The Design Observer Group

Posted 02.21.05

Jessica Helfand

Our Bodies, Our Fonts

Family Tree ©2000 Zhang Huan

Body markings — piercings, tattoos and so forth — have recently evolved into a kind of marginalized form of graphic expression, yet one that sheds an unusual light on some of the more mainstream ways in which design often reveals itself. It used to be that T-shirts and bumper stickers were the primary vehicles of choice for public displays of private opinion. Yet while the market for these printed artifacts still remains economically solvent (and commercially viable) the idea of writing on the body seems so much — so much what, exactly? More honest? More immediate? Less impersonal? Less mass-marketed?

More universal?

Or just weirder?

Cosmetic intervention is generally considered a kind of deeply personal conceit. And yet, in spite of the surge in elective surgeries, the mass appeal of certain Reality TV shows and a wealth of other visual oddity reinforcing our corporeal fascination, when did it first become a surface for typographic experimentation? Today, the body has become a new kind of exposed canvas for displaying messages, feelings, histories, timelines, advertisements, and more. Why the body? Why just make a poster, after all, when you can scratch type onto your torso and then make a poster? Why, for that matter, make a poster at all? Why not just make art?

I realize I may be into dangerous territory here, but bear with me. It often seems that art involving typography edges its way, pica by pica, into the realm of graphic design. And yet, when something involving hand-drawn language is involved, we rarely, if ever evaluate such work by the same criteria that we reserve for, say, a book or a poster or CD cover. Would any of us ever dream of critiquing the letterspacing on this Lou Reed album, for instance? And while it is unlikely that the contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Huan looked at Stefan Sagmeister in general — or at Lou Reed in particular — there's an unmistakable similarity in method between these two pieces of work. What's different is the motive.

What's different is that one is graphic design. And the other is art.

Writing On The Body

Writing on the body is a topic of enormous interest among certain scholars, particularly feminist theorists who have ascribed deeper meanings to the impulse of self-marking, raising questions of gender and identity and social equality. And yet ironically, it seems that most of the graphic experimentation is done at the hands (and on the bodies) of men — not women. Consider, for example, Zhang Huan, who was born in China during the peak of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and became active in performance art (new to China at the time) in the early 90s as one of the founders of the Beijing East Village movement. Today he is one of China's leading contemporary artists, often using his body in potent, memorable performances that physically explore China's complex history whtin the context of a universally poetic lyricism. (His piece "To Raise the Water Level in a Fishpond" adorned NYC subways, buses, and the cover of the catalog during the ground-breaking exhibition "Inside Out," jointly organized by the Asia Society and SFMOMA in 1998.) In Family Tree, 2000, recently acquired by the Yale Art Gallery, he created a serial self-portrait during a performance in which he had 3 calligraphers inscribe his family and cultural history on his face until it turned black.

Zhang Huan's facial calligraphy looks at chronological history as a form of written expression, a comment on cultural saturation and yes — an implied gesture of physical extremism. (It is worth noting that Stefan Sagmeister's well-known poster for AIGA Detroit was an effort to try and visualize the pain that goes into making design, so perhaps there is more in common here than one might think.) Presented as a grid of self-portraits, Family Tree is both potent and poetic, at once a work of performance and a testament to — let's face it — unimaginable patience.

But I wonder: would Zhang's personal geneology have been even the least bit memorable had it been typeset on paper, etched into stone, even emblazoned on a wall? And what if Lou Reed's face were to have been covered in Bembo? How is it that these images work their way into our popular consciousness, or more importantly, into the human psyche? What's with all the handwriting on the body, and on the face, — and where, incidentally, is it leading us?