By André Chan
As early as the Spring and Autumn Period (about 771 to 476 BC) and the Warring States Period (about 47 5 to 221 BC), people in China began to use ink as a writing tool. For the next 2,000 years, ink became the preferred creative medium in the Chinese cultural sphere, including much of Asia. In those 2,000 years, ink – more precisely, shui mo, water and ink mixed together to produce the full spectrum of colours – has become a genre of art based on a particular medium, with its own rich history and philosophy. However, as contemporary artists try to bridge the gaps between different media, we enter a post-media era. M+’s collection policy is that art should transcend media and geographical origin. At the beginning the museum decided to make shui mo one of the categories of its collection, becoming the first contemporary museum dedicated to the study of modern and contemporary shui mo paintings. The first shui mo exhibition from the collection at the M+ Pavilion, The Weight of Lightness, was in three parts – brush and ink, landscapes, and abstract – and showed that ink art is not limited to particular materials.The first part of the exhibition, Writing, Symbols and Strokes, explored the foundations of calligraphy in ink art. Artists since ancient times emphasised the importance of calligraphy in ink painting. The show started with Dong Yangzi’s abstract calligraphy work Spirited like a far-journeying steed; floating like a duck on water and Li Yuan-chia’s calligraphy-like abstract painting Untitled, which together bridged the space between calligraphy and imagery by emphasising the beauty of the lines where calligraphic strokes are used as abstract symbols. Japanese calligraphers Morita Shiryu and Hidai Nankoku’s brush works and Chinese artist Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky suppressed the role of the text as ideogram. While the two brush works demonstrated the gracefulness of these characters’ strokes, the print work showed the inherit rigidity of their printed versions. Even when the original function of the ideographictext is absent, the memory of calligraphy remains in brushwork and the resulting brush strokes on paper become their own visual language. Korean monochrome painter Lee Ufan uses oil paint to repeatedly write on the canvas, while Park Seo-bo writes on it in pencil. The resulting strokes form abstract patterns. The emphasis on the action of writing is the essence of Chinese-influenced ink painting. Eastern art repeatedly revisits the theme of landscapes. However, unlike western landscape paintings that emphasise realism, eastern art requires that the artist’s mind and feelings be revealed through landscapes not precisely modelled after reality. The second part of the exhibition, The Idea of Landscape, examined the development of landscape motif in ink art since the second half of the 20th century. It featured modern shui mo pioneers from Hong Kong and Taiwan such as Wucius Wong, Liu Kuo-sung and Kan Tai-keung. The experimental landscape works created in the middle of the previous century incorporated shui mo techniques other than brush and ink. These experimentations created new possibilities for shui mo creativity and separated the art from the medium. Later contemporary artists put their emotions and personal experiences into their landscapes. Yang Jiechang’s Mustard Seed Garden III, with its traditional pictorial motifs found in painting manuals and heavy, powerful colours, was intended to mourn the tragedy of modern Chinese history. In The Six Principles of Chinese Painting – Transmission IV (with Hung Hoi), Hung Fai invited his father Hung Hoi, an established ink painter, to paint mountains and rocks with cinnabar as a template. Hung Fai traced the mountains and rocks with ink lines through layers of paper and separated the different layers, to examine the power struggle within the traditional master-apprentice and father-son relationships in his family. Qiu Anxiong’s In the Sky is a hand-drawn animation in black and white, expressing the pressures that urbanisation exerts on the natural environment. The third part of the exhibition, Beyond Material, dealt with the realm of the unearthly that features as an ideal in eastern philosophy. It showed the various orientations shui mo took on other than figurative portrayal. Zen, a painting by contemporary local ink pioneer Lui Shou-kwan, pushed the boundaries of the traditional freehand style, expressing the psychology of the artist through pure abstraction. On the opposite wall, Movement II, by Lui’s protégé Irene Chou, depicted the chaos at the beginning of time in Taoist belief. Her contemporary Qiu Deshu’s Red Mark Jumping Between Black and White, which superficially resembles a traditional painting, intertwined dark ink washes and the redness of the seal to create a fluid, abstract atmosphere. Li Huasheng left his mature figurative style and attempted to break out from the structure of tradition in the 1990s by rendering grids on paper as a personal motif.
The four artists travelled different paths to find abstraction in ink, all of them consciously trying to expand beyond the logic of traditional ink painting by staying at the edge of it. Another State of Man No. 24 by Zheng Chongbin and Fire Painting, Butterfly by Frog King Kwok travel between the figurative and the abstract, incorporating ink and foreshadowing their later work.This M + shui mo collection exhibition also featured works not considered ink art in the traditional sense, including some by non-Asian artists. Works such as Ishimoto Yasuhiro’s black-and-white photography and Etel Adnan’s minimalist landscape Point Reyes n∞2 California showed how ink art can transcend the boundaries of the traditional medium. It also broke the opposition of eastern and western cultures, presenting them on a continuous spectrum. Under such an open framework, ink became an aesthetic perspective rather than a creative practice relying heavily on a single medium. The flip side of this framework is the lack of an ontological discussion of ink art itself. While contemporary art practice aims to break down boundaries between different media, there is confusion about ink art, since discussion of the subject has been led by the art market rather than scholarly research. The M+ ink collection show does not claim to be a sweeping survey of the genre, but asks questions about the future of ink art in the contemporary world.