How do you best present contemporary art from cultures unfamiliar to Western viewers?
In "Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China" (through Apr. 6, 2014), the first exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the organizers have handled that thorny question by having the Asian art department (not the contemporary and modern art department) play host. The exhibition features 70 works by 35 Chinese artists, embedded within galleries surveying thousands of years of Chinese art. As Met Museum director Thomas P. Campbell said at a press preview Monday morning, "any assessment of these artists and their work must also take into account China's rich cultural legacy," declaring that every work in "Ink Art" involves the fundamental alteration of inherited Chinese traditions. He went on to say that the show contextualizes this contemporary art "in a way that no other museum can."
Much of "Ink Art" takes place around the museum's Astor Court, now reopened after 10 months of repair for its skylight. The show emphasizes semantic play, especially through the manipulation of traditional calligraphic techniques. Notable are Gu Wenda's experimental "Mythos of Lost Dynasties" paintings (1984-85), which feature ideograms modified to the point of illegibility and hovering over cloudy, indeterminate landscapes. Elsewhere, Xu Bing's installation Book from the Sky (ca. 1987-91) features scrolls hanging both on the wall and from the ceiling; every character is printed clearly in traditional Chinese woodblock style but remains entirely incomprehensible—they are faked characters.
"Ink Art" also includes numerous works that call upon the titular tradition but don't necessarily use brush and paper. Scroll-like photographs of cities and urban scenes by Xing Danwen and Shi Guorui are on view, while the Astor court contains numerous sculptural pieces. The Ming furniture room holds Zhan Wang's Artificial Rock #10 (2001), a stainless-steel rendition of a scholar's rock, along with Ai Weiwei's mutant renditions of traditional Chinese furniture, including a table that appears to be crawling up the wall. Underneath the skylight, residing in the central wooden pavilion, is another scholar-rock-in-industrial-material sculpture, Zhang Jianjun's 7-foot-tall, hot pink Scholar Rock (The Mirage Garden), 2008, cast in silicone rubber.
The show's genesis can be traced to the Met's 2006 purchase of the Zhan sculpture, the Asian art department's first contemporary acquisition. Since then, the museum has displayed its increasingly numerous contemporary Chinese artworks next to historical examples, a curatorial choice presided over by Maxwell K. Hearn, chairman of the Asian art department and curator of the current show.
In a phone interview, Hearn described his concerns about making contemporary Chinese artists feel "ghettoized" by being placed in the historical galleries, but said that he came to understand that much Chinese contemporary art draws from an art-historical context foreign to many. "I realized that these are works that my Western colleagues weren't going to appreciate or welcome, because the works are hard to integrate into their narrative of contemporary art. If you don't understand their past, you won't understand the complexity and richness that these artists are invoking."