NEW YORK — It's hard to break from the past. Even under the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which sought to smash the "Four Olds" of customs, culture, habits and ideas, the tradition of calligraphy was held in reverence, as it had been for centuries. Chairman Mao's own calligraphy served as nameplate for the powerful newspaper the People's Daily.
"Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 6, ambitiously seeks to tie past with present through the work of 35 artists. It's the first contemporary Chinese art show at the museum, and curator Maxwell Hearn, head of the Asian art department, has carefully and sometimes wittily interwoven the work into the Chinese galleries, which usually display Imperial porcelain, scholar scrolls and the Ming garden.
The juxtaposition highlights how the Chinese avant-garde, which rose in the 1980s, has been able to deploy traditional themes and media for its own purposes. While ink on paper works were obvious choices, Hearn cast his net wider by including works such as the white-on-white oil paintings by Qiu Shihua and an art film by Yang Fudong — they reminded him of Southern Sung paintings "obscured by mist," he says during a walkthrough of the exhibition. "I feel some of these artists are reaching back to draw on their traditions in ways that are surprising and unexpected."
In the 1980s Chinese artists began experimenting with "ink flow" and abstract imagery. In a 1985 group show, Gu Wenda presented large-scale paintings in which he combined genres and reconfigured the very components of Chinese writing. "Ink Art" includes three panels from his landmark series "Mythos of Lost Dynastie--Tranquility Comes from Meditation." "I tried to combine the two highest forms of Chinese art, calligraphy and landscape," says Gu.
They depict a mysterious landscape, with a hybrid word looming in the central panel. It is made up of three parts, with the combination of the left two meaning "spirit," and the right two meaning "smooth" or "unobstructed." Hearn translates it as "to liberate the spirit" — in short, a manifesto for new Chinese art.
Gu, and later Xu Bing, became famous for "pseudo-characters," which questioned the very nature of words and what they convey; Chinese characters that are missing or have additional strokes are unreadable. The exhibition presents Xu Bing's "Book From the Sky" in its own gallery — an installation made up of open books on a raised platform with scrolls hanging over them. They seem grand and intimidating, yet they are covered with thousands of "pseudo-characters" Xu concocted.
The exhibition features several works by Ai Weiwei, probably the best-known Chinese artist today. "Map of China" is a wooden map of China pieced together from remnants of Qing temples. Says Hearn, "I see the symbolism here of China as a jigsaw, a fusion of many different regions and ethnicities."Elsewhere, in a room of Ming furnishings, are two examples of his reconfigured furniture — one is two stools fused together, the other is a table bent in the middle, with two legs placed on the wall.
A younger generation using new media is emerging. In her "Scroll" series, Xing Danwen combined multiple shots on one roll of film (in those pre-digital days), creating a horizontal scroll of overlapping pictures. One shows ordinary citizens seated along a walkway, another architectural details in the Forbidden City. Duan Jianyu refers to landscape in her own way, painting scenic highlights such as the Great Wall or Guilin mountains with ink on cardboard — corrugated cardboard, with some of the top layer torn away to reveal the rippled paper beneath.
One rising art star, video artist Sun Xun, has an unusual short in "Ink Art." He usually employs hand drawing or painting, but "Some Actions Which Haven't Been Defined Yet in the Revolution" features something even more labor-intensive, woodblock carvings — a medium popular during the Maoist era. The 12-minute video traces the strange Kafka-esque day in the life of a Chinese worker.
"I think ink is not a dead culture in China," he says via email, "and tradition becomes a part of life." And while he understands traditional Chinese art practices — he was trained at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou — he's veered from them, and thinks of them as a tool, not a calling. "I just use relevant materials to extend the tradition. What I paint is not 'ink.' it's me!"
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