Contemporary ink: Chinese art’s next big splash? Gallerists react to Sotheby’s October 2013

Chinese ink is mooted as the next big thing in contemporary art, but what is really driving the demand?

Does Sotheby’s record-breaking sales of contemporary ink painting in Hong Kong in early October signify that Chinese contemporary ink is the most sought after form of Chinese art in the market? We asked several leading experts to give us the low-down.

Sotheby's Hong Kong Autumn 2013 Contemporary Literati Auction Scene. Image courtesy Sotheby's.

Sotheby’s Hong Kong Autumn 2013 Contemporary Literati Auction Scene. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s Contemporary Literati: Early Ink Masters auction (held 5 October 2013 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong) exceeded expectations, with a grand total (including Buyer’s Premium) of HKD25,403,750 (USD3.26 million), nearly quadrupled the pre-sale estimate (HKD6.4 million / USD825,000). The three top-selling lots were:

In Sotheby’s post-auction press release, Sotheby’s Vice Chairman Mee-Seen Loong states, “The buyers yesterday were especially enthusiastic about this sale’s focus on the early expatriate ink masters who inspire the current great ink artists.” She goes on to state that Sotheby’s is “an innovator in the field of contemporary Chinese ink paintings.”

Sotheby’s was not the only auction house in Hong Kong selling lots of ink works in October 2013, according to the Wall Street JournalPoly Auction and China Guardian also held auctions, with Poly Auction totaling HKD80.3 million (about USD10.4 million) in sales in the contemporary ink painting category. The article states that even in spite of the heavy promotion of ink painting by the auction houses, it still remains an emerging category, as oil painting remains one of the leading categories in contemporary art auction sales.

Georgina Adam for the Art Newspaper reports that the oldest form of Chinese art, ink on paper or silk, is becoming the hottest commodity on the market. With a major survey exhibition like the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” (10 December-6 April 2014) soon to take place and well-heeled collectors like Christie’s owner François Pinault being a big fan, she writes that the “market is sitting up and taking notice, and there is even talk of ink being ‘the new contemporary Chinese art’—and attracting a rush of collectors.”

So is ink really the next big thing? Art Radar interviewed leading experts of Chinese ink painting who are based in Hong Kong. Alice and Daphne King from Alisan Fine Arts and Fred Scholle from Galerie du Monde gave us their expert views.

Lui Shou Kwan, 'Zen Ink Art'. Image courtesy Alisan Fine Arts.

Lui Shou-kwan, ‘Zen Ink Art’. Image courtesy Alisan Fine Arts.

Alice and Daphne King of Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong

Alisan Fine Arts, established in 1981, specialises in Chinese contemporary art. It was the first gallery to organise a solo exhibition of Zao Wou-ki‘s works in Hong Kong in 1993, and has exhibited the work of well-known artists such as Chu Teh-chun and Walasse Ting. The gallery also manages the estate of Chao Chung-hsiang.

Defining contemporary ink is debatable; Qiu Zhijie, for example, rejects the ‘ink artist’ label. How would you define contemporary ink?

Previously in 2008, I was invited to curate an important ink art exhibition entitled “New Ink Art: Innovation and Beyond”. In the preface published for the show, I wrote: “The exhibition seeks to understand ‘ink’ in its broadest sense, seeing it not merely as a selected medium but rather a necessary reference central to Chinese culture. Modern ‘ink’ art has evolved to display its many other possibilities. This has a great bearing on how the traditional medium of ink is being internationally recognised, and can be further popularised to become a contemporary idiom.

In the twentieth century, Hong Kong was a centre for the development of new ink painting; it has been the forerunner, the first city in the region to emerge as a centre of new ink art. No one epitomises this more than Lui Shou-kwan, who played a critical role in modernising ink painting between the 1950s and 1970s. In the early 1950s, Lui Shou-kwan’s landscape work had already become abstract, thus earmarking a new phase in his career, as having read extensively on the art history of both the Chinese ancient painting and western modernism.

