Landmark contemporary ink exhibition at New York’s MET – picture feast

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly opened contemporary ink exhibition is the culmination of growing international interest in contemporary ink art.

“Ink Art: Past and Present in Contemporary China” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (11 December 2013 – 6 April 2014) explores the practice of the most prominent contemporary Chinese artists, influenced by the tradition of ink painting, calligraphy and literati aesthetics. The show closes a year that has seen a growing interest in ink art and a renewed focus on its contemporary practices.

Zhang Huan, 'Family Tree', 2001, nine chromogenic prints, each 53.3 × 41.9 cm. The Walther Collection. Photo: © Yale University Art Gallery. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Zhang Huan, ‘Family Tree’, 2001, nine chromogenic prints, sheet: each 53.3 × 41.9 cm. Lent by The Walther Collection. Photo: © Yale University Art Gallery. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York opened a landmark exhibition of Chinese contemporary ink art on 11 December 2013. Titled “Ink Art: Past and Present In Contemporary China”, the loan exhibition features seventy works by 35 prominent Chinese contemporary artists. The works in a variety of media – including painting, calligraphy, photography, woodblock prints, sculpture, installation and video – transform classical sources through new modes of creative expression.

Ai Weiwei, 'The Wave', 2005, glazed ceramic, 15.7 × 42.9 × 37.6 cm. Private collection, New York. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ai Weiwei, ‘The Wave’, 2005, glazed ceramic, 15.7 × 42.9 × 37.6 cm. Lent by a private collection, New York. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Chairman of the MET’s Department of Asian Art, said in the press release, there is a unique curatorial vision in the presentation of the exhibition in the permanent galleries for Chinese painting and calligraphy. The featured artworks, he says,

… may best be understood as part of the continuum of China’s traditional culture. While these works may also be appreciated from the perspective of global art, the curatorial argument is that, by examining them through the lens of Chinese historical artistic paradigms, layers of meaning and cultural significance that might otherwise go unnoticed are revealed. Ultimately, both points of view contribute to a more enriched understanding of these creations.

Xu Bing, 'Book from the Sky', ca. 1987–9, installation of hand-printed books and ceiling and wall scrolls printed from wood letterpress type, ink on paper, each book, open, 46 × 51 cm, three ceiling scrolls, each 96.5 × approx. 3500 cm, each wall scroll 280 × 100 cm. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Xu Bing, ‘Book from the Sky’, ca. 1987–9, installation of hand-printed books and ceiling and wall scrolls printed from wood letterpress type, ink on paper, each book, open, 46 × 51 cm, three ceiling scrolls, each 96.5 × approx. 3500 cm, each wall scroll 280 × 100 cm. Lent by the artist. Image courtesy the artist.

The exhibition is thematically divided into four parts:

  • The Written Word. Calligraphy, China’s highest form of artistic expression as well as its most fundamental means of communication, conveys personal and public meaning. Contemporary artists subvert, transform, reinterpret its connotations through contemporary explorations.
  • New Landscapes. The imagery in landscape, or shan shui, painting traditionally conveys values and moral standards in culture and society. In contemporary practice, shan shui functions as a means to explore today’s modernisation of China and the changing “mind landscape” of individuals in the face of such transformations.
  • Abstraction. A brush has a semantic or descriptive role and is a record of the artist’s hand. By exploiting the abstract and symbolic qualities of calligraphy and painting, contemporary artists adopt Western notions of nonfigurative art to augment and expand their expressive goals.
  • Beyond the Brush. These works do not strictly enter in any of the other thematic categories nor derive directly from traditional forms of ink art. Nevertheless, the artists still exhibit an affinity to the traditions of calligraphy and ink painting, as they are inspired by other literati traditions and patronage.
Liu Wei, 'Untitled No. 6 "Flower"',2003, accordion album of twenty-four leaves with silk brocade cover; pencil, acrylic, ink and watercolour on paper, each leaf: 24.5 × 16.5 cm. Lent by a private collection, New York. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Liu Wei, ‘Untitled No. 6 “Flower”‘,2003, accordion album of twenty-four leaves with silk brocade cover; pencil, acrylic, ink and watercolour on paper, each leaf (image): 24.5 × 16.5 cm. Lent by a private collection, New York. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Written Word

