundaries.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a Chinese artist born in Zhejiang province in 1972, but I am based in the north of Italy in Milano and Torino. I work as a graphic designer and calligrapher since 1996.
She is the author of the title sequence of “Call me by your name” coming-of-age romantic drama film directed by Luca Guadagnino
When did you first get into the art of calligraphy? Has it always been a passion of yours? What drew you to calligraphy?
When I was a little girl, I used to draw every day. I loved Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper after I visited it in Milano when I was 6. I do love reading books and writing. My mother was a teacher and she taught me the importance of writing Chinese writings. The first time I got into the art of western calligraphy was in 1994, I visited an exhibition of Jean Larcher and Bernard Arin and their calligraphic works for the bicentennial of the French Revolution 1789-1989. I realized that handwriting is much more beautiful than computer graphics. So I started to learn western calligraphy from french masters.
Her gifted juxtaposition of words, letters, and images see the former transformed almost beyond recognition into pure signs, in an evocative extension of gesture
What is your best memory related to your art as a calligrapher? What do you enjoy the most?
I remember my first four years of calligraphy I used to practice 5 hours a day after university lessons. I was happy. Because the most important part of calligraphy is the joy you can have just only practice it. I think it a way of meditation, a time we give to ourselves.
In 2009 on the occasion of Triennale Bovisa, Milano, Chen Li created her project Women, an art installation consists of 20 plaster elements depicting a woman’s shoes with the heel. The choice was made to symbolize a path where the keywords assume necessary importance. The work was specially designed for Archivio Storico Olivetti
Chen Li Studio is her personal studio and a place for art, where Chen Li sometimes invites some artists – friends – for collaborations or to show their works. Here she designs for museums and contemporary art places or brands, thus engendering dialogue and at once creating synergies that grow naturally in the field of artistic expression. Working with artists and personalities from fashion, industry, advertising, Chen Li found new expressive ways lost in folds of “mainstream” territories.
Chinese handwriting is very disciplined and strict. Do you think that this could be a starting point for creativity? Learn the rules, and get new personal rules. How has your style developed over the years?
I think that Chinese handwriting is beautiful as a starting point, but you need to know the language, you have to know what you write and the culture behind it. The most difficult part of Chinese handwriting is the brush and this requires years of practice and years of life. But the most interesting part is the process, isn’t it?
What is your relationship with materials and tools? Do you have any favorite tools? What type of brushes and pens do you prefer to work with? And what about paper and inks?
For 25 years I used many materials and tools: I love all of them. The calligrapher is like a musician, you can use a tool to obtain a certain sign like an instrument can do certain sounds. You need many tools, but the most important is that each tool can tell a lot. So we don’t need too many tools to tell our story. We can tell a new story with an old tool too. Paper and inks are so many. If you can spend a lot of money you can use everything, or maybe you can use only Chinese paper and a Chinese brush and Chinese ink. It depends on what you like.
How do you see the role of the art of calligraphy in the digital age? Why does calligraphy still matter?
I think that in the digital age we still need calligraphy because it’s beautiful, we are human, and we need it. Maybe more now than in the past.
Writing by hand is a deeply personal act and means different things to different people. Calligraphy can add a real sparkle and enhance pieces of life
Calligraphy fills empty spaces. When the signs intersect it creates bonds. Handwriting is now mainly associated in people’s lives, with significant events such as births, weddings, etc … What is calligraphy’s role in the contemporary event world? How is calligraphy art helping humans to bond during events and ceremonies?
Calligraphy is used in many ceremonies because we know that human rites have their importance in our society, even now that everything seems to be liquid. Those who choose calligraphy make a statement: they choose more commitment for the most important moments of their lives.
Due to the pandemic, people are cut short of physical human connection. Our main form of communication is done by email and text. Art has healing potential. Does calligraphy help us think about words in a better way? Do you think calligraphy can have a therapeutic aspect?
Definitely, calligraphy and handwriting can put us in contact at this moment that we can’t be so close. We have to improve all the human aspects of our life that can donate love and kindness to others.
What advice would you give those wanting to get into calligraphy? Why would you recommend trying calligraphy? What are the most important things that one can learn by practicing calligraphy?
The most important is to free our minds and love ourselves. Find a quiet place and try to be honest forever, because calligraphy can tell about us more than we want.
There’s something so intimate and special about receiving a handwritten note nowadays: the language of the sign unites past and future
Photos courtesy of Chen Li