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.
Current discourses about the significance of ink-painting in contemporary art practices acknowledge its central importance. Keith Wallace, writing in Yishu, said, “A growing number of exhibitions [feature] artists who… explore and even push the parameters of what ink-painting should represent…a concerted effort by historians, curators, and critics not to let ink-painting slip into the abyss of historical dinosaurs, but to encourage ways in which its practice can continue to contribute to contemporary art.” (Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, July-August 2011 volume 10 no. 4) The mass circulation print media have noted this phenomenon too. A recent New York Times article quoted Britta Erickson, a curator and scholar who teaches courses on the history of ink painting at Stanford University. “Today, there’s ink on paper; there’s ink by itself; there’s the gesture without the ink; there’s just the paper, or there’s the performance of the gesture, and there’s video and installation art too.” (Nina Siegel, ‘Ancient Art Tells China’s Modern Tale’, New York Times October 31, 2012)
So, how are contemporary artists re-imagining and transforming an archaic tradition? From Xu Bing’s iconic Book from the Sky and Gu Wenda’s human hair frozen with adhesive into translucent curtains of unreadable language, from Song Dong’s calligraphy written with water on a stone slab in ‘Writing Diary with Water’ to the digital multimedia works of Yang Yongliang, to conceptual works by Zhang Huan and Qiu Zhijie, a generation of Chinese artists have been reinventing traditional forms to represent ideas and observations about their contemporary world. Last summer we saw He Xiangyu’s extraordinary Cola Project at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art here in Sydney, in which he appropriated Song Dynasty masterworks using ink mixed with litres of Coca Cola. Indeed, one of the key elements underpinning the inventiveness and innovation of contemporary art in China is, perhaps paradoxically, a deep knowledge of and respect for traditional forms. Chinese artists revere their cultural heritage and art traditions yet at the same time freely experiment with them. Almost every artist will tell you that they learned calligraphy and ink painting as a child, and they speak knowledgeably about historical ink painting masters. This results in works of great depth and layered meaning. In the hands of some artists this reinvention leads to transgressive works of social critique, even savage satire, whilst others reflect on elements of their world in a quieter, more personal or meditative manner. I recently spoke with a number of artists in Beijing and Shanghai about the way in which their practice is informed by their study of traditional Chinese painting – these are just three of those stories.
In Beijing Gao Ping and Li Tingting spoke to me about their admiration for traditional masters as well as how their discoveries of particular western artists inform their practice. In Shanghai Shi Zhiying told me that it is only very recently that she felt that she could really understand traditional ink painting methods, following a visit to a master practitioner in Suzhou, and a close investigation of works in the museum. “This makes me very happy,” she said. Her own practice, she believes, has been deepened as a result.
I first spoke with artist Gao Ping last year, when she arrived in Sydney for shows of her work at Stella Downer Fine Art and at the Maitland Regional Gallery. She told me that for Chinese artists the traditions of ink painting are “like the ground under your feet”. In December when we spoke at greater length in her Beijing studio, she expanded on this idea, telling me of her admiration for the painter Ba Da of the early Qing Dynasty, adept at creating visual metaphors, who famously observed that there were “more tears than ink” in his paintings. His expressive landscapes achieve a balance between stillness, space and closely observed detail, which Gao Ping returns to again and again. She finds his work both sad and “calm in heart”, a description which could equally be applied to her own work, and especially to her drawings. In these works, created with traditional inks on silk or rice paper, tiny lonely figures or objects float in a vast empty space, creating a dynamic relationship between the forms themselves and the space they inhabit. Her deep knowledge and understanding of traditional painting is evident in the ‘rightness’ of her placement and the confidence of her mark-making. She says that tiny things are sometimes more important than the large and obvious, and her work creates an ongoing narrative grounded in her idiosyncratic observations of people, places and events. The life of an artist in Beijing is a lonely one, she says, and she believes that painting is like a secret language, creating mysterious layers that reveal themselves slowly to those willing to take the time to look carefully. Reticent and not keen to talk much about herself or about the meanings of her work, she says, “What I want to say is in the paintings.”
