Contemporary Chinese Ink and Wash Under Cross-Cultural Conditions

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According to my own viewpoint, I use in this article “contemporary experimental ink and wash” to denote the concept of “modern ink and wash“, because the concept of “modern” only belongs to the category of “modernism“.

It expresses explicitly the breaking from tradition but cannot reflect the post-modern diversified phenomena of art and culture. I think, therefore, that the concept of “contemporary experimental ink and wash” is wider and can cover complex and varied cultural facts.

In the development of contemporary Chinese art, the art of ink and wash is an unavoidable topic. In the past more than twenty years, as in the case of other genres of art, its experiences are no doubt one of the phenomena of art that people have paid close attention to, made careful analyses of and discussed. This is because contemporary experimental ink and wash not only involves many cultural concepts such as tradition and modernity, content and form, reality and history, but also has some connections with the innovation of artistic forms. At the same time, in comparison with avant-garde art, contemporary experimental ink and wash seems to be forced to accept other elements and make changes. The experimental ink and wash artists seem to be forced to rethink about their theoretical viewpoints and the foundation on which they may transform their media. The “appropriation” has also undergone some changes and extended beyond tradition to space and performance. In view of all this, ink and wash is already far away from its original concept. The experiments in abstract and expressive ink and wash are the result of the seeking of free will and expression of individuality in the course of China’s modernization and the logical necessity of the development of art. Under the social condition of opening up and reform, art as a kind of ideology reflects the conflicts between different ideas in the period of social changing. The debate about the brushwork and ink-applying technique is not so much the reflection of the contradiction between different artistic ideas as the manifestation of political intentions. Therefore, the defining of ink and wash not only reflects individual artistic ideas but also the political inclinations of different ideologies. Against such a cultural background, how should we define the art of ink and wash?

In fact, the problems raised by “experimental ink and wash” are basically directed against the language of traditional ink and wash. Experimental ink and wash takes the abstract character of modernism or abstract expressionism as its own means of creation: destruction, transformation, reorganization, deconstruction, and integration. At the same time, it turns its attention to problems of contemporary art. I use the term “ink and wash” rather than “traditional Chinese painting” because the concept of “ink and wash” is not only open, but also has some modern connotation and interdisciplinary character.
In fact, ink and wash is also something political. The political nature here refers to the reflection of individual viewpoints and inclinations and, in essence, of the personal will for power. As far as the visual language is concerned, ink and wash most directly reveals the personal will for power hidden in the tension between tradition and reality, and this means a query about the power discourse of art and the stipulated order of art. Since the 1980s, by and large, we have been trying to “get out of ink and wash” rather than “develop ink and wash“. The most telling example is the idea of “brushwork and ink-applying technique amounts to nothing” put forward by Wu Guanzhong. He implies that in the creation of contemporary ink and wash we must break free from the traditional brushwork and ink-applying technique and create new languages of ink and wash. Zhang Yu’s proposition of “getting out of ink and wash” is “a restatement of our attitude of breaking with the rules of traditional ink and wash. We should get out of the limitations of the genre of ink and wash and participate in the criticism, dialogues and exchanges about common problems of contemporary art“. Undoubtedly, as long as ink and wash painters are engaged in artistic creation in the present cultural context of globalization, it will be hard for them to maintain their own purity of culture. However, this does not mean that the cultural status and the appeal to individualized language are lost in the art of ink and wash. What counts is how the artists will absorb, make use of and transform traditional ideas, modern art and means of expression so as to achieve cultural balance. All the arts today (including the art of ink and wash) need the re-location of culture and contemporary ink and wash needs to be re-located in an interdisciplinary way.

In the course of modernization, the ideas about ink and wash begin to change gradually from a closed mode to an open mode, and this necessarily leads to the reexamination of the values. In such a cultural context, experimental ink and wash must face two traditions or two kinds of experience. One is our traditional techniques and iconological structure. This kind of experience is based on the spiritual connotation of the traditional culture. The other is the typical manners and examples in contemporary Western art and the experience derived from the artistic phenomena of modernism and postmodernism. They are essentially free and subjective expression, and criticism and revision of norms. In the past ten years, several clear lines and strategies have developed in contemporary ink and wash so that its relation with these two traditions may be dealt with in a balanced way. First, the ink and wash artists have paid attention to wider and more complex cultural and social problems than before. They are not bystanders but active participants. Their interest has changed from refinement and tranquility to rapidly changing and complex urban life and the dissection of man’s mental state in everyday life. This language of ink and wash combines the modes of artistic narration of realism and expressionism. The painters observe the social reality and everyday life from the realistic visual angle, and depict the reality in the inflated language of expressionism. They have incorporated lots of subjective elements in their works and have depicted the hesitation and uneasiness of contemporary urban people in the process of social changes.

Zhang Yu
Light of Spirit Series No.60 – The Floating Incomplete Circle
Ink on Rice Paper
125 x 125 cm

Many contemporary experimental ink and wash painters use mainly abstract forms to express their concern about the social reality. They differ in their understanding of calligraphic brushwork, which is at the root of the abstract character of ink and wash. On the premise of expressing their subjective “imaginations“, the painters pay attention to the internal character of calligraphic brushwork, that is, the interest and flexibility of brushwork and ink-applying technique. They lay stress on the dynamic sense of calligraphic brushwork and the formal significance formed by subjective control of the moisture of brush and the thickness of ink or by chance. As to ink-applying technique, the painters adopt the accumulate-ink method to achieve a magnificent and imposing effect, or use heavy ink to depict the agony of mind. Sometimes the mysteriousness of the universe and something abstruse and fantastic can be sensed in their works. At the same time, some painters use the methods of making rubbings and splash-ink boldly and achieve random and accident abstract effect through comprehensive measures. Representative artists include Zhang Yu, Zhang Jin, Liu Zijian and Wei Qingji. They represent the style of “abstract ink and wash“.

Although the “post-modern” culture that has afforded us a new visual angle in methodology does not adapt entirely to our cultural reality, it enables us to understand the “meaning” of contemporary art in a dynamic way. It is not exclusive but inclusive, not unified but diversified. In such an open context, it is inevitable for experimental ink and wash to absorb and incorporate other elements and to extend to new fields. Apart from continuing to use traditional brushwork and ink-applying technique, it has also turned to the use of the mixed media, and even installation and performance. So both the intension and extension of the works related to ink and wash have changed. It can be said that experimental ink and wash does not merely exhibits peculiar styles and forms, but is a synthesis of cultural concepts. When writing this article, I have always a paradoxical train of thought. For we are always perplexed at the incommensurability of the Chinese and Western cultural modes. As a matter of fact, contemporary experimental ink and wash is a kind of peripheral genre of art, and if placed in the West it will fall under the category of classical modernism as mainstream. In short, it is certain that the artists will unceasingly deepen their understanding. In such a cultural context, how to handle the “degree” of balance between different cultures is no doubt a test of and a challenge to the artists. The new Chinese ink and wash in future, I think, will not be confined to the ink and wash in which traditional brushwork and ink-applying technique is used, and will maintain its cultural otherness. It will not be the ink and wash using Western ideas. It should be a kind of art with universality and ultimate value.

Si ringrazia Red Gate Gallery per la collaborazione


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