“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Ink Art #1

Installation of “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China”; courtesy ARTFIXdaily and The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Among the arbiters of artistic quality, few are as thorough, merciless, and true as time. Sure, it’s committed some slights, but over the long haul—and we’re talking hundreds of years—time has proven fairly impeccable in sorting out the great from the godawful. What history will make of the contemporary scene is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain: none of us will live to see it. Should, however, Google prove successful in discovering a cure for death—no, really, the folks at the inestimable search engine are hard at work—some of us will take a lively interest in seeing how twenty-first-century art pans out. What will be gleaned from its jumble of grandiose theories, incessant politicizing, fashionable strategies, absurd auction prices, rampaging globalism, and general overabundance? Such thoughts came to mind while visiting “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” the Met’s first foray into contemporary Chinese art.

Granted, a casual afternoon spent trawling this-or-that art neighborhood will prompt similar puzzlements. But the currency of Chinese art, as both indicator of national identity and as an international phenomenon, is uppermost in the curatorial mindset of “Ink Art.” The subtitle makes that plain, as does the decision to install the exhibition in the permanent galleries of the Met’s Asian wing. Interspersing Crying Landscape (2002), an array of banners by Yang Jiechang, and Qiu Zhijie’s 20 Letters to Qiu Jawa (2009), a set of scrolls dedicated to the “suicidology of the Nanjing Yangzi River Bridge,” among towering examples of early Buddhist art isn’t a casual gesture. Continuity is the abiding leitmotif. Bimo, or brush and ink, is to Chinese art as oil paint is to the West. Tradition is a bolster; that’s all to the good. But how well is it being maintained?

Fig. 66b_Yang Jiechang_Crying Landscape

Yang Jiechang, Crying Landscape: Three Gorges Dam (2002), one from a set of five triptychs ink and oclor on paper, each triptych: 9 ft. 10-1/8″ x 16 ft. 4-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Politics is an undercurrent of “Ink Art,” as is China’s current status as art world powerhouse. Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 loosened official strictures imposed on the arts and Soviet-style Socialist Realism lost its monopoly over aesthetic production. Art schools began exposing students to previously forbidden styles of art. Maxwell K. Hearn, the Met’s Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Department of Asian Art, writes that “movements such as Surrealism and Dada, long superseded in the West, [gained] new immediacy in China.” Given Mao’s repressive regime, how could artists experiencing newfound liberty resist the allures of art that had as its basis a blatant disregard for the status quo? A reawakened pull of native traditions was subsequently augmented and, in some cases, bedeviled by an increasing awareness of contemporary trends, particularly Conceptualism. The results have been curious, sometimes compelling, and often contradictory. A certain level of confusion is palpable throughout “Ink Art.” Take it from art-star Cai Guo-Qiang: “I always feel as though I am swinging like a pendulum between Chinese and Western culture.”

That China now generates art-stars points to myriad factors, not least the country’s rise as an economic power and its continued loosening of cultural constraints. “Loose” is, of course, a relative term. Ask Ai Weiwei what he thinks of his freedom and you’re likely to receive a pointed, sardonic response: China’s most famous artist has been a constant target of government suppression. Ai is included in “Ink Art,” but he’s not of it. A pair of ceramic pieces, some expert riffs on the readymade, and a tired jibe at Coca-Cola—these have little to do with either brush or ink and, as such, are marquee-value distractions. Curatorial liberties are taken elsewhere, and niggle at the exhibition’s primary conceit—unless, that is, you believe the lineage of Photoshop can be traced directly to the glories of bimo or that an ink-jet printer is cousin to Wang Xizhi, the fourth-century master calligrapher. Still, obligatory sops to our digital age don’t derail “Ink Art.” On the whole, the exhibition toes the proverbial line it set out for itself.

Fig. 32_Xu Bing_Song of Wandering AengusXu Bing, The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Years (1999), pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper, (left) 63-3/16″ x 51-1/2″, (right) 63-1/2″ x 51-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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“Ink Art” is divided into four sections, each dedicated to a specific motif—“New Landscapes,” “Abstraction,” “Beyond the Brush,” and “The Written Word.” It is the last of these that leaves the strongest impression. Given the primacy of calligraphy in Chinese culture— mastery of which, as Hearn notes, was a marker of a person’s “erudition and ideals”—it is appropriate that “The Written Word” centers “Ink Art,” albeit in forms that aren’t always recognizable. This is literally the case with Xu Bing, who appropriates the stylizations of calligraphy but alters and sometimes negates its meanings. In The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats (1999), Bing employs his own invention, “square word calligraphy,” and renders the title poem through symbols that transform English words into characters resembling Chinese. It’s a clever stunt skillfully deployed, as are Qui Zhijie’s Writing the “Orchid Pavilon Preface” One Thousand Times (1990–95) and Fung Mingchip’s Heart Sutra (2001), both of which privilege materials and process over legibility, and render calligraphy merely as a surface of aggregate mark-making. But even when artists aren’t explicitly engaging in “semantic subversions,” there remains an overriding sense that tradition is not a resource but more a plaything. A deadpan flippancy insinuates its way into “Ink Art”—a sense of closed horizons and narrow purviews. This is where doubts about the benefits of globalism and the exigencies of time start to nag.


Liu Dan, Detail of Ink Handscroll (1990), ink and color on paper, 37-3/4″ x 58′ 4″;
courtesy The San Diego Museum of Art and the artist

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However unfamiliar we may be with contemporary Chinese art, there is nonetheless a sense of predictability that dampens the range and focus of “Ink Art.” Sloughing off the proceedings under the rubric of “been there, done that” is unfair—particularly given an artist like Liu Dan, a draftsman of supernal gifts who elaborates on the tradition of Chinese landscape painting with an evocative and eerie tactility. But local tweaks on international trends don’t necessarily build upon the store of human experience. If anything, these tweaks point not to the possibilities of art but to the finitude of the artistic imagination. Now the status quo, commentary and self-involvement, tweaked with political import, have rendered the mainstream of world art professional, brainy, and static. (Navel-gazing, by its very nature, leads nowhere.) “Ink Art” codifies this stasis with frustrating gravitas. Time will figure out which international figures of similar accomplishment—Minghip and Glenn Ligon, say, or Gu Wenda and A. R. Penck—are worthy of distinction. The rest of us, scratching our heads in the here-and-now, will cherry-pick our favorites and boggle at how samey the world has become.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This review was originally published in the March 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

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