Ink for the Future at the Met

By Chiu-Ti Jansen

Yang Yongliang’s View of Tide, 2008. Photo courtesy of the artist.

NEW YORK - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, home to one of the most coveted and storied collections of classical Chinese art outside Greater China, is handing us two pleasant surprises with its Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China show, which opens on December 11. Rather than presenting contemporary Chinese art as a canonized avant-garde movement at the Met’s Modern and Contemporary Art gallery, the Met has placed Ink Art in the galleries for Chinese painting and calligraphy, purview of the Department of Asian Art that is steeped in the connoisseurship of classical Chinese art. Maxwell K. Hearn, Douglas Dillon Chairman of the Met’s Asian Art, curates a show that unveils layers of meanings and cultural imports of these artworks through “Chinese historical artistic paradigms.”

The other surprise: more than ink on paper which derives its visual identity from the traditional forms of ink art, the show also includes works that deploy a myriad of newer media and yet exhibit an ink art aesthetic through their rich associations with Chinese literati sensitivity.

Zhan Wang, Artificial Rock #10, 2001. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

So, what exactly are “ink art aesthetics?” How is it relevant to our contemporary sensitivity? Generally, it refers to the Chinese scholarly worldview that has informed all aspects of literati tastes and aesthetic pursuits. But contemporary Chinese ink art is neither a revival of classicism, nor is it a clean break from the past. From the transformed and transforming urban landscape in the works by Yang Jiechang, Hong Hao, Ai WeiWei, Xing Danwen, to the stainless steel and silicone rubber “fake” scholarly rocks by Zhan Wang, to the landscape tattooed body art of Huang, the new ink art investigates the multifarious potentials of traditional formats, styles and themes, but in the context of a new world dis/order.

Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky (ca. 1987-91), installation featuring hand-printed scrolls and books; ink on paper. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Literacy and poetic expressions are the predominant attributes of literati art that distinguishes the Chinese artistic tradition. “The Written Word” section of the exhibition exemplifies how writings remain an aesthetic obsession for many contemporary artists. For instance, Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky installation covers an entire gallery with hand-printed scrolls consisting of 1,200 pseudo-characters that look distinctively Chinese but are in fact Xu Bing’s personal inventions that are not legible to the native Chinese.

Zhang Huan’s Family Tree, 2001. © Yale University Art Gallery. An edition of this work sold for 800,000HKD at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale in October 2012.

Family Tree consists of nine sequential photographs of Zhang Huan's face taken at regular intervals, capturing the results of three calligraphers inscribing his face with a constant stream of a family story and physiognomic texts divining the meanings of facial features until, by the end of the day, his face was completely covered with black ink. The disappearance of personal identity, literally being “over-written” by the traditional Chinese “face reading,” reinforces the sense of an illusory individual life despite well-versed genealogy and of the overpowering writing turning into powerless divination.

Cai Guo-qiang’s Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10, 1990. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A larger version of this work in 5 panels, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2007 for 20,487,500 HKD.

Cai Guo-qiang, in his Project to Extend the Great Wall of China by 10,000 Meters: Project for Extraterrestrials No. 10 (1993), rigged for explosion an approximately six-mile-long gunpowder fuse that extended beyond the western end of the Great Wall at the edge of the Gobi Desert. The fuse burned for about 15 minutes, creating a dragon-like pattern symbolizing China's imperial and mythological heritage. In addition to a video recording of that event, the Met shows a 1990 study, in a paper album format, for the Project, which starts with ink drawings on paper, but ends with abstract gunpowder-burnt marks as if ink splashed over the pages. The Chief Officer of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee, for which Cai served as the Director of Visual and Special Effects, made the point that all fireworks used in the opening and closing ceremonies were made in China, where gunpowder was first invented. But as a medium of artistic expression, gunpowder is a new practice that Cai famously fuses with China’s past. It becomes the ink for the future.

Myself with Cai Guo-qiang, attending the preview of the show on December 9.


Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China

December 11, 2013 – April 6, 2014

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York City

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