Book from the Sky (ca. 1987-1991) by Xu Bing (b. 1955) expresses the artist’s belief that writing is “the essence of culture.” The set of four books contains 4000 invented characters that cannot be deciphered, commenting on Chinese identity and its relationship to the written word. The artist makes suggestions about our need to communicate and the dangers of distorting meanings.

Zhang Huan’s (b. 1965) Family Tree (2001) photographs are a documentation of his performance in New York, in which the artist’s face was gradually covered in black ink characters. Most of the words derived from the ancient art of physiognomy, by which the personality traits and future of an individual are read through facial features. The completely obscured face symbolises an identity erased by a thick layer of culturally conditioned references.

Song Dong, 'Printing on Water' (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet, 1996), 1996, 36 chromogenic prints, each 60.5 × 39.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky. Photographs by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Song Dong, ‘Printing on Water’ (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet, 1996), 1996, 36 chromogenic prints, each 60.5 × 39.9 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Promised Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky. Photographs by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Song Dong’s (b. 1966) performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet, in 1996 titled Printing on Water is a meditation on the evanescence of inscribed language. The artist sat in the river for over an hour, repeatedly and forcefully stamping the water with a large wood seal carved with the Chinese character shui 水 (water), but leaving no trace.

Other works include a series of works by Gu Wenda (b. 1955) from the mid-1980s, in which conceptual interrogations of the written word are often tied to social critique. Qiu Zhijie’s (b. 1969) Writing the “Orchid Pavilion Preface” One Thousand Times (1990-1995), focusing on the act of writing rather than the meaning of words, asserts the practice of calligraphy as “a form of ‘written meditation’.”

Other artists in this section are:

Yang Yongliang, 'View of Tide', 2008, inkjet print, 45 × 1000 cm. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Yang Yongliang, ‘View of Tide’, 2008, inkjet print, 45 × 1000 cm. Lent by M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. Image courtesy the artist.

New Landscapes

Yang Yongliang’s (b. 1980) View of Tide (2008) composite digital photograph transforms the monumental handscroll of landscape painting into a contemporary man-made panorama, where classical mountains are substituted by high-rises and trees become power-line towers. The works are subtle yet critical responses to the urbanisation of China.

Provisional Landscapes (2002-2008) are Ai Weiwei’s (b. 1957) critique on the devastation of the urban environment during the constructions for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Old buildings and ruins are juxtaposed with modern industrial and urban spaces, presenting a testament of the wholesale transformation of the urban landscape in China.

Yang Fudong, 'Liu Lan', 2003, single-channel video, 35 mm black-and-white film transferred to DVD, with sound, 14 min. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Yang Fudong, ‘Liu Lan’, 2003, single-channel video, 35 mm black-and-white film transferred to DVD, with sound, 14m:00s. Lent by Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Image courtesy the artist.

Other works in this part of the exhibition include Yang Fudong’s (b. 1971) Liu Lan (2003) video – nostalgically depicting a dreamy encounter between a city man and a countryside girl – as a metaphor for the distance between tradition and the pursuit of an uncertain future. Qiu Anxiong’s (b. 1972) animated videos of his ink paintings are an exploration of his interest in the relationship between history, memory, tradition and contemporary society.

Qiu Anxiong, 'New Classic of Mountains and Seas I', 2006, (video still) three-channel animated video with sound; 30 min. Lent by the artist. Image courtesy the artist.

Qiu Anxiong, ‘New Classic of Mountains and Seas I’, 2006, (video still) three-channel animated video with sound; 30 min. Lent by the artist. Image courtesy the artist.

