Ink Art is Contemporary Art Too: How a Traditional Chinese Art Form is Being Transformed

What does ink art mean in the era of contemporary art? It’s a question that many artists, academics and curators have pondered. The most recent exhibition at the M+ Pavilion, The Weight of Lightness, explores the diverging answers to that question.

Curated by Lesley Ma, the exhibition brings together works from 40 artists around Asia. Some contain not even a splash of ink, including video art pieces, installations and photographs. They speak to how broad the moniker of ink art has become, and how many different spheres the art form now comes into contact with.

The exhibition tracks the way ink innovators in the 1960s and 70s drew from the historic Chinese canon of traditional ink art while taking elements from Western abstract and avant-garde movements to create a unique aesthetic that nods to China’s past while also breaking from it.

Goodbye Utopia by Ding Shiwei

Many of these pioneering artists lived in Hong Kong, which is no coincidence. When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, traditional ink art was banned; only art that served the Communist project was allowed. Hong Kong offered ink artists a safe haven to work and experiment. Among them were luminaries Lui Shou-kwan and his student Wucius Wong. They sought to modernise the millennia-old art form with an aesthetic that riffed on both ancient Chinese philosophy and western Modernism, producing abstract works infused with Buddhist principles and painted with reverence to traditional ink art’s complex concepts on brushwork and composition.

Since then, ink art has been an excitingly experimental art form across the region, with Taiwan serving as a particularly vibrant space for its own movements. After the death of Mao, mainland Chinese artists rediscovered ink art, offering their own contemporary interpretations of it. The discipline is now so broad it includes performance art by the likes of Kwok Man-hing, who incorporates playful brush work his zany life project as the Frog King, and Gu Wenda, who performs tea ceremonies that carry the meditative spirit of ink art.

That breadth is also encapsulated at this year’s Ink Asia, the region’s leading fair devoted to contemporary ink art. The fair is entering its third year just as ink art garners increasing international interest. Bringing together galleries from Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan under the theme of “ink spirit,” the fair will showcase the works of several artists who stretch the boundaries of ink art, including artists playing with new media and unusual materials. Among them will be calligraphic innovator Fung Ming-chips curious sculptures, a short, symbolic animation by Ding Shiwei and a video by Gan Haoyu that shows the making of so-called “hair ink” – ink made from human hair.

Each of these works raises questions of what ink art can be, and whether a piece can still be classified as such even if it doesn’t contain ink and simply carries a so-called “ink spirit.” While opinions diverge, one artist who is perturbed by the newly broad definition is Hong Kong artist Wong Hau-kwei, whose elegant and brooding ink paintings have garnered acclaim here and abroad.

He counts himself among ink artists committed to upholding tradition rather than breaking with it. He innovates in a way that is subtle and measured, by tweaking traditional aesthetics, themes and symbols such that the works retain a forward-thinking freshness about them without veering into the more radical territories propagated by his more abstract, conceptually-minded peers.

“When people ask about if a work of art can be ink art if it has no ink, I ask them if they go to Taiwan and order beef noodle soup how would they feel if there was no beef?” he says. Born in 1949 in Chongqing, Wong had always been interested in ink art, but life in Maoist China wasn’t amenable to this ambition.

He graduated from Shanghai Textile University in 1969, then moved to Hong Kong in 1978. He worked as a textile engineer for decades while soaking in Hong Kong’s vibrant, innovative ink art scene. “People tend to gloss over the fact that the ink art revolution started in Hong Kong, followed by Taiwan,” he says. “That’s 20 years ahead of mainland China.”

Purity of Mind by Wong Hau-kwei – Courtesy of artist

Following in the footsteps of these experiments, bringing together Western and Eastern aesthetics and philosophies, Wong’s work strives for a balance between diverging sensibilities in a way that remains true to its Chinese heritage. He describes his process as being like a tree that has Chinese roots and bears Chinese fruit, but which is pruned with the help of Western influence. He counts among his influences the elegiac landscapes of Romantic painter William Turner.

“Without the Western influence the fruit could go sour – the work might seem old fashioned, not contemporary,” he says. While he often sticks to traditional Chinese landscapes, infusing in them an emotionality, control of light and detailed and assiduous brushwork, he also paints landscapes that are unusual for traditional Chinese art.

The view of Clearwater Bay that he enjoys from his home is an example of such an endeavour. Painting the ocean is not a part of the Chinese ink art tradition, but Wong likes to explore the shifting mood that comes with depicting the same scene at various points in the day and the year. Other landscape works that express his vision includes a work that shows the Xi’an Belltower glimmering through the reflective sheen on a curtain wall of a high rise.

Wong’s works will be featured in Ink Asia as part of an exhibition of large-scale art. Historically, ink artworks tends not to be very large, but many contemporary artists — especially on the mainland — are experimenting with a larger scale. This shift can in part be pegged to an increasing interest in public art projects and installation pieces that invite wider crowds to enjoy them. Wong believes the trend is linked to the fact that buildings are getting much bigger in China: art is evolving to match the pace of urban development.

For Wong, working to such a large scale poses a challenge, though it is one that he relishes. “For smaller pieces, it feels more within your control, but for the larger pieces you have to take a step back,” he says, adding that he savours the rigorous work that goes into these pieces of magnitude. Painting everyday brings him untold pleasure, and is something he has been able to do for the last 20 years since leaving the textile industry.

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Clearwater Bay by Wong Hau-kwei – Courtesy of artist

Wong is excited by ink art’s future. Even if he scoffs at the directions some ink artists take, the medium’s continuous transformation is something he observes with eagerness. “Classical Chinese painting is like Beethoven, modern ink art is like pop music. Pop music is always transforming but Beethoven is everlasting” he says.

Ink Asia runs from December 15-17, 2017. Click here for more information.

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