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Ink Art: Past and Present in Contemporary China

Published on
February 6

The Metropolitan Museum is a place I visit regularly to satisfy my curiosity on the history of Eastern religions. Its collection of ancient Asian art, one of the largest and most comprehensive in the West, travels across three millennia of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism artistic expression. On view at the Asian Galleries until April 6 is INK ART, the first exhibition of Chinese contemporary art ever mounted by the Met. The curator brings together seventy artworks, created during the past three decades, by thirty-five artists in various media who explore cultural change and renewal through reinterpretation of past models. 

Two large-scale pieces hang in the hall of the Ancient Buddhist Art collection, “Crying Landscape” (Yang Jechang 2002) and “30 Letters to Qiu Jiawa” (Qiu Zhijie 2000), setting forth the tone of a journey to discover the links between past and present in contemporary Chinese art. Ink has been for more than two millennia the principal medium of painting and calligraphy in China, but like everything else nowadays in the Middle Kingdom, the tradition is undergoing a rapid transformation. The artists in the exhibition take ink as starting point for their artistic search, as Qiu Zhijie does, while the visitors depart from the 5th century BC Buddhist art collection to remind them that “reinterpretation of past models remains a viable creative path.” 

INK ART is organized thematically in four parts (The Written Word, New Landscapes, Abstraction, and Beyond the Bruch) to help us understand the different approaches that artists use in developing new models of expression. I selected three pieces that stand out artistically and that I recommend you to savor mindfully: 

•    Tranquility Comes from Meditation (Primitive World, Composition of Words, and Synthesized Words), 1985 by Gu Wenda (Chinese, born 1955). Two characteristics make this piece remarkable: it combines in a new way calligraphy with landscape painting, and it has three enormous Chinese characters in the central panel. But Wenda pushes tradition to new frontiers in this piece when he decides to dismiss the semantic function of language by making the characters unreadable. Experts in the Met say that they can be interpreted as the character of “unobstructed” and that for “spirit’. This reminds me of a quote of Lao Tzu in his book Tao Te Ching “If the eye is unobstructed, the result is sight. If the ear is unobstructed, the result is hearing. If the nose is unobstructed, the result is smell. If the mouth is unobstructed, the result is taste. If the mind is unobstructed, the result is wisdom.” The title of this book can mean "The Book of the Way and its Virtue", and people believe it was written around 600 B.C. 

•    Being Open and Empty, 2005 by Wang Dongling (Chinese, born 1945). This piece reminds me of the American action painter Frank Kline, who had a similar interchange between the black painting of the brush and the white emptiness of the canvas. The curator at the Met explains the origin of the piece’s title as borrowed from a phrase of the Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (ca. 300 B.C.) that refers to a state of enlightenment achieved through ridding one’s mind of mundane trifles. In the homonym book “Zhuangzi” there is a phrase I like that goes well with the work of Dongling “Unify your attention. Do not listen with the ears, listen with the mind. Do not listen with the mind but listen with the vital breath (qi). The ears only listen to sounds. The mind is only aware of its objects. But to focus on the vital breath is to be empty and wait the arising of objects. It is only the Way that settles in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”


•    Heart Sutra, 2001 by Fund Mingchip (Chinese, born 1951). This piece is a meditation on the Buddhist text Heart Sutra, which is transcribed in the scrolls in two different ways that correspond with the teachings of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. The scriptures say that we perceive a world of objects but these are "empty" of the identity imputed by designated labels. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness. Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.” On the right scroll the text is written in pale ink, and on the other the text was first written in water and then made visible with a layer of dark ink over it. A beautiful metaphor and excellent execution. 

     

Image Credits:

Tranquility Comes from Meditation (Primitive World, Composition of Words, and Synthesized Words) © Gu Wenda. Three hanging scrolls from original set of five; ink on paper
Being Open and Empty © Wang Dongling. Hanging scroll; ink on paper
Heart Sutra, © Fund Mingchip. Pair of hanging scrolls; ink on paper