Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China

Metropolitan Museum of Art | December 11, 2013-April 6, 2014

For many Chinese artists, their country’s long, illustrious, and in some ways hide-bound visual traditions are an elephant in the studio when it comes to making contemporary art. The weight of history is always present on some level, and it is just a question of whether and how it is acknowledged. Kudos therefore go to the Met for mounting this timely, important exhibition to examine the intersection of traditional Chinese art with contemporary art-making practices. Kudos also to the curator, Maxwell Hearn, for featuring some of the finest art made in China in the last three decades, from rock stars of the 1980s New Wave movement such as Gu Wenda, Xu Bing, Cai Guo Qiang, and Ai Wei Wei, to lesser known skilled artists. The exhibition’s placement amidst the Met’s permanent collection underscores the inevitable connections between the past and the present. Ultimately however this exhibition’s potential to illuminate contemporary Chinese art to the Western viewer is more constrained than aided by its location.

Xu Bing, “Book from the Sky,” Ca. 1987 – 91. Photo courtesy the artist.

The show’s premise is to investigate not only the use but also the aesthetic of traditional ink and brush in contemporary art. While some artists still use the age-old tools, choosing to invigorate the classical arts from within, others channel the spirit of tradition into expression through a range of media. Mr. Hearn has therefore thoughtfully organized the exhibit into four fluidly displayed themes: The Written Word, New Landscapes, Abstraction, and Beyond the Brush.

Gu Wenda’s large-scale calligraphic works get right to the heart of the matter in the first gallery. The historically rooted, interconnected nature of calligraphy, poetry, and ink drawing is central to China’s visual tradition. Although classically trained in calligraphy and painting, Gu rebelled against rigid tradition. He began employing traditional ink and brush techniques to create his own gestural ideographs, or fake characters, incorporating both sexual and landscape imagery to make large-scale scrolls that are far more than calligraphy. His “Mythos of Lost Dynasties Series” (1985) is a moody set of paintings that question the semantic, aesthetic, and cultural role of the Chinese written language. With their ambitious interrogation of the nature of the language and its relation to visual traditions, this work sets the stage for much of what’s to come, not to mention much of the on-going dialogue around brush and ink that continues today.

Another fine fraudster of the Chinese language whose works are on display is Xu Bing, one of this generation’s most important artists. In the monumental “Book From the Sky” (1987 – 91), Xu painstakingly carved more than 4,000 wood blocks of invented and completely illegible (but utterly convincing) “fake” characters to create multiple sets of traditional, hand-sewn books. With the books arranged in orderly piles on the floor and long strips of printed paper gracefully billowing from the ceiling, the installation is reminiscent of a Buddhist temple with its piles of sutras everywhere. Bearing in mind the culture’s rich history of written language, and in response to the government mandated adoption of simplified characters and the unrelenting stream of propaganda that constantly calls into question the relationship between truth and language, Xu created the semblance of a new language to articulate what words cannot express. The result is a clever, disorienting and profound investigation into the nature of language itself. Subsequently, the artist extended this inquiry to the alphabet, inventing a new way of organizing letters called “square word calligraphy,” in which letters are stacked to resemble Chinese characters. “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (1999), a transliteration of the T. S. Eliot poem, works slowly on the viewer. Although it looks like a Ming–era scroll, the glyphs are not actual characters; they are in fact parts of a witty puzzle that refers to tradition but challenges the viewer’s fundamental assumptions regarding the order of things.

Most of the works categorized as “New Landscape” lay aside the brush but still refer to traditional formats, and most inevitably deal with the utter transformation of the urban landscape that has accompanied unfettered economic development. Ai Wei Wei’s “Provisional Landscapes” (2002 – 08) objectively record the demolition of centuries-old traditional hu tong and their replacement with charmless, concrete high-rises. Destruction of physical buildings becomes a metaphor for cataclysmic social change in Chinese society. However, the stand-out work in this section is Yang Yong Liang’s delightfully graphic but subtle “View of the Tide” (2008), inspired by Zhao Fu’s Song Dynasty classic “Ten Thousand Li of the Yangzi River.” Close examination reveals the imagined landscape of this scroll to be a large-scale manipulated photograph; buildings, electrical towers, and natural elements such as waves have been morphed into a beautiful, evocative commentary on the disappearance of “landscape” in the traditional sense.

