I sat in the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane last week, resting my weary art gallery feet after many hours traversing the Asia Pacific Triennial, and watched a charming Chinese animation for children, called Where is Mama?. Created in 1960 at Shanghai Film Studios under the guidance of the legendary animator Te Wei, it tells the story of a group of tadpoles searching for their mother. They plaintively question goldfish, shrimp, turtles and other creatures on their journey through a watery landscape. Each frame is rendered in deft, minimal brushstrokes with ink and wash, influenced by the watercolour paintings of Qi Baishi.
In these digital days its artistry and simplicity were a revelation. Art historian Lin Ci speaks of the ways in which scholar painting techniques which vividly evoke, not an exact likeness, but a “spiritual resemblance” to aspects of nature such as plum blossom, birds, bamboo, stone, withered trees and orchids allowed the artists to “play the game of inks” better. For scholar officials trying to distance themselves from the realpolitik of the imperial court, these freehand ink paintings of birds and flowers could “bring comforts to their hearts” he says, evoking an endearing image of the lonely scholar contemplating his garden and disregarding the painting conventions of his imperial masters. (Lin Ci, ‘Chinese Painting: Capturing the Spirit of Nature with Brushes’) Watching this little film certainly brought “comforts to my hearts” after a somewhat disappointing APT experience.
It may seem a long distance between a sweet animated film and the great masters of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, however, the adherence to the beauty and discipline of calligraphy and ink painting so evident in every frame of Where is Mama? is the very thing that so often joins past and present in Chinese art. In a catalogue essay for Ink – the Art of China at the Saatchi Gallery in London in June 2012, Dominique Narhas had this to say: “Ink painting brings us into contact with an immersive intimacy in which humanistic themes of man’s relation to himself, to nature and to the other are played out against the great backdrop of constancy and change.” It is precisely this notion of constancy and change, the intertwining of past and present, which distinguishes contemporary Chinese art in the global marketplace and results in works which are able to reference tradition and convention yet speak to the contemporary world and an international audience.