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Back to the Essence – from Ink painting to Ink

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Back to the Essence - from Ink painting to Ink

Date:2010.07.31-2010.09.26
Reception:2010.07.31 PM2:30
Curator:Zhang Yu
Artists:Li Huasheng‧Xiao Lu‧Zhou Bin ‧Liang Quan ‧Zhang Yu ‧Liu Xuguang

“The Termination of Chinese Ink Painting” –
Creating a Personal Contemporary Art: From “Ink Painting” to “Ink”

Zhang Yu

Before we discuss “The Termination of Chinese Ink Painting” I would first like to clarify two points; 1) My objective here is most certainly not to call into question the true genius of traditional ink painting; 2) “The Termination of Chinese Ink Painting” represents an effort to make us reconsider the medium of ink. However, before this discussion goes any further it is important to define “ink” and “ink painting” and the best way to do this is to focus on the relationship between the two and their intrinsic differences.

Critics and artists use the Chinese word (Shui Mo) for “ink” when discussing the medium of ink art but they also have a tendency to use exactly the same term when referring to “ink painting” (Shui Mo Hua), as if the two were somehow interchangeable. This begs the question what is the relationship between “ink” and “ink painting” and whether it might not make more sense to actively distinguish between them.

Few people would disagree that “ink” is a culture, a medium and a material. But if it is a medium then it should by definition make possible a variety of expressive forms. It is perhaps surprising to find then that the thousand year history of ink culture is dominated by two dimensional ink paintings and such motifs as birds, flowers, landscapes and human figures. From this observation it seems reasonable to conclude that the burden of history apparently made it impossible for our ancestors to fully develop ink as a medium of artistic expression.

It is also said that ink painting is a culture, a medium and a material, but this is not entirely accurate. Although ink painting is undoubtedly related to culture it is not really a medium but rather an expressive artistic genre. Objectively speaking, ink is a material with physical properties whereas ink painting is an art form produced through the application of ink.

Having clarified the relationship between “ink” and “ink painting” we suddenly discover that “ink” is in fact a huge inclusive concept in the field of contemporary art. It is a medium that can be used or applied in a wide range of expressive models. In this context, “ink painting” is two-dimensional and just one expressive form of ink which it turns out is infused with a plethora of possibilities. At this juncture, we could say that the inability of earlier generations to fully develop ink art presents us with an important opportunity to be more creative in the application of ink. Possible avenues of development include performance, spatial, installation, video, conceptual and composite works.

A review of the history of ink offers two diametrically opposite conclusions. 1) The traditional belief that ink and ink painting are the same thing; 2) A more contemporary outlook that ink, as a medium of artistic expression, is not limited to ink painting. As a medium it can also be used to create contemporary art. In other words, there are far more developmental possibilities for ink today, which imbues it with new value and importance.

In this way it is possible to make the leap from traditional “ink painting” to a more contemporary view of “ink” – one that enables creation of a diverse range of modern artistic expression.

“The Termination of Chinese Ink Painting” is not an impromptu idea or the result of an irrational passion. It goes without saying that no one could possibly end ink painting. The main objective in using such a provocative slogan is to encourage people to think more clearly about different ideas and to thereby develop a new understanding of ink. Traditional ink painting has a long and illustrious history, with literati painting representing the very apogee of the genre, but that is not to say such magnificent works are able to represent ink in the modern world. Having reached the pinnacle of literati painting, artists combined eastern and western styles after the May 4th Movement (1919). More recently, western trends and ideas have had a powerful impact on Chinese art in the years since “reform and opening” (post-1978). As a result of numerous combinations, manipulations, collages and other forms, ink painting has changed dramatically from its lofty origins, effectively shedding its intellectual grandness and moral character. As a result, traditional ink painting hit an innovative dead-end and faces terminal decline.

A quick review of changes in history hints hat the evolution of ink painting has been an irrepressible historical process. In the 1930s and 1940s Xu Beihong utilized the structure and skills of western sketching combined with realist methodology. He also used the medium of ink and ink brushwork technique to create ink paintings populated with people, birds and flowers all in his own inimical style. In the 1960s, Liu Guosong launch a revolution against the traditional approach to ink painting that requires the tip of the brush to always be in the middle of the stroke. By replacing the brush with printing and collage techniques, Liu produced ink paintings that were completely different to traditional form. In the 1970s Wu Guanzhong put formalism before traditional brushwork, painting rural landscapes in southern China using sketching techniques. In the 1980s Gu Wenda blended traditional brushwork elements with western abstract expressionism, producing huge surrealist ink paintings. What all of these artists had in common was the way in which they sought to combine eastern and western elements, but the methods they adopted to facilitate compatibility ultimately undermined the traditional form of ink painting. At the same time, their inadequate understanding of methodology meant they were unable to create their own distinctive methods.