The works in the “Abstraction” section are skillfully executed, but on the whole are the least compelling, perhaps in part because the black-and-white ink aesthetic draws overly facile associations with various stages of 20th-century Western abstraction and feels unintentionally dated. The exception would be Li Hua Sheng’s “0669” (2005), a deeply conceptual and insanely disciplined work comprised of extremely long, hand-inked lines that fuse into a subtlely pulsating, vibrant mesh, one that incidentally defrauds many Western artworks claiming to be inspired by Eastern meditative practices. 

The accomplished video artists dominate the theme “Beyond the Brush.” The selection includes “Liu Lan”(2003), Yang Fu Dong’s early sentimental film, as well as Qui An Xong’s black-and-white sketched animations, clearly inspired by Willliam Kentridge, but wholly reflecting the character of contemporary urban China with their chaotic, urban soundtracks. A range of sculptural objects, including metallic scholar rocks, and some amended/appropriated furniture are also included, but fail to capture the imagination to the same degree.

Yang Yongliang, “View of Tide,” 2008. Lent by M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. Photo courtesy the artist.

Does embedding the new work amidst the Met’s rich collection enhance one’s understanding of these art objects? To a certain extent, yes. Yang Jie Chang’s “Crying Landscape” (2002), a series of large-scale, brightly colored ink drawings hangs in the first cavernous hall, adjacent to the well-known 14th-century fresco, “Baishaijyaguru,” or the “Buddha of Medicine.” Yang’s landscapes depict contemporary scenes of environmental destruction in the ancient “green and blue” style, and the palette somewhat echoes the once-rich tones of the fresco, forging an aesthetic connection across the centuries.

The placement of Ai Wei Wei’s “Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo”(1994), an actual ceramic jar painted with the ubiquitous logo, near other Han-era funeral objects is logical and clearly underscores the audacity of “intervening” upon an ancient relic. But this work is so heavy-handed that the object’s attack on the influence of global consumerism would be hard to miss, regardless of its context. Ditto for the delicious installation in the Met’s Scholar Garden of Zhang Jia Jun’s “Scholar Rock (The Mirage Garden)” (2008), made of hot pink silicon rubber and standing seven feet tall. We would have gotten the message of that work in any context.

Sadly, cramming these works into poorly-lit pre-existing display cabinets mostly denigrates them in unintended ways. Ren Jian’s 100-foot-long scroll “Primeval Chaos” (1987 – 88) depicts imaginary genesis-like scenes and abstract landscapes. Yet only approximately one-fifth of the finely inked scroll is unfurled. While the viewer sees a flock of sheep-like figures merging toward a single point on the horizon with a sort of astral goddess figure rising above, lending the impression of an implicit narrative, the concealed portions are actually much more abstract renderings of cloud formations, landscapes, and mythical animals. In this partial context, the meaning and impact of the work is easily misconstrued. Although it’s not uncommon for museums to display only small segments of historical scrolls, both for archival and spatial reasons, it is odd and a terrible shame to only display a portion of a contemporary work. Would the Met display half of that gorgeous Al Held mural currently hanging in the contemporary galleries? Of course not.

The same could be said of the installation of Xu Bing’s “Book From the Sky” (1987 –91). The work seems somewhat sadly cramped and circumscribed; the loss of scale diminishes the piece’s intuitive connection with the scale of Chinese literary history. Given the work’s historical and conceptual importance, it deserves to be shown in a context that both fully enhances its nature and recognizes its importance to a global history of art.

While this exhibition provides an excellent overview of a wide category of contemporary art, mostly it highlights the need for the art world to examine its biases and ask hard questions. Why is a recent work of Willlam Kentridge designated a large, fully-customized room while a seminal work made at a pivotal time in the history of Chinese art by Xu Bing—an artist who has emerged as among the most rigorous and influential of his generation—is relegated to a dark and cramped corner of the museum? Long gone are the days when we can think of Chinese contemporary art as exotica. It’s time for a major cultural institution to “man up” and give these works their full due.

Contributor

Corina Larkin

CORINA LARKIN is a painter and writer who lives in New York City. She is also an editor of the Rail's ArtSeen section.

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