Ink paintings of tiny female figures, some nude, some clothed, perhaps represent a kind of self-portrait, an exploration of loneliness. Still Life – Girls contains 4 minute figures: an overtly sexy one in black stockings, an exhausted one slumped flat on her back, and two who turn away from the viewer. Their outlines are softly blurred. They are touching and whimsical, as are her representations of lonely toys, battered teddy bears and stuffed animals, pot plants, electric fans, figures seated on park benches, slightly shabby gardens and simple houses like those around the courtyard where she and her husband work intently in separate studio spaces, heated by a wood burning stove. These works express fragility and vulnerability. They evoke memories of childhood, as well as her astute observations of the world around her and her responses to it. “The drawing is in my heart,” she says.
In contrast, her oil and acrylic paintings, some large and powerful and others on smaller square canvases, are at once strong and lyrical, often employing a subtle grisaille in which translucent washes are layered to create great depth. She began to experiment with introducing washes of colour underneath her palette of greys after looking closely at the work of Marlene Dumas, an artist she much admires. These painterly works evoke ambiguous landscapes which to the artist represent an ideal world, a place of harmony and retreat from the chaos of the city. Gao Ping is a quiet observer of contemporary urban life, and much of her work speaks of her distress at the pace of change in Beijing, and the constant and unsettling transformation of familiar places in a never-ending process of demolition and urban renewal. She is creating a different, calmer world in her paintings.
Li Tingting also works with ink on paper, often in the traditional form of a scroll. Her works initially focused on ‘feminine’ subject matter – handbags, shoes and dresses in particular – but developed to include banal objects associated with contemporary life and mass production, such as disposable plastic water bottles and light bulbs. It has been suggested that her Shoes series can be interpreted as a feminist response to the pressures on women to adopt an overtly ‘feminine’ identity. The artist politely but very firmly denies this reading of her work, saying rather that she wanted to celebrate her life as a young woman. She has also produced works representing teddy bears, fruits, flowers and even sunflower seeds. Cascading shapes spill down the surface of her paper in a deceptively spontaneous manner. In actuality the process of working with traditional inks, balancing wet and dry brushstrokes, is exacting and painstaking. She surprises through her choice of bright pink ink as well as her contemporary subject matter.
Born in Shanxi Province, she now lives and works in Beijing, and is focused on experimenting to see just how far the ink tradition can be pushed into new and hybrid forms. On a trip to European galleries she discovered the work of Cy Twombly and was inspired to move her work in a new direction. The result, after a period of intense experimentation, was a series of works representing grandiose items of furniture. Floral upholstered armchairs and overstuffed sofas, painted and lacquered Chinese chests and cupboards and opulent chandeliers now float in an amorphous space, with drips and dribbles of ink running down the surface, over a restless layering of washes both opaque and transparent. Her pale and fragile palette has given way to strong magenta and viridian green, but her sureness with the placement of the objects within the space, and the way in which inanimate objects are so filled with life, links her to the masterful painters that she admired as a student.
Rather than painting scholar rocks, bamboo and waterfalls, Li Tingting paints cascades of shoes or mass produced consumer goods, suggesting the recent transformation and modernisation of Chinese culture or the kind of formal furnishings that indicate the trappings of wealth. The tug-of-war between longing for stability and embracing change in Chinese society is evident in Li’s work, albeit in less overt and more nuanced ways than in the work of some other artists.