In the Mainland, it was only much later when such creative leaps of imagination took place. Toward the end of the 1970s, Wu Guanzhong’s two controversial essays unleashed much discussion, and led to such movements as the “New Wave”, “Calligraphyism” of the 1980s, followed by “Experimental Ink” art of the 1990s. Taken as a whole, all of these movements pointed to the many new directions in ink aesthetics.”

So in a nutshell I agree with Qiu that ink art is not confined to just the ink painting but can be works of art that are inspired by the ink tradition.

Ink is a medium with a long history in China. Why is there so much interest in contemporary ink in Asia right now? In the last two years, have you seen a change in interest and sales of contemporary ink?

Alisan Fine Arts has been promoting Chinese ink art for over thirty years now, so it is interesting and wonderful to see that there is a sudden interest in ink art. Back in 1987 we held a landmark exhibition, “A State of Transition, Contemporary Paintings from Shanghai” at the Hong Kong Arts Centre and more recently we have organised solo exhibitions in Chinese ink for mainland artists Yang Jiechang, Wang Tiande, and Wei Ligang as well as for Hong Kong artists Fang Zhaoling and Lui Shou-kwan.

In terms of sales, we have always had a steady stream of clients who focus on collecting ink art so there is not a major increase in sales.

Which artists sell well in the contemporary ink category?

Liu Kuo-sung, Wang Tiande, Wei Ligang, Gao Xinjian, Fang Zhaoling, Xu Bing.

What do you think of the results of the Sotheby’s ink sale last week?

More people were interested in Lui Shou-kwan’s “Zen Paintings” which are really good as Lui Shou-kwan is the pioneer of the New Ink movement in Hong Kong from the 1950s. We just had a solo show for him at the Fine Art Asia Fair. Fang Zhaoling’s works sold for a good price, so we were excited as we also held a solo show for her last year. Overall it was encouraging to see that the sales went well. I do not think the prices were unreasonable and think there will be further room for growth in this area.

Where do most of your collectors/buyers come from? From China, Asia, or the West? Are they young or old? Are there particular nationalities that are interested in ink?

Our collectors and buyers are international, from all age ranges. Both Asian and Westerners are interested in Chinese ink art.

Do Sotheby’s recent results back up the media hype around ink? Some experts, such as M+ Museum’s Pi Li, have said that marketing is partly behind the trend for contemporary ink. What do you think?

It could be that marketing has to do with the current trend in ink art, but I do not see anything wrong with that and believe that it is good for ink art as a whole. It has long been an area that has been under-appreciated.

Why is ink tipped to be the ‘next big thing’?  Who’s driving the trend, buyers or collectors?

I think buyers, collectors, galleries, dealers and auction houses are all driving the trend.

More than ten years ago I formed the Ink Society with a group of collectors who are passionate about Ink Art.  We have been slowly promoting this medium to the public and are hopeful that there will be an Ink Art Centre in Hong Kong.  Please search our website for more information regarding our activities and mission.

For new collectors coming into the field what advice would you give them about collecting contemporary ink? Which artists are the leading artists for this genre?  How do you recognise good examples of this genre?

For new collectors, I always tell them that they should collect what they like and not follow the trend so much. It is important to establish a trusting relationship with a good dealer. Read up about what they are interested in. There is definitely a lot of info in the media lately so they should not have a problem.

A few leading artists as mentioned before would be Chao Chung Hsiang, Lui Shou Kwan, Fang Zhaoling, Wang Tiande, Wei Ligang, Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Yang Jiechang etc….

Katherine Xiao Kejia, 'At Dusk', 2002, ink on xuan paper, 117 X 96 cm. Image courtesy Galerie du Monde.

Katherine Xiao Kejia, ‘At Dusk’, 2002, ink on xuan paper, 117 X 96 cm. Image courtesy Galerie du Monde.