If we read the history of the 1990s then the appearance of experimental ink painting offered a number of possibilities. Wang Chuan’s “Ink, Spots” (墨點) took two dimensional ink painting in a more three dimensional spatial direction. Zhang Yu’s “Divine Light” (靈光) and Shi Guo’s “Packaged Pieces” (團塊的包裝) transformed the standard two dimensional depiction of still life in ink painting into the expression of non-representational images. Wang Tiande’s “Ink Banquet” (水墨菜單) used graphic ink painting in the production of installation work, while. Song Dong’s “Water Diary” (水寫日記) and Qiu Zhijie’s “Writing the Thousand Character Classic One Thousand Times” (書寫千字文一千遍), utilized ink to express certain ideas. What all these artists shared was a desire to explore possibilities that transcended the confines of art history and ink painting, suggesting completely new avenues in the development of ink.

In the field of contemporary Chinese art, artists who choose to work in the medium of ink are very much in a minority. This situation touches on two interlocking issues; 1) Many of the artists who work with ink often seem terrified of the medium and invariably choose the safe option of painting. In this way it is still possible to combine traditional brushwork and western realism, abstract expressionism or surrealism, a semi-finished approach that makes it relatively easy to produce work for which there is a market; 2) Most art critics graduated from art schools and academies where they received a western-type education. That on it own tends to make them less well disposed towards the medium of ink or fear of unfamiliarity. At the same time, a market economy makes critics eager for quick results and immediate benefits and therefore less likely to take the time to research or focus on the genre.

I sincerely hope that more artists and critics will have the courage to do something about this unacceptable situation. I absolutely believe that by focusing our intelligence and developing new methodologies the medium of ink can be used to create contemporary art that belongs to the here and now.

In pursuit of this goal I need to reiterate that the objective behind “The Termination of Chinese Ink Painting” is quite simply the recognition that we need to reacquaint ourselves with the genre and reinterpret the meaning of ink, starting with the following questions and answers:

1. What is ink?
2. What is ink painting?
3. What is the general meaning of ink and the special nature of the medium of ink?
4. Should one develop ones own methods in creating art?
5. Is it ink art or contemporary art?

In answer to the questions I offer the following insights:

Ink is a culture and a medium
Ink is not the same thing as ink painting
Ink on its own does not necessarily involve brushwork
Ink is a way of understanding the world
Ink speaks to us spiritually

“The Termination of Chinese Ink Painting” seeks to develop its own view of contemporary art, inviting six artists to display work; Liu Xuguang, Li Huasheng, Zhang Yu, Xiao Lu, Zhou Bin and Liang Quan.

In Liu Xuguang’s work “Point of Contact” (觸點) (2004) the artist uses ink, a brush and a playful, almost game-like way of holding the brush. He also utilizes high tech methods to record the narrative moments represented by the brush and its vertical point of contact, as an artistically expressive video work.

Li Huasheng’s “Line Checks” (線格子) (1998 to the present) is completely produced in the medium of ink and approximates to traditional brushwork, with the tip of the brush always in the middle of the stroke. However, Li paints a central line that is extremely fine and then weaves these together as line checks that cover the surface of the paper.

Zhang Yu’s “Fingerprints” (指印) (1991, 2001 to the present) expresses the idea of an artist making his mark, through the combination of Xuan paper, ink or just water and the mark left behind after the artist’s body and the paper come into contact. The result is a two-dimensional or spatial piece created from a performance approach.

In Xiao Lu’s “Love Letter” (情書) (2009 to the present) the artist uses Xuan paper as well as Chinese medicinal herbs, charcoal and a standard letter writing approach, recording personal secrets, muttering to himself, codes, and perhaps also the abstract expression of a narrative.

In Zhou Bin’s “Lost Writing” (茫然的書寫) (2000) the artist makes use of Xuan paper and a brush in pristine condition without wither painting or writing. Rather he utilizes the relative positioning of the two items to complete what is both a conceptual and installation piece.

In Liang Quan’s “Collage of Torn Notes” (拼貼的碎紙條) (2002 to the present) the artist produces a collage made from different sized strips of Xuan paper covered with ink, colored dye or tea. The result is a two dimensional paper work based on his own unique inner-order, logic and tactile sense.

I selected the above works because they all display a self awareness on the part of the artists that the focus of this exhibition is a rethinking of the medium of ink as developed through highly individualized ideas and a new understanding. There is also much discussion of methodology because it is this that redefines the genre of ink art. Although the works are in the medium of ink and the results fall somewhere between our definitions of “ink” and “ink painting,” they remain first and foremost examples of contemporary art at its very best.

It is my hope that the expressive works on display will enable me to expound my ideas with greater clarity. At the same time, I very much encourage further discussion of related issues by critics, artists and anyone else interested in the subject, as part of an ongoing debate.

First draft, May 29, 2009, Beijing
Second draft, November 8, 2009, Tianjin

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