Is ink painting in crisis? What does the future hold for ink? Is contemporary ink today still dominantly owned by the Chinese or is it now an international medium? What kind of threats are shaping the development of this esoteric medium?

These are just some of the questions that were brought up at a recent panel discussion led by the Asia Society. On May 23 2011, dozens gathered in the cosy agnès b. CINEMA at Hong Kong Arts Centre for a series of eight minute lectures and an evening panel discussion with curator Dr. Britta Erickson, University of California director of Chinese studies, Dr. Kuiyi Shen, and contemporary ink artist Zheng Chongbin.

The strong turnout and lively audience question time was testament to the growing curiosity about and desire to understand ink painting. The audience responded with relief and recognition to the confessions of the inimitably quirky moderator Tony Godfrey, Director of Research at Sotheby’s Institute Asia. “I have never had any problem understanding Japanese art and Indian art but Chinese ink remains a blank hole in my aesthetic…. I am continuing to work on it though,” Godfrey said in good humour.

Is the millennia-long history of Chinese ink painting relevant to the future of the medium? This and other discussion questions were raised, even if they were not fully resolved, and we set out below a summary of viewpoints from panel and audience members.

Press release for the panel discussion

Not just Chinese ink in crisis

Dr. Khuiyi Shen pointed out all media, such as oil, are struggling with issues similar to those ink is facing. Today’s artists prefer to use multiple media rather than master a single medium. There is less need to grapple with challenging media because they are primarily interested in conceptual art; the medium of a work and its subject are mere tools for expressing an artist’s ideas.

Dr. Britta Erickson noted that the perception of crisis and change is due to a focus on seeking out and studying the new. As well as pointing out many artists who have taken Chinese ink art in new directions in this century, she posited the idea that the search for “progress” in art spills over from the focus on “progress” throughout Chinese economics and society. She suggested more emphasis was needed on what has remained the same: the traditional techniques combining paper, brushstroke and use of water-based pigment.

Despite the many ink artists who have taken ink in new directions, including

  • Xu Beihong (brought realist techniques from oil to ink),
  • Song Wenzhi (used new subjects such as industrial plants instead of mountains and water),
  • Gu Wenda (introduced pseudo characters),
  • Qin Feng (using acrylic on linen he captured the idea of ink rather than using ink),
  • Zheng Chongbin (mixed material, ink acrylic and fixer create depth),
  • Li Huayi (combined traditional brushwork – including own strokes – with Western modernism),
  • Song Dong (imitated the ink medium using water on stone), and
  • Qiu Anxiong (used ink that looks like acrylic),

there remains even in these experimental works tight links with the history of Chinese ink.

Has Chinese ink stagnated?

Tony Godfrey wondered whether Chinese ink painting had become a “ghetto” – a no-go area like English watercolour landscape painting which since Turner had become corrupted by Sunday painters and stagnation. Today, the urban environment has displaced the traditional landscape in real life as well as in art. Could this be the reason that traditional landscape subjects are no longer being painted?

Dr. Erikson explained that Chinese ink landscape paintings have never been about depicting landscapes. That is why the same shan shui (mountain water) subject can continue to be interesting over many centuries. The subject is less important than the abstract shapes and the expressiveness of the lines. Artist Zheng Chongbin added that Chinese ink painting is meant to be felt rather than looked at, and that it can only be truly appreciated on this level. It is much more than just form, subject or idea.

The future of Contemporary Ink Painting, agnès b CINEMA, Hong Kong Arts Centre, 23 May 2011. Image by Art Radar Asia.

Collection and display of ink art

Should a museum in Singapore, for example, devote a room to contemporary ink art or should it be mingled with the rest of the collection? Zheng Chongbin preferred that it be mixed with the remaining collection while Dr. Shen said that in the short term it should have its own room, but not in the long term. This area has been ignored by collectors and curators for too long and devoted attention given soon would help redress this imbalance.

Dr. Erickson thought it should have its own room and be mixed with the rest of the collection, but she noted that in practical terms it might be difficult to find a curator who could combine a deep knowledge of the unique aesthetic, symbolism, ancient techniques and history of Chinese painting with expertise in modern and contemporary art.

Loss of technique in ink

How does the development of ink painting in Hong Kong and the mainland compare? Zheng Chongbin pointed out that on the mainland ink went straight from traditional to contemporary experimental forms, but in Hong Kong there was a period of modernism in ink led by Lui Shou-kwan.

For centuries scholars and other writers used brush and ink to write characters. Today only artists use these tools, while everyone else uses pens or computers. The panel were less concerned by the threat of the loss of ancient skills and panel members discussed how the art education system was no longer promoting mastery of ink techniques.

Chinese ink to become an international medium?

An audience member explained that since the Song Dynasty ink painting had always been esoteric and accessible only to the literati. Qi Baishi was the first artist since the Song to bring ink painting back into vogue. Now Zheng Chongbin is the one breaking out, and is bringing Chinese ink into the international arena to be enjoyed by many cultures.

Another audience member said that she was pleased that the word Chinese was not included in the title of the panel discussion. She is curious about the future because this is a time in which Chinese ink is on the cusp between traditional and modernist ink, which allows non-Chinese artists a window for the first time to take up the medium and make it international.


Related Topics: ink art, Chinese artists, Hong Kong artists, lectures and talks

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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