More mind-tickling calligraphy via the marvelous Ministry of Type: this the work of Capetown letterer Andrew van der Merwe, whose medium is beach sand.
Van der Merwe spent several years developing tools to incise letterforms in sand without leaving the ragged ridges and dikes that are familiar to anyone who’s dragged a stick along the beach. Merwe’s instruments carve v-shaped trenches, causing an effect like that of classical Roman letters in stone. But Merwe’s characters aren’t Roman in origin—in the work pictured here, they’re based on figures found in West African writing systems with ancient pedigrees (which I shall be revisiting) dating back to the Phoenician. Van der Merwe’s characters, however, are asemic—they don’t refer to speech sounds, but only “play with form.” The piece illustrated above and below is sixteen meters square.
Recommended: Van der Merwe’s portfolio, where you can see him turn this practice to commercial use in another lovely piece that plays with sans serif letters, light, and the tides.
While van der Merwe’s calligraphy is unique, it plays with atavistic and ephemeral form, something akin to doodling, mark-making behavior barely worthy of notice. And yet I want to hypothesize that the origins of writing itself are bound up in the play of sticks and sand. Cuneiform, after all, was made by dragging specially-formed styluses through clay. Surely people made designs in sand and mud for thousands of years before durable writing emerged, playing with form and meaning.
In the 1990s, a development program called “Reflect” sought to bring some of the benefits of literacy to people in rural communities in Asia and Africa. Aid workers would bring farmers and traders, husbands and wive together in dusty town centers, where they would draw simple charts in the sand to outline their work schedules, their supplies, and their crops. Populating their charts with abstract, metonymic symbols for corn and rice, for wood-carrying and cooking, they could make the patterns of their lives visible—and then they could revise and play with alternatives. Although we think of writing as private and durable, the texts of the Reflect program were communal and ephemeral—and perhaps this is something like writing’s original condition.