Wed, Dec 10, 2008 - Page 15 News List

[ART JOURNA] : Unravel the rebus

Mark Caltonhill’s visual couplets are a playful take on a traditional literary form

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER


“The primary thing that I want people to do is look at them and go ‘how pretty.’ It’s like you heard a song and went ‘that sounds nice,’ and then you start thinking about the lyrics afterwards. So the first thing I want is that they are attractive to the eyes.”

This was how Mark Caltonhill described his unique and arresting rebus-like poems, which update the traditional Chinese spring couplet, or chunlian (春聯), with the help of a digital camera.

“Basically they are two stanzas, seven lines in each,” he said. “Seven ideas, seven concepts, seven lines of poetry in each of the two stanzas with lots of correspondence.”

More than a year in the making, the 10 couplets — collectively called The Malarkey Phenomenon — are currently on display and sale at Citizen Cain, a restaurant on Dongfeng Street (東豐街), which will host a reception for the show this Sunday beginning at 1pm. Interspersed among the couplets will be Malarkey’s Amusement Park, a series of playful poems on photographs.

The exhibition also marks the soft launch of Caltonhill’s self-published book of writing, also called Malarkey’s Amusement Park, as well as a call for poetry and verse for a forthcoming compilation of writing by expats living in Taiwan that Caltonhill plans to publish in the summer of next year (submissions can be forwarded to

Caltonhill, who has lived in Taiwan on and off since 1992, working as a performer, translator and writer (his book Private Prayers and Public Parades was reviewed on Page 18 of the Nov. 9, 2003 edition of the Taipei Times), employed his considerable knowledge of Taiwanese culture, Chinese characters (he has a master’s degree in Chinese from the University of Edinburgh) and his travels throughout the country to create the couplets, which were printed on rice paper and professionally framed as silk scrolls.

HuHu (湖滬), based on a trip Caltonhill took to Penghu (澎湖), is fairly representative of the hanging scrolls in how the traditional couplet form is altered (digital images replace stylized characters) to investigate or meditate on a variety of themes.

In the couplet, Caltonhill juxtaposes images of Chinese characters either standing alone or in profusion — in one line characters have been spray-painted on a plastic container, in another they are on a menu written on a wall — with images of Penghu.

The second character in the Chinese word for Penghu, hu (湖), forms the first line on the right-hand scroll. The top line of the left-hand scroll is the Chinese character hu (滬), which means weir.

“It is a poem working on two levels,” Caltonhill said. “Going to Penghu and seeing all these things and the human relationship with his environment.”

The visual language that gives the couplets meaning is also what makes them difficult to unravel.

“To decipher the poems you need to know where [pictures of] the characters were taken,” he said.

The references are indeed idiosyncratic, and unless you’ve been to the restaurant or prison wall the images capture, it’s difficult to see any immediate deeper meaning — though Caltonhill pointed out that this was his intention. Written proficiency in Chinese and a deep knowledge of Taiwan’s history are helpful when deciphering the scrolls, so if your Chinese isn’t up to snuff be sure to bring along a friend who can point out the homophones.

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