Traditional Ink Used in Modern Ways: Ink Art at The Metropolitan Museum
February 2, 2014
Ai Weiwei's Coca-Cola branded Han dynasty jar (1995)

Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is a well-curated group exhibition of work by contemporary Chinese artists from the 1980s to the present.  Choosing to use, or focus on, the medium of ink painting--at times for its formalistic qualities, and at other times to signify the long history of the traditional art form--these artists create thought-provoking works with a wonderful variety in output.

Some artists appear to deliberately use the traditional medium in a confrontational manner by depicting modern imagery.  An example of this is seen to the left: Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo (1995), by Ai Weiwei (b. 1957), perhaps one of China's best-known contemporary artists.  Displayed in a gallery even before the exhibition space, Ai has branded an ancient Western Han jar with the ubiquitous Coca-Cola logo, alluding to the complex nature of modern China as it moves on its path towards globalization.

Another such artist is Yang Jiechang (b. 1956).  Yang's Crying Landscape (2002) is a set of five triptychs in which he paints beautifully detailed man-made structures, alluding to a portrayal of modern society and its progress.  While depicting structures that appear infallible in grandeur, however, Yang implies that these interventions are artificial and thereby have the possibility of being toppled.  

An oil refinery to the fore, the dam at the Yangzi gorges to the rear (detail, Yang Jiechang)

Other artists interpret the traditional medium using newer media.  For example, Yang Yongliang (b. 1980) uses the horizontal hand scroll format to present a traditional-seeming Chinese landscape of mountains with pines and lapping oceans in View of Tide (2008).  Up close, however, one notices that Yang's medium is photography.  Yang has printed a composite photograph where the mountains reveal themselves to be skeletal crags of high-rise buildings and the pine trees are actually power lines.  As a format, ink hand scrolls have been used to tell a story as the narrative progressed through its unfurling.  Here, Yang tells a story of how the effects of industrialization have affected the venerated Chinese landscape.

Installation view, Yang Yongliang

Reminiscent of German artist, EVOL, Duan Jianyu (b. 1970) appropriates some of China's best-recognized landscape  images and paints them onto small pieces of cardboard in Beautiful Dream, 2, 3, 4, 7 (2008).  Using a silhouette style, Duan signifies how trivialized some of the most iconic images of China are, especially because she uses the quotidian material of cardboard as her canvas.  In doing so, however, she also succeeds in creating small intimate scenes that make good use of the texture of the recycled cardboard.

Can you read what this says?

The highlights of the show were, perhaps as expected, the works by  Xu Bing (b. 1955).  Known for his expansive works that examine the significance of the written word, the selection of Xu's iconic works proved to be the show's climactic end.  In the early 1990s, Xu had begun to experiment with the representation of English words in Chinese calligraphic forms.  Known as "square word calligraphy", Xu created a system by which each English word was composed into a Chinese calligraphic-like square structure.  Xu allows non-Chinese-character-readers the opportunity to understand that each Chinese character represents not just a sound, but also a concept, and that each character is composed of different parts.  Seen to the left is a detail from Xu Bing's 'colophon' to The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats (1999), a pair of hanging scrolls on which Xu has transcribed the Yeats poem using square word calligraphy.

Xu's Book from the Sky (ca. 1987-1991) fills up the last room of the exhibition.  As an installation of hand-printed books and scrolls that cover the ceiling and the walls, the printed material contains invented Chinese characters that cannot be interpreted even by a Chinese-character-reader.  The characters were created by Xu and then hand carved into wooden printing blocks to create the printed material.  The mass of black marks on the page cannot be decoded, posing questions about the linkage between language and culture.  

Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until April 6, 2014.