“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” now at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, seems at first to be a long-awaited corrective to Western myopia in regard to Chinese ink painting and calligraphy. Curated by Maxwell K. Hearn, chairman of the museum’s department of Asian art, the show of 70 works by 35 artists seeks to explore the diversity of contemporary ink practice in China, while simultaneously honoring a formal tradition that has endured for millennia and is still deeply meaningful to no less than 1.3 billion people. That, at least, is what the show’s title leads viewers to expect. It is not, however—for reasons soon to be made clear—what the survey actually delivers.
Hearn has chosen the artist roster expertly, installing the works in the Met’s galleries of historical Chinese art and dividing them into four illuminating formal categories. The Written Word section, for example, offers various text-based pieces, including several intriguing 1980s experiments by Gu Wenda, Wu Shanzhuan and Xu Bing, who each reinvented and recombined the basic elements of Chinese characters—a reaction to the corruption of language during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and a bid for new verbal and cultural options. A much greater burden of the past is conjured up through photo documentation of Qiu Zhijie’s Writing the “Orchard Pavilion Preface” One Thousand Times (1990-95), a calligraphy exercise in which the artist’s handwritten copies of a classic text were superimposed on a single sheet of paper, cumulatively producing a rectangular cloud of unintelligible darkness. That process is echoed in Zhang Huan’s photographic face-painting suite, Family Tree (2001), ending with the artist’s visage (and thus his personal identity) completely obscured by multiple layers of writing.
The section called New Landscapes brings together pieces like Huang Yan’s 1999 color photographs of his own body painted with a traditional Chinese landscape and Yang Yongliang’s nearly 33-foot-long View of Tide (2008), an inkjet print in which what appears to be a typical panorama of jagged peaks and bare trees turns out, on closer inspection, to portray high-rises and power-line towers. A selection of hand-drawn stop-action videos (individually made by Chen Shaoxiong, Qiu Anxiong and Sun Xun), although too indebted to William Kentridge, trace China’s development from primeval mire to industrial and postindustrial cacophony. Yang Fudong’s live-action film Liu Lan (2003) features his signature device: pretty, stylishly dressed young people mooning about (on an old pole boat this time) like displaced fashion models trapped in a recurring dream of Eternal China.
In the Abstraction section, one finds examples from Zhang Yu’s hanging-scroll series “Divine Light,” which presents darkly mottled but radiantly edged orbs, as well as Wang Dongling’s black-on-white, splash-and-dash records of painterly catharsis—reminders of the high-energy borrowings Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline made from the Eastern lexicon of painterly gestures and forms. Meanwhile, Beyond the Brush takes us into the realm of conceptual explorations, such as a painted scroll recording installation works by a radically nontraditional artist (Huang Yongping), world maps altered to wry historical effect (Hong Hao) and an ornate old-style embroidered robe replicated in this-is-your-life-now plastic (Wang Jin).
In short, students of the post-Mao avant-garde will feel right at home in “Ink Art,” a rather disconcerting sensation, given the topic. The problem is not that experimental artists are included—the show would be woefully incomplete without them—but that only experimental artists are included, with no representation of the much more numerous (and, in China, infinitely more beloved) practitioners of traditional ink painting and calligraphy or their equally multitudinous quasi-social-realist confreres.
In the People’s Republic, veneration for guohua (Chinese painting), evident lately in a massive resurgence of ink shows in museums and galleries alike, extends beyond officialdom and the general populace even to the most cynical avant-garde artists. University departments, specialized academies and private workshops are dedicated to the art form, which also boasts its own scholars, critics, publications and conferences—along with a distinct commercial universe, making up a major portion of contemporary art sales in China, now the world’s second-largest market after the U.S.
But the Met’s “Ink Art,” by excluding widespread traditional practice, deliberately ignores the two most important aspects of Chinese ink art today: its utter strangeness from a Western point of view, and the subtle, slightly ominous purpose to which it is currently being put by the faceless powers that govern China.
Guohua—the very word (literally “country-painting”) conveys a sense that China is ink art and ink art is China. And not without reason. For this art form is predicated on beliefs and principles central to “Chineseness” and completely at odds with contemporary Western thought.
