The rebirth of Chinese ink painting

The rebirth of Chinese ink painting

The thousands-year-old tradition of Chinese ink painting undergoes a revival at the hands of experimental of Chinese artists
Zheng Chongbin
Zheng Chongbin's "White Ink on Black Ink/ Panels Nos. 1-4 is currently displayed at Ooi Botos' INKquiry exibition.

The future of Chinese ink painting will be the subject of two panel discussions next week -- and it turns out there’s much more to the ancient medium than the trees, mountains and idyllic scenes normally associated with it.

Monday evening, the Asia Society will present, “The Future of Contemporary Ink Painting,” with curators Tony Godfrey and Britta Erickson, art historian Shen Kuiyi and renowned ink artist Zheng Chongbin.

The presentation will be followed on Thursday by, “Is Ink Painting Dead? Is it Contemporary?” That presentation will be held at ART HK as part of Asia Art Archive’s Backroom Conversations series of talks, qnd will feature artists Wucius Wong, Huang Zhiyang and Qiu Zhijie in conversation with curators Pauline Yao and Kao Chien-hui and AAA chair Jane Debevoise.

“Ink painting is still very much alive -- and it’s being done by people we would recognize as experimental and contemporary artists,” says Debevoise. “But in the art fair, biennales and many other large exhibitions, one generally doesn’t see work based on or inspired by the thousands-year-old tradition of ink painting in China.”

Zheng ChongbinZheng Chongbin's "Broken Line," a work of ink, wash and acrylic on Xuan paper, is exhibited from 14 May to 4 June at Ooi Botos Gallery.

That lack of contemporary themes stems from a century-old problem at the heart of ink painting itself.

In the late 19th century, as Japan opened up to the world and China was flooded by Western art, reformist scholars such as Kang Youwei saw ink painting as a symbol of the rapidly crumbling old guard.

“It was seen as backward thinking, ossified and represented all the feudal issues and everything that was wrong about China,” says Debevoise.

With the end of the civil service examination in 1905 and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Western-style education was introduced to China, including art education -- but ink painting was left off the curriculum.

Its fortunes did not improve until Chiang Kai-shek’s Republican government consolidated power in the late 1920s and ink painting was re-introduced as a Chinese equivalent to Western traditions.

“It gained almost equal status with Western styles,” says University of California at San Diego art historian Shen Kuiyi.

The renaissance lasted until 1949, when China’s new Communist rulers found it hard to reconcile the monochromatic brushwork of ink painting with the colourful social realist style demanded by state propaganda.

Eventually, ink painting techniques were incorporated into propaganda art, but the medium was thrown into question yet again after China opened up after 1976.

“It was seen as having no future in comparison with post-modern styles and concepts,” says Shen. “Ink painters faced almost the same situation as the early 20th century. They were marginalized from the mainstream art world.”

Today, as contemporary art becomes increasingly globalized -- many would say homogenized -- ink painting might seem too old-fashioned and too Asian to be relevant.

“There’s a perception out there that ink painting is hard to comprehend to someone who hasn’t studied it, or that there are associations or connotations with traditional values and culture, which are seen to be at odd with the values of contemporary art practices,” says Osage Art & Ideas director Pauline Yao.

But ink painting has survived even in the work of even the most experimental of Chinese artists. Beijing-based artist Qiu Zhijie works mainly in video and photography, but pieces such as “Twenty-Four Seasons,” a series of photos from 2005 and 2006, make reference to the visual language of traditional ink painting.

Taiwanese artist Huang Zhiyang uses ink in decidedly unorthodox ways, as in abstract paintings that allude to microscopic patterns of bacteria.

Other artists, such as Hong Kong ink painter Wucius Wong, use ink to bridge East and West. San Francisco-based Zheng Chongbin, who will participate in Monday’s discussion and who also has a show with Ooi Botos Gallery until June 4th, turns the Chinese ink aesthetic on its head with bold, visceral abstract paintings.

“[Zheng’s work] is monochromatic but it can basically swallow you up and invite you into the painting,” says gallery co-owner Joanne Ooi. “You have a very physical response to it. I’ve never had that before to a painting -- and especially not for an ink painting.”

There’s a lesson to be drawn from such work. Far from obscure, ink is a potent tool that raises questions about the role of Chinese and East Asian traditions in contemporary art, especially when global events like the art fair are pushing it, however inadvertently, towards a more homogeneous aesthetic.

“People who insist on continuing to use ink require us to reconsider what contemporary art means,” says Debevoise. “So much that goes on now is globalized, it also asks us to reconsider where the center is, because the decision to use ink is to de-center the discourse around contemporary art.”

Zheng ChongbinZheng Chongbin's "Untitled." Gallery owner Joanne Ooi said that although his work is monochromatic, it engulfs the viewer and "invites them into the painting."Zheng Chongbin"Flash" by Zheng Chongbin.

The Future of Contemporary Ink Painting” will take place on Monday, May 23, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Hong Kong Art Centre. Free admission but RSVP required; email for more information.

Is Ink Painting Dead? Is it Contemporary?” takes place on Thursday, May 26, 3:30-5:30 p.m. at Room N206-208, Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre. Free admission.

“INKQuiry,” an exhibition of works by Zheng Chongbin, runs until June 4 at ArtEast Island, Unit 614, 6/F, Chai Wan Industrial City Phase 1, 60 Wing Tai Road, Chai Wan. Open noon-6 p.m. every day during ART HK and from Wednesday to Sunday afterward.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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