The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

With ink and brush - a tradition reinvented

Shi Zhiying, 'Mr Palomar', Chinese ink on paper, image reproduced courtesy of the artist

I have been thinking, reading, writing, eating, drinking, breathing Chinese art since my return from Beijing and Shanghai. Even more than usual, that is. I returned with my head bursting with ideas and quite overwhelmed with information about the artists I had met and interviewed. What to do with all this material has been the dilemma. I am developing a new blog for art teachers and art students, with separate pages and posts representing possible case studies about specific contemporary Chinese artists. And planning a book. And impatiently planning my next trip to Beijing. And ordering a ridiculous number of new Chinese art books online. And making a New Year's Resolution to study Chinese for one hour every day - a resolution I had abandoned by January 3. And reluctantly facing the realities of life, such as earning a living!

In the meantime I have been reviewing exhibitions, and writing some pieces based on my Chinese artist interviews - here is the start of one of them, posted by Sydney University's 'Artspace China' this week. Of course I am secretly hoping that if you read the beginning you'll want to read all of it, so here goes...

Extract of Article posted on Artspace China  in which I look at how three young artists are re-interpreting the traditions of the ink-painting masters of the past

I sat in the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane last week, resting my weary art gallery feet after many hours traversing the Asia Pacific Triennial, and watched a charming Chinese animation for children, called Where is Mama?. Created in 1960 at Shanghai Film Studios under the guidance of the legendary animator Te Wei, it tells the story of a group of tadpoles searching for their mother. They plaintively question goldfish, shrimp, turtles and other creatures on their journey through a watery landscape. Each frame is rendered in deft, minimal brushstrokes with ink and wash, influenced by the watercolour paintings of Qi Baishi.

[ If you want to see the film, click on the title Where is Mama?]
In these digital days its artistry and simplicity were a revelation. Art historian Lin Ci speaks of the ways in which scholar painting techniques which vividly evoke, not an exact likeness, but a “spiritual resemblance” to aspects of nature such as plum blossom, birds, bamboo, stone, withered trees and orchids allowed the artists to “play the game of inks” better. For scholar officials trying to distance themselves from the realpolitik of the imperial court, these freehand ink paintings of birds and flowers could “bring comforts to their hearts” he says, evoking an endearing image of the lonely scholar contemplating his garden and disregarding the painting conventions of his imperial masters. (Lin Ci, ‘Chinese Painting: Capturing the Spirit of Nature with Brushes’) Watching this little film certainly brought “comforts to my hearts” after a somewhat disappointing APT experience.
It may seem a long distance between a sweet animated film and the great masters of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, however, the adherence to the beauty and discipline of calligraphy and ink painting so evident in every frame of Where is Mama? is the very thing that so often joins past and present in Chinese art. In a catalogue essay for Ink – the Art of China at the Saatchi Gallery in London in June 2012, Dominique Narhas had this to say: “Ink painting brings us into contact with an immersive intimacy in which humanistic themes of man’s relation to himself, to nature and to the other are played out against the great backdrop of constancy and change.” It is precisely this notion of constancy and change, the intertwining of past and present, which distinguishes contemporary Chinese art in the global marketplace and results in works which are able to reference tradition and convention yet speak to the contemporary world and an international audience.
Current discourses about the significance of ink-painting in contemporary art practices acknowledge its central importance. Keith Wallace, writing in Yishu, said, “A growing number of exhibitions [feature] artists who… explore and even push the parameters of what ink-painting should represent…a concerted effort by historians, curators, and critics not to let ink-painting slip into the abyss of historical dinosaurs, but to encourage ways in which its practice can continue to contribute to contemporary art.” (Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, July-August 2011 volume 10 no. 4) The mass circulation print media have noted this phenomenon too. A recent New York Times article quoted Britta Erickson, a curator and scholar who teaches courses on the history of ink painting at Stanford University. “Today, there’s ink on paper; there’s ink by itself; there’s the gesture without the ink; there’s just the paper, or there’s the performance of the gesture, and there’s video and installation art too.” (Nina Siegel, ‘Ancient Art Tells China’s Modern Tale’, New York Times October 31, 2012)
Gao Ping, Untitled, Oil on Canvas, image reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects
So, how are contemporary artists re-imagining and transforming an archaic tradition? From Xu Bing’s iconic Book from the Sky and Gu Wenda’s human hair frozen with adhesive into translucent curtains of unreadable language, from Song Dong’s calligraphy written with water on a stone slab in ‘Writing Diary with Water’ to the digital multimedia works of Yang Yongliang, to conceptual works by Zhang Huan and Qiu Zhijie, a generation of Chinese artists have been reinventing traditional forms to represent ideas and observations about their contemporary world. Last summer we saw He Xiangyu’s extraordinary Cola Project at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art here in Sydney, in which he appropriated Song Dynasty masterworks using ink mixed with litres of Coca Cola. Indeed, one of the key elements underpinning the inventiveness and innovation of contemporary art in China is, perhaps paradoxically, a deep knowledge of and respect for traditional forms. Chinese artists revere their cultural heritage and art traditions yet at the same time freely experiment with them. Almost every artist will tell you that they learned calligraphy and ink painting as a child, and they speak knowledgeably about historical ink painting masters. This results in works of great depth and layered meaning. In the hands of some artists this reinvention leads to transgressive works of social critique, even savage satire, whilst others reflect on elements of their world in a quieter, more personal or meditative manner. I recently spoke with a number of artists in Beijing and Shanghai about the way in which their practice is informed by their study of traditional Chinese painting – these are just three of those stories.
Shi Zhiying, Mr Palomar, Chinese ink on rice paper, image reproduced courtesy of the artist
If you want to know more about the ways in which Gao Ping, Li Tingting and Shi Zhiying are reinventing this ancient visual language you can read the whole article from Artspace China here !