Art & Archives, Behind the Scenes, Exhibitions and Installations, Getty Research Institute

Writing Verse for “Brush & Shutter”

Greeting you at the entrance to Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China is a duilian, two lines of Chinese poetry that situate the exhibition. The author of that duilian here describes the process of its creation, which was spurred by a conversation with former research assistant Yilin (Linlin) Wang. The Mandarin version of the post is followed by an English translation by Julia Grimes of the Getty Research Institute.

Diulian at the entrance to the GRI exhibition Brush & Shutter





展览的名字虽然是叫“毛笔与快门”,但真正的绘画作品却很少,“毛笔”的意义是在美学上的,当时的一些风景照片模仿水墨山水画的意象,另一些则是用毛笔为照片染色。因此,琳琳对上面第一幅对联颇不以为然,将画作和照片并置对比与展览的内容不符。 第二幅的上联,她也不满意。这句话颇能表现艺术家十分个人化的创作状态,却和这个展览没多大关系。





Yilin (Linlin) Wang recommended that I write this duilian (poetic couplet). She had worked on the Brush & Shutter exhibition for a long time, and thoroughly understood its content and organization; after she left [the United States], she remained close to Jeff [Cody] and Fran [Terpak], the curators of the exhibition. When Fran and the exhibition designers planned to hang a duilian at the entrance of the gallery, Linlin recommended me to them.

While I was composing a draft, having spent some time brainstorming with Linlin, I chose every word with
care. The first two duilian I wrote were:


[At the] brush tip, a thousand layers of flowing rhythm,
In the glass, ten thousand types of folk customs.


Like drunkenness, like infatuation, a thousand accumulated sorrows on [only] a few sheets of paper;
At once truth, at once illusion, a hundred years of changes [pass and are captured] in an instant.

Although the name of the exhibition is “Brush and Shutter,” there are few actual painted works featured. “Brush” is here used in an aesthetic sense, as several landscape photographs from that time imitate the imagery of Chinese ink landscape painting, while in other works brushes have been used to color photographs. Due to this, Linlin somewhat disapproved of the first duilian written above, because the way it juxtaposed and contrasted paintings and photographs did not match the exhibition’s content. She was also dissatisfied with the second initial couplet line, since this sentence seemed to show a creative condition particular only to artists, and the exhibition did not bear much relation to that.

I again drafted two or three lines and emailed them to Linlin. Several days later, she called me (she is in Beijing), and we spent four or five hours in discussion over the phone. We finally decided on the version that is now seen at the exhibition’s entrance:


Like dreams, like poems, a thousand miles of scenery on [only] a few sheets of paper;
At once truth, at once illusion, a hundred years of changes [pass and are captured] in an instant.

The Chinese people have a long history. The significance that they attach to history, their close examination of it, and their way of recalling it with deep feeling is an important tradition in Chinese culture. During the past 100 years, they have experienced never-before-encountered historical changes, the dramatic extent of which is rare in this world. Returning to the photographs in the exhibition, the emotions associated with this history arose of their own accord, lingering [in my heart]. The second line seemingly wrote itself.

Later I wrote several others, but I still couldn’t give it up. “When composing a line of poetry about the vicissitudes of life, the line somehow polishes itself” [due to the poet’s own suffering in life, the words flow forth, already in their final form]; ancient people early on came to this conclusion.

The second line is thus the temporal dimension’s sigh of regret, while the first line contains thoughts about the concept of space. In [the 19th century], photographs were still a rare means to record contemporary people, customs and scenery. Featured in the exhibition are a few photographs that incorporate Chinese landscape painting’s methods of adopting a perspective. Coming from southern and northern China, these scenes of every description, when placed together, expand beyond the span of the gallery space.

In the duilian, the first line’s “a thousand miles of scenery” is big, “a few sheets of paper” is small; the second line’s “a hundred years of changes” is big, “an instant” is small.  Although the content of the two lines is equal, the mood progresses: when I make the contrast between large and small, when I add the emotions, [suddenly] summoned, that people experience on viewing this history, there my open and clear perspective on the basis of history at large is present. On this point Linlin and I reached a consensus, and we finally completed the draft.

Translator’s note: 风情, in the first duilian above, is difficult to translate, incorporating meanings such as “wind directions,” “winsome expressions of love,” and “local customs.”

Entrance and view into the interior of the GRI exhibition Brush & Shutter at the Getty Center

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