First of all, traditional ink art assumes the existence of a stately cosmic order, one that incorporates cycles of change within an enduring framework of eternal natural law. That faith has elevated the landscape genre to the highest artistic status, engendering countless shan shui (mountain-water) images that juxtapose brooding rock and flowing water, soaring peaks and meandering rivers. In a similar fashion, ephemeral blossoms, by virtue of representing endless iterations of birth and death, paradoxically evoke timeless constancy. This cosmic order is sometimes emblematized in a four-square mandala framework, sometimes in the more dynamic give-and-take of the Yin Yang diagram. The form of the sign matters less than the implicit message that men and women—when it comes to health, family, business, social relations, culture, religion, government and all other vital matters—ought to live in accord with these cycles and laws, best administered by a just and paternalistic central power.
Secondly, the most precise artistic techniques for expressing these eternal truths were discovered long ago. Hence, the role of each new generation of artists is, above all, to preserve those methodologies and forms. Contemporary works tend to be, for the properly initiated, a tissue of allusions to earlier masters. Only after many years of study and homage (often in the form of direct copying) may one perhaps, in a well-earned act of daring, contribute some small variation suitable to present-day sensibilities.
Perspective, modeling and other tokens of volume in perceptual depth are unnecessary, since the aim of the painter is to depict not the outward appearance of things but rather their intrinsic mind-captured essence.
Passages of flat blankness suggest not existential emptiness but a realm of dreams, projections and remembrances, where viewers supply the shifts of time and space subtly implied by the more active portions of the composition.
The evocation of themes is frequently oblique, the work’s meaning more latent than manifest. A hierarchical configuration of hills or the poor state of health of a tree, as Hearn notes in the catalogue, might connote the condition of the entire empire.
All “true” ink art strives for beauty; to do otherwise would be a logical contradiction, contrary to the transcendent order this art is meant to reflect.
The painter or calligrapher can adjust and adapt as the composition unfurls, but no extensive error-fixing or reworking is possible: the hand must move fluently from beginning to end. One accepts the whole result, or discards it and starts again.
Within an individual work, chief consideration is given to the controlled flow of mystic energy, or qi, coursing seamlessly down a hanging scroll or from scene to scene in a horizontal visual journey.
The collective manifestation of qi is “spirit,” channeled and shaped by centuries of custom—a cumulative wisdom that, having worked best for one’s many compatriots and ancestors, must by definition be right, at least for Chinese people. Tradition, then, is something to be cherished, not “subverted” in the interest of formal or conceptual innovations, which are suspect in the extreme.
The two arts of the brush, writing and painting, are inseparable. Picture-making involves many of the same physical techniques used to write characters, which themselves often have an imagistic root. Even the greatest painting customarily bears colophons of related poetry, scholarly comments, and/or reflections by the work’s successive viewers and owners.
Calligraphy expresses, in its physical forms as much as in its semantic import, the majesty of the state or the nobility (or sometimes the idiosyncrasy) of the individual who wrote it.
Here we come to an impasse. The reverence accorded to calligraphy in China is almost impossible for the Western mind to grasp. Imagine writing and rewriting the Gettysburg Address for decades—to profoundly absorb its content, perhaps, but more certainly to refine the quality of one’s handwriting, itself regarded as a gauge of character and soul. Imagine those holographic exercises bought, sold, displayed, given as gifts, copied and venerated in perpetuity as works of art. This is the weird essence of calligraphy.
Only when you assimilate these postulates, only when you feel them in the flow of the inked brush on paper or silk, can you begin, in a traditional artist’s view, to think Chinese. Only then can you love and knowingly savor the pictorial succession over centuries of rocks and waterfalls, peonies, rugged mountains, goldfish, bamboo twigs, birds, plum blossoms, lotus plants, pagodas, insects and blasted pine trees.
“Ink Art” seeks to overcome this Great Wall of cultural difference by minimizing the art form’s core tenets and concentrating instead on points of congruence with the West. The artists selected may refer to traditional doctrine, but they do not subscribe to it fully because their intention is entirely different. They aim to connect with the larger contemporary world, following three decades (1949-76) in which ink art was suppressed and/or applied to propagandistic ends under Mao. That aim, in turn, affects formal choices. With the possible exception of Li Huasheng’s dense hand-rendered grids, the heritage “continued” here is not that of gongbi, the meticulously detailed and often colorful technique associated with court art. It is, rather, the equally “Chinese” but looser, dreamier xieyi (freehand) or shuimo (ink wash) style of the literati: gentleman-scholars who—typically having passed the exacting civil service examinations and served for a while in the imperial bureaucracy—retreated into poetic reveries and classical studies, sure that discretion was the better part of valor vis-à-vis China’s blood-soaked dynasties.
