W ang Xizhi (303–361), revered as the “Sage of Calligraphy", is said to have cleaned his brushes in the pond by his house so often that the water turned black. Like ink diffusing through Wang’s pond, the influence of calligraphy is diffused throughout the fine and decorative arts of China. The avant-garde art of the 1980s and 1990s – emerging in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and at the dawn of globalisation – is often framed by a discussion of its iconoclasm, and the influence of the West. Its relationship with calligraphic traditions and ink wash art is time and again overlooked.
In China, calligraphy has been considered one of the highest forms of art since the 4th century, and its mastery was thought to reveal the utmost cultivation by the literati of the Song and Ming dynasties. Chinese script is ideographic; its ancient origins lie in pictorial representations of natural forms. Like a painter, the master calligrapher applies black ink through the deft strokes of a brush, enacting a meticulous technique that has been codified over generations. For the writer Ni Yihan, this process is quasi ritualistic; an expression of the choreography between body and medium, akin to a performance:
“Calligraphy is one of the earliest forms of Chinese performance art: on viewing a calligraphic piece, a connoisseur savours the artist’s effort and ingenuity, expressed in every thrust and pause and every contrast between blank and inked spaces and between light and dark patches.”
Here we explore a selection of seminal avant-garde works that will offered this October as part of the sale New Wave Beyond Yuanmingyuan: An Important European Private Collection of Chinese Contemporary Art. Each artist confronts calligraphic and ink traditions in their own way, whether that be through the materiality of black ink on xuan paper, or its relationship to language and meaning.
In Tattoo II, Qiu Zhijie, appears to be pinned to the wall by a red character painted across his torso, mouth and onto the background. The red character – referencing calligraphic traditions – translates as “No, you must not”, and Qiu has described the work as a reaction to constraints on individual independence: “The subject is powerless to act because he is nothing more than an image. The only thing remaining is a flat surface onto which anyone can scrawl… This series is a response to the futility and drowning of the individual brought about by the onslaught of the Chinese media culture.”
Zhang Wei’s Abstract Composition is one of the first recorded examples of abstract art in China. Executed in 1978, the use of oil and ink on paper demonstrates the enduring importance of Chinese ink and calligraphy techniques in Zhang’s work. In this way, Zhang combines Western ideas and aesthetics of abstraction with traditional Chinese elements, forging a unique visual language that captures the spiritual essence of his subjects.
“Regardless of whether Western artists wanted to depict objective reality, they are also painting an image, whereby image and colour both have material qualities. But what I want to express and pursue is purely spiritual, divorced from objects and images, only using paintbrushes and paint to convey my temperament and disposition.”
- Wang Peng
- Yang Jiechang
- Ding Yi
- Zheng Guogu
- Wu Shanzhuan
Wang PengPerformance 84-3
Estimate: 200,000 – 300,000 HKD
Wang Peng is considered the first artist in China to engage in performance art. In 1984, Wang covered himself in black ink and made seven large imprints of his body on xuan paper, which is typically used in calligraphy. A reaction to the insistence on technical skill in art education, Wang used his body to press and smear ink onto the xuan paper, performing for only two people – his classmates Li Tianyuan and Chen Kemei – who helped photograph the performance and apply ink to his body.
Estimate: 60,000 - 80,000 HKD
After studying with Buddhist and Daoist masters, Yang Jiechang started creating abstract compositions with ink in the 1980s. Yang’s black monochrome works are made up of multiple accumulated layers of ink, which he sometimes thickened with soy sauce and Chinese medicinal powders. Like his Song dynasty predecessors, Yang’s paintings are able to recreate the physical and mental universe with just one tone – black. In this series, Yang combines traditional Eastern and Western modes of representation, writing roman letters with ink and brush in a calligraphic manner.
Ding YiAppearance of Crosses 95-B31
Estimate: 80,000 – 150,000 HKD
Ding Yi is known for his distinct language of abstraction in which he combines two motifs, ‘+’ and ‘x’, to create simple yet intricate patterns of crosses. Noting the resemblance of Ding’s vocabulary to software code, Chinese contemporary art expert Jean-Marc Decrop has described the artist as a calligrapher in the age of information technology. His earliest paintings were in black (the colour of ink), then red (the colour of the cinnabar used in traditional seal paste). Later, as seen in the present work, he turned to acid greens, fluorescent pinks and vibrant yellows, creating a kaleidoscope of colours.
Zheng GuoguComputer Controlled by Pig's Brain No. 137
Estimate: 40,000 – 60,000 HKD
Zheng Guogu’s Computer Controlled by Pig’s Brain series uses fragments of texts from pop magazines, comic books and the internet as a reflection of young, popular culture, informed by new information technology. Zheng’s texts are printed in 3D gum characters that are later applied to the canvas and painted. Speaking of his process the artist has said: “I thought it is very interesting to involve computers in calligraphy, because calligraphy typed by computer could be the calligraphy of our age.”
Wu ShanzhuanToday No Water 298
Estimate: 30,000 – 60,000 HKD
In these illustrated texts, which have the appearance of dazibao (political and social placards of the Cultural Revolution), Wu Shanzhuan creates an effect of satire and absurd humour by replacing Maoist slogans with trivial, everyday comments. Wu is a key figure of the Chinese conceptual movement of the 1980s. Along with Xu Bin, Gu Wenda and Yang Jiechang, he challenged and experimented with Chinese calligraphy as a symbol of power and tradition. His work, typified in Today No Water 298, is filled with absurdist humour, text, symbols and radical games.