Shi Zhiying has developed a unique practice, similarly informed by her awareness of ink painting techniques. Working on a very large scale, using thinned down washes of monochrome oil paint to create images of vastness – the ocean, endless fields of grass, Zen Gardens – she reveals a restrained control of her medium. As a child she learned calligraphy, but later as an art student she decided that ink painting was an old, irrelevant relic of the past, preferring to immerse herself in the work of modern masters such as Cezanne and Gauguin. After she had graduated and was trying to develop her own visual language she realised she had been wrong. Previously she has been quoted as linking her painting practice to the practice of meditation, “a slow and peaceful process that takes a long time to develop”. In conversation in her Shanghai studio last month, she clarified this. Whilst her Buddhist beliefs are an essential part of who she is, and a profound influence on her work, she says, “Painting is not meditation. Painting is painting. But it can be like meditation because I do it carefully, honestly and truthfully.”
She came to her signature technique, stripped of all inessential elements such as colour, almost by accident. For a long time after she graduated from university she felt that she had “lost herself” as an artist. She had been overwhelmed by so many influences that believed she no longer knew how to paint. She tells the story of how she regained her confidence. At this time her husband was studying in America, and she went to meet him there. On a trip to the west coast, visiting a lighthouse, she looked down at the vast ocean below and experienced the overwhelming sensation that she had vanished from the world and had ceased to exist as an individual. This uncomfortable but not unpleasant experience prompted her to study Buddhist scriptures, and to look for subjects in her painting that would reveal essential truths about the nature of the world. She started by taking photographs of the ocean and removing the colour. When she went back to the landscape itself, she says, the blue of the ocean and the sky seemed fake. By removing the colour she believed she could find a greater truthfulness. Later, she saw Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series of black and white seascapes and realised that his notion that looking at the ocean is a “voyage of seeing” akin to visiting one’s ancestral home was not unlike her own feelings about the subject.
In the blades of grass, grains of rice, or shifting patterns of wind and water that she creates with her spare use of thin washes of oil paint is a hidden narrative about the complexity and connectedness of the universe and all it contains. Buddhist scripture advises eliminating all that is inessential in order to distil the essence. “Simplicity is reality” she says. Other works include paintings of simple everyday objects such as a pair of cloth shoes, or a bowl of rice. They are beautifully observed and their lack of colour gives them a stillness and gravitas that makes us see them anew. She has been influenced by the monochrome paintings of Yan Pei-ming, most famous for his enormous black or red portraits of Mao Zedong, and Zhang Enli who focuses on objects of the everyday, finding in the works of these Shanghainese painters a spirit akin to her own.
Recently she has been experimenting with ink and watercolour on paper, drawing more directly on traditional methods and techniques, exhibiting a body of work based on Italo Calvino’s novel Mr Palomar in a show entitled ‘The Infinite Lawn’ at James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai. The protagonist of the novel is seeking “reason and disorder in a disorderly world” says Ivy Zhou in her catalogue essay ‘The Universe as Mirror’, likening this quest to Shi Zhiying’s painterly exploration of the relationship between the self and the world.
These three artists in many ways exemplify a particular thread in contemporary art in China. Like many things Chinese, it is somewhat of a paradox. Their practice is underpinned by their knowledge of and respect for the traditions of ink painting and calligraphy, yet they themselves cannot accurately be defined as ink painters. They are anxious about being defined or labelled by their ‘Chinese-ness’ (or their gender) yet their work inevitably reflects those crucial elements of their identity. And in each case their work is thoroughly contemporary, yet grounded in the past and is therefore timeless.
Luise Guest is a Sydney based art educator and writer. For the last two years her focus as been on contemporary Chinese art and, more broadly, the art of the Asia Pacific region. In 2011 she travelled to China on a NSW Premier’s Teaching Scholarship and interviewed more than 20 artists, curators and writers in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. In 2013 she will take up a Writer’s Residency through Redgate Gallery in Beijing to pursue her research into emerging female artists. She writes for online journals such as The Art Life and Dailyserving, and for the Beijing/Shanghai based Randian. Her own blog is www.anartteacherinchina.blogspot.com
Note: All images in this article are reproduced with permission of the artists, Gao Ping’s work reproduced courtesy of the artist and China Art Projects, Shi Zhiying’s work ‘High Seas’ reproduced courtesy of the artist and White Rabbit Gallery.