We do not have to seek far to understand Hearn’s curatorial strategy. In the catalogue, he quotes artist-critic-curator Zhang Yu as saying that “spirit” is the defining characteristic of Chinese art. But like the show’s virtually blank canvases by Qiu Shihua, “spirit,” when detached from the technical requirements of traditional ink art, can encompass just about anything: photographs that recall horizontal scrolls (Xing Danwen, Shi Guorui), scholar’s rocks rendered in stainless steel (Zhan Wang) or electric-pink silicone (Zhang Jianjun), controlled gunpowder explosions (Cai Guo-Qiang), strangely altered traditional furniture or a Han-dynasty jar painted with a Coca-Cola logo (Ai Weiwei).
Holding the show in the Asian department is a doubly diplomatic maneuver. First, it makes “Ink Art” acceptable to critics and museum colleagues who might find its components insufficiently “contemporary” by cutting-edge international standards. Second, it reassures traditional Asian art devotees that post-Mao experimental work is not really a historical rupture—a bit of mental legerdemain that is also endorsed in official Chinese circles and, to judge by their artist’s statements, in the psyches of some of its most notable practitioners.
Hearn places his selections among Chinese artifacts but rarely among classic examples of ink painting and calligraphy, where the new work’s disjuncture from the past would be immediately glaring. Instead, swathed in a misty, amorphous notion of China and its art, Met viewers can now enjoy this shiyan shuimo (experimental ink painting) and its many non-ink complements without any serious challenge to their Western-centric worldview or any discomforting hint of looming geopolitical issues.
The smartest Western response to Chinese ink is a mixture of appreciation and fear. In the past few years, China’s government has begun to pour billions of dollars into cultural development, sponsoring myriad exhibitions and symposia and building hundreds of museums across the country—all just one part of a general push to transform the People’s Republic from a cheap manufacturing nation into a global center of creativity and design. In the process, land is often expropriated and long-term residence displaced—a high-profit maneuver supposedly offset by the provision of new housing and cultural amenities.
The readiness with which China’s cultural commissars support traditional ink art exhibitions both at home and abroad indicates that, for them, the medium serves as a way to quietly but emphatically suggest the world should adopt Chinese aesthetic precepts. In light of this, Hearn has explicitly eschewed the more conservative forms of contemporary ink and deftly underplayed the fear factor (his lenders include not a single mainland museum or government agency), thus forestalling any thought of Chinese soft-power initiatives on Fifth Avenue.
Let’s be clear: the goal of China’s Communist Party is not to conquer the globe but simply to govern 20 percent of humankind by fiat and without challenge, internal or external. To that end, its leaders must today gloss over the fact that the Party itself, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, burned, shattered and leveled innumerable “feudal” buildings and artworks, and hounded whole generations of Chinese artists and intellectuals to despair, madness, execution and suicide.
By assuming the mantle of cultural protector, and by pretending that experimental art—long deemed a threat, now used as a national marketing ploy—is simply a continuation of classic Chinese culture in a modern mode, the Party cannily positions itself as inheritor of two cultural myths legitimizing its authority. The first is the self-image of China as the Middle Kingdom—not just the center of the world but, metaphysically, a realm hovering midway between everyday reality and the fundamental laws of all nature. The second is the notion of the Mandate of Heaven, a conviction that societal harmony—even if enforced with tanks in Tiananmen Square—is the surest sign of the moral propriety of one’s rule, sanctioned by the Divine.
Anyone who does not believe these Big Lies is likely to be deeply troubled China’s attempt to promote them. Consider that, in its endorsement of tradition-based ink art, the Party seems to be wishing that the nation’s artists—not unlike its business and professional people—will simply be distracted (not to say bought off) by a steadily rising economy and the government’s largesse to its friends. Then, sighing resignedly like the ancient literati, artists can contentedly go off to cultivate their own garden, indulging in the present-day version of sipping tea or wine, debating philosophy, composing poems and pictures, and listening to lithe sing-song girls. Consequently, for this viewer, visiting “Ink Art” or any comparable exhibition is a dualistic experience: blink once and the entire cultural richness of China seems to flash before your eyes; blink again and the whole apparatus of the Communist Party surges up like a ghost.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Apr. 6.
RICHARD VINE is A.i.A.’s managing editor and the author of New China, New Art.