Around the turn of the 20th century, ancient Chinese poetry grabbed fresh attention in the West and provided inspiration for some notable works.
Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, for example, found in a set of German translations of Li Po the impetus to create "Das Lied von der Erde" ("The Song of the Earth"). And four years after the 1911 posthumous premiere of that profound music, American poet Ezra Pound published "Cathay," his influential interpretations of Li Po and other Chinese poets.
A century later, Baltimore-based artist Zhao Jing offers her response to Pound's "Cathay" in a powerful series of photographic diptychs under the same title, now on exhibit at C. Grimaldis Gallery.
In a way, Zhao has gone through something similar to Mahler's experience.
Responding to a translation, Mahler composed a kind of second translation — something that captured his own time and style, but also the sensibility of the original. Likewise, Zhao has, in effect, re-translated Pound's translations and has made her own statement about them and the original poems.
Pound was not fluent in Chinese; he relied on a dictionary and a questionable method of interpreting the formation of Chinese characters. But his versions seemed to ring true, at least in the West.
Being from China, Zhao, needless to say, has the linguistic advantage. She describes her photographs as "a multi-layered visual interpretation of the relationship between Pound and the Chinese poets … [that] reveals how the interpretation intersects with my experience of them today."
Gallery owner Costas Grimaldis spotted some of these works last year at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where they were part of Zhao's master's thesis.
"As soon as I saw them, I knew they belonged here," Grimaldis said. "Her photographs reveal what she gets out of the poems, what she feels."
If you knew nothing of that history and resonance, if you did not read Pound's "Cathay" poems or the original Chinese texts while experiencing Zhao's work, it would still be easy to appreciate this show. It would also be easy, if terribly cliched, to describe each diptych as a poem in itself.
The juxtaposition of each pair of images is alive with nuance and implication. The color shots, mounted on the left side, are mostly in muted, moody shades; the black-and-white photos on the right side invariably offer a wealth of tonal subtlety (these were made using Kodak film 10 years past its sell-by date, Grimaldis said).
"The Jewel Stair's Grievance" is an especially riveting example. On the left, there is an image of water and a snowy bank; on the right, a half-moon floats on a sky as fuzzily impressionistic as the snow in the opposite photo.
When you consult the poem — "The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew. It is so late the dew soaks my gauze stockings. And I let down the crystal curtain and watch the moon through the clear autumn" — the effect is all the more rewarding.
Other highlights among the 10 works here (most were shot in Maryland): "Song of the Bowman of Shu," with a seemingly sorrow-laden tree branch on one side, a superimposed urban scene full of ghostly details on the other; and "Leave-taking Near Shoku," where the sight of one bird flying apart from the flock above exquisitely misty water speaks volumes.
The whole exhibit might be summed up by a line from "Exile's Letter": "There is no end of things in the heart."
If you go
"Cathay" will be on exhibit through April 12 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080, or go to cgrimaldisgallery.com.