Fred Scholle from Galerie du Monde, Hong Kong

Galerie du Monde, founded in 1974, features Modern and contemporary Chinese art, representing artists such as Qin Chong, Qin Wen, Shi Jinsong and Katherine Xiao Kejia.

Defining contemporary ink is debatable; Qiu Zhijie, for example, rejects the ‘ink artist’ label. How would you define contemporary ink?

Contemporary ink paintings are works that do not neglect the great cultural legacy of the past but invent a language that also addresses the cultural and social issues of China today. Works can range from what at first sight looks quite traditional to those that are extremely avant-garde. But all of them exemplify a powerful and fresh aesthetic inventiveness.

Ink is a medium with a long history in China. Why is there so much interest in contemporary ink in Asia right now? In the last two years, have you seen a change in interest and sales of contemporary ink?

After an explosion of interest mainly from western buyers in oil paintings with political themes in the early 1990s to 2004, the market took a sharp correction and prices fell heavily. Although ink paintings were a part of this market, they moved upwards much less drastically, and therefore were less susceptible to the drop in the oil painting market. Recently, as the market improves again and collectors have become more mature, there is a growing interest in ink because of its inherent quality and because of its relevance to Chinese culture and history and to society in China in general. In the past two years, we have seen a noticeable gain in the interest of ink paintings and feel this is only the beginning.

Which artists sell well in the contemporary ink category?

Liu Guosong, Lu Shoukun, Qin Feng, Wang Jiqian, Qin Chong, Qiu Zhijie, Li Huayi, Yang Jiechang and Liu Dan to name a few.

What do you think of the results of the Sotheby’s ink sale last week?

A small and quite varied selection, which was probably to test the market. The better works exceeded estimates quite substantially. I think we can see more sales of ink paintings and on a larger scale.

Where do most of your collectors/buyers come from? From China, Asia, or the West? Are they young or old? Are there particular nationalities that are interested in ink?

As Hong Kong is a very international metropolis, our collectors come from many parts of the world, but presently, I would say that our European and American collectors are showing a strong interest in contemporary ink paintings. Collectors from Asia are strong, mainly from Taiwan and Singapore. Collectors from China are gradually showing more interest in contemporary ink, although their main interest remains in traditional ink painting. Most of our collectors and buyers of contemporary ink art are younger to middle aged.

Do Sotheby’s recent results back up the media hype around ink? Some experts, such as M+ Museum’s Pi Li, have said that marketing is partly behind the trend for contemporary ink. What do you think?

Marketing always plays an important part in the promotion or demand of a product, whether it is fine art or anything else. The three major auction houses in the West and several houses in China are all involved in creating specific ink painting sales platforms as we have just seen by the recent Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong. This is a very significant development, and together with very ambitious ink exhibitions in western museums over the past few years, this has created a very strong new interest in the genre. I would not consider this as “media hype”, but as a genuine new interest in ink paintings that will continue to develop further by Chinese institutions and collectors significantly due to cultural heritage and national pride.

Why is ink tipped to be the ‘next big thing’?  Who’s driving the trend, buyers or collectors?

A realisation that ink painting represents the true cultural heritage of Chinese people. With the tremendous increase in wealth and the proliferation of new museums in China, the trend is being driven by both collectors and also speculators.

For new collectors coming into the field what advice would you give them about collecting contemporary ink?

Advice we would give to collectors of any genre of art: buy what appeals to you. Do your homework. Research an artist that you intend to collect. But the best that you can afford of an artist’s work. Don’t speculate. Deal with a reputable gallery that has extensive knowledge of ink art. The leading artists of this genre are already priced beyond the means of young new collectors.

Which artists are the leading artists for this genre?  How do you recognise good examples of this genre?

Research, research, research and deal with respected galleries for advice.

Susan Kendzulak

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Related Topics: Chinese artistsHong Kong artists, ink art, auctions, market watchlandscape art, the classical and contemporary, interview

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