Other artists in this section are:

Wang Dongling, 'Being Open and Empty', 2005, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 221.6 × 144.8 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the artist, 2013. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Wang Dongling, ‘Being Open and Empty’, 2005, hanging scroll, ink on paper, 221.6 × 144.8 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the artist, 2013. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Abstraction

Wang Dongling (b. 1945) creates monumental calligraphic abstractions that convey the artist’s physical engagement with the work. The unrecognisable characters communicate the expressive power of the brush and ink. In his Being Open and Empty (2005) it is the play of forceful strokes in black ink against and within the white space that form the ground for Daoist cohesion between opposing forces.

Another leading figure in experimental ink since the 1990s is Zhang Yu (b. 1959). His works from the Divine Light series (1998-2000) present abstract geometric fields, with clusters, dots and crackles suggestive of rock or organic formations.

Yang Jiechang’s work was also exhibited in this section.

Zhan Wang, 'Artificial Rock #10', 2001, stainless steel, 75 × 45 × 19 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2006. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Zhan Wang, ‘Artificial Rock #10’, 2001, stainless steel, 75 × 45 × 19 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of Asian Art Gifts, 2006. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Beyond the Brush

Artificial Rock #1 (2001) by Zhan Wang (b. 1962) is a modern, almost futuristic interpretation of literati aesthetics, moulded in mirror-polished stainless steel. The “scholar’s rock” has been revered by literati since ancient times, much for the same reasons as shan shui and calligraphy.

Ai Weiwei’s works such as Map of China (2006) and Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo (1995) literally incorporate tradition with modernity, through the use of ancient materials (a Han Dynasty jar and Qing Dynasty salvaged wood) to create critically imbued contemporary artworks. In his Wave sculptures, the artist weaves Chinese traditional ceramic craft with inspiration from classical Chinese and Japanese paintings.

Ai Weiwei, 'Map of China', 2006, ironwood (Tieli mu) from dismantled Qing dynasty (1644–1911) temples, 40 x 92.7 x 80 cm. Stockamp Tsai Collection. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Map of China’, 2006, ironwood (Tieli mu) from dismantled Qing dynasty (1644–1911) temples, 40 x 92.7 x 80 cm. Lent by Stockamp Tsai Collection. Image courtesy the artist.

Other works in this final section of the show include “pyro-artist” Cai Guoqiang’s (b. 1957) Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10 (1990-1994, which was meant to subvert the Great Wall’s “original practice and ideological function.”

Other artists in this section are:

Cai Guoqiang, 'Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10', 1990, accordion album of twenty-four leaves, ink and gunpowder burn marks on paper, each leaf 33.7 × 12 cm. Private collection, New York. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Cai Guoqiang, ‘Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10’, 1990, accordion album of twenty-four leaves, ink and gunpowder burn marks on paper, each leaf 33.7 × 12 cm. Lent by a private collection, New York. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

2013: One year in ink

As long ago as May 2013, The Art Newspaper published an article, titled “Chinese ink makes a big splash”, discussing the rise of contemporary ink art. This year has seen the appointment of a specialist ink curator at M+ in Hong Kong and private auctions of ink art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s Hong Kong. Galleries have also renewed their interest in ink art. Galerie Du Monde showed works by Qin Chong and Qin Feng and will hold Li Hao’s exhibition in January 2014. Kwai Fung Hin gallery held an exhibition of contemporary shan shui in June. Pearl Lam Galleries presented a show on contemporary abstract ink art in July-September. Alisan Fine Arts in Hong Kong is considered a pioneer in the promotion of ink art. In Beijing, the exhibition “A New Ink Spirit” opened in September 2013 at Beijing MOCA and Ink Studio, an experimental art space dedicated to supporting contemporary ink art, opened in June 2013.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related topics: Chinese artists, classicism in contemporary art, contemporary ink art, installation, painting, photography, calligraphy, sculpture, ceramics, video art, animation, performance art, abstract art, museum exhibitions, events in New York, picture feasts

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