At the group show called Zero Art Japan, at hpgrp Gallery, I found a couple interesting pieces by a Japanese artist named Motoko Hoshi.
She uses four kanji characters per piece, yet each kanji character can have multiple meanings. For instance the character to the upper left corner can mean: peace, Japan, the sun or compromise. The character next to it can mean: mind, heart, spirit or core. The character to the lower left can mean: start, develop or departure. The character to the lower right can mean: go, advance, pass or passage. (I do not know how to read Japanese so I apologize if I got this slightly wrong.)
Here is, actually, an interesting quote from the Japan Times about Motoko's work:
As a former advertising copywriter, Hoshi recalls being regularly bedeviled by the rhetorical complexity of written Japanese and struggling to overcome its occasional untranslatability. This occupational frustration eventually paved the way for her years-long quest as an artist of finding a universally comprehensible way to express Japanese kanji. Hence her invention of a quasi-poem typological art called motokotoba. Typically, she selects four kanji characters per piece, and prints them in a striking way so that onlookers can enjoy guessing their meanings, which brings them above linguistic limitations.
(From: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2012/11/02/culture/outdoor-art-exhibition-comes-with-instruction-from-the-artists-on-show/#.Ut0WvxAo7IU )
So each piece can have different meanings based on how you choose to interpret each kanji character. Yet, Motoko also invites the viewer to not only choose individual meanings for individual characters, but also to then combine the meanings in various manners to create different narratives, or thoughts or concepts. Indeed, the straight lines radiating out from each central box indicate that the character within the box can be combined in any direction with another character. She invites you to read the characters horizontally, vertically, diagonally or just randomly.
So the multiple lines represent a type of map that a person can use to go from one kanji character to the next to derive ever changing meanings from the piece. So the number of possible stories from one piece would involve all the combinations of the different meanings of each character and all the possible combinations of the four characters.
Someone I know looked at the piece above and said, "I understand what it can mean! If you have some type of meaningful goal, this will require an immense amount of psychological preparation and only then should a person make the physical effort to acquire the resources to accomplish the goal." So that would be one of numerous possible interpretations.
What's interesting to me is whether a person will continually derive meanings that reinforce what the person already believes, or would it be possible to come up with an entirely new concept or new insight by studying such a work? This could be a central question that the artist is asking: when we read a text, how much of our reading is an active type of construction, how much is self-reinforcement of what we already believe and how much is truly transformational?
What I also think is interesting is that these works seem to be based around the number four. The same person who gave me the interpretation above told me that she likes the number four because it indicates stability. An animal moves on four legs, a table stands on four legs; also if you look at a pyramid from above, you see that the structures around each word, in Motoko's piece, are pyramidal - a pyramid has four sides. Here's the "Great Pyramid" from above:
In the ancient world people often looked for geographical features that seemed salient or special and they accorded special spiritual or magical meaning to these places. Mountains, for instance, were special places because they extended far up into the sky. To the ancient Egyptians, the pyramid was a type of specially constructed symbolic mountain that was meant to facilitate the journey of the soul of the Pharoah to the next world - it was a structure meant to literally elevate his soul.
So using the number four and the pyramidal shape in relation to words adds extra meanings to each piece. There is an underlying stability to each piece that is not belied by the ever changing possibilities for interpretation and each word is, basically, elevated beyond it's normal usage by the underlying structure of the piece and a special combination or relationship with other words.
I know that in Native American art, as well (especially Sioux art), the number 4 was important because there are four cardinal directions (N,S,E,W). If I recall correctly, the Sioux structured visual pieces around this concept and often only used four colors in their visual images.
Here's the other piece Motoko had at hpgrp Gallery:
Here she uses just one kanji character but there is an extra kind of hidden meaning in the piece. The central character means 'go' or 'exit.' Yet, it is also surrounded by a white square. When you combine the central kanji character with the white square, you, apparently, get a sentence - there is, in fact, a kanji character that is a square. (Again, I do not speak Japanese so I am writing what I understood when this was explained to me.) So at first glance, if you look at this piece quickly, you will just see the central character. Yet, if you look more closely and catch the 'hidden' kanji character, you now perceive a sentence which seems to be: There is a way out! or: It is possible to leave!
Here is the link to the entire show:
There are numerous works of art in this show by various Japanese artists and the building this gallery is in also contains several other really fine galleries worth visiting.
Here is a link about Motoko at hpgrp:
Here's a photo of Motoko and me at the opening. The photo is a little dark, but I think you can see the two pieces she contributed to the show.