Opening and Extending: The Significance of Experimental Ink and Wash in Art History

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The discussion about experimental ink and wash since the 1990s has centered on the problem of whether experimental ink and wash can get into the mainstream of the contemporary Chinese art and that of its cultural staus in the art of the world.

If we hope that it will be possible for contemporary Chinese ink and wash to make transregional and cross-cultural exchanges in the new century, we should not confine our exploration to the level of pure forms. Instead, we should transform the study about the problems within the system of Chinese ink and wash to the study of modern art and contemporary life from the angle of ink and wash and in a more open way, and then we should approach the problem of how contemporary art can explore and express modern spirit through the innovation of forms. The analysis and study of the significance of “experimental ink and wash” in art history is necessary to comprehensively understanding modern Chinese art, observing the transforming of traditional Chinese painting to the modern mode, and laying an academic foundation for the collection of contemporary ink and wash paintings.

I will sum up the basic pattern of contemporary traditional Chinese painting since the 1990s into three parts, that is, the “experimental ink and wash“, the “academic realistic ink and wash“, and the “traditional ink and wash“.
The art of experimental ink and wash since the 1990s has not only expanded the tradition in materials and techniques of ink and wash, but also made new advances in the structure of images and the organization of signs. In the works of experimental ink and wash, the sense of space and the mode of structure are different from those of the traditional ink and wash. Brushwork and ink-applying technique is no longer the center of artistic expression, but one of numerous modes of artistic expression, and has acquired new meanings in a more complex and varied system of language. Instead of the lyric and poetic harmony of the traditional ink and wash, the experimental ink and wash artists have adopted non-logical modes of expression such as appropriation, transformation, dislocation, and collage, and express something with non-narrative ideas, thus leading traditional Chinese painting into a cultural context that conforms to the contemporary social condition.

Here we have noticed the “non-realistic character” of Chinese experimental ink and wash, what people usually refer to as “abstract character“. Quite a few experimental ink and wash painters no longer depict concrete objects in their works. Instead, they try to transform their language of ink and wash to a modern mode by using abstract schemata and diversified techniques of ink and wash. Therefore, although it is too narrow to define “experimental ink and wash” as “abstract ink and wash“, the comprehensive use of abstract languages is indeed a distinct feature of “experimental ink and wash”.
Experimental ink and wash is a product of the period of modern transformation of the Chinese society. It differs from the traditional ink and wash in its humanistic connotation and spiritual pursuit. Experimental ink and wash artists regard the expression of the spiritual and mental state and aesthetic interest of our contemporaries as their duty, but at the same time insist that the resources of language and the starting point of style of experimental ink and wash should be looked for in traditional Chinese painting (the great traditional Chinese painting since the Qin and Han Dynasties). The aspect of “mind” in the “mind-matter relation” is specially emphasized in experimental ink and wash, and this distinguishes it from the academic traditional Chinese painting that emphasizes painting from life. Of course, we need not deny that experimental ink and wash has absorbed from modern Western art many valuable elements such as structures, colors, textures, collage, ideas. But the most important thing is that the experimental ink and wash artists have clearly realized that what they are facing is a rapidly modernizing Chinese society and a new era of industrialization, progress of science and technology, and information, and of increasing integration of global economy, politics and culture. This causes the dilemma of experimental ink and wash, that is, we must both preserve the tradition of ink and wash as a status of Chinese culture and incorporate the art of ink and wash into contemporary life to prevent the art of ink and wash from being “outside” the course of China’s modernization. Facing the outside world, experimental ink and wash must stick to the cultural characteristics of Chinese art; facing the Chinese society, it must make itself the artistic token of modern spirit. The cultural significance of “experimental ink and wash” in art history has thus been established.
The cultural significance of experimental ink and wash in art history lies, first of all, in the fact that it is part of the diversified national art in the structure of world art. The establishment of this cultural status derives from two basic points. First, as the representative of Oriental art, Chinese art has indeed cultural connotation and values different from those of Western art. As part of the mosaic of global culture, Chinese art should have its own cultural characteristics and promote the exchange on an equal footing between the arts of different countries of the world by maintaining necessary tension between itself and contemporary Western art. In front of the powerful Western culture, China, while marching rapidly to prosperity, needs a powerful national art characterized by self-respect and self-confidence.

Emphasizing the establishment of the national cultural status does not amount to narrow national conservatism. Instead, it means that we should study and give full play to the characteristics of Chinese art. It involves both critically carrying on the Oriental cultural tradition, and paying attention to the deterioration of the environment in the course of industrialization, the increasing desire for material wealth in the human mind, and the loss of humanistic spirit. As far as Chinese ink and wash is concerned, the main problem in practice is how to understand its “root nature of ink and wash” and the characteristics of ink and wash, and the problem in theory is the possibility of ink and wash to express people’s spiritual and mental state in our own time. Opinions differ about these problems. The practicing ink and wash painters hold that the native character of ink and wash is not the material itself but the cultural connotation. The modern nature of ink and wash lies in its critical character, its criticism about increasing material desires, spiritual barrenness, and the deterioration of environment. This makes experimental ink and wash part of contemporary Chinese cultural context and makes it possible for it to make exchanges in the world art. Therefore we may realize that the significance of experimental ink and wash in art history lies in its “modern character“, that is, its possibility to express the moderns’ spiritual life in a unique way.
Thus we have returned to a traditional topic, the relation between art and reality. Is its value in art history based on the reflection of reality through art or on the logic evolution of art itself? As part of contemporary Chinese art, experimental ink and wash has actively participated in the re-establishment of images reflecting the reality in China. The problem the artists are approaching is the self-contained nature of artistic language, that is, how language can connect itself with the reality through its mode of expression. To deconstruct and reorganize the language of traditional ink and wash from the angle of morphology and to establish a profound connection between abstraction and realism through the metaphor of images and the organization of signs means to carry on the traditional ink and wash in an opposite direction or even to break it. In this sense, the significance of experimental ink and wash in art history lies in its transformation, the accomplishment of the transformation from tradition to the modern mode in the history of traditional Chinese painting. That is why I have placed experimental ink and wash in the category of modern art.

In the mid-1990s, through the debate, study and criticism in the academic circles, the art of experimental ink and wash became the most active artistic trend in contemporary China, and began to enter into the field of vision of collectors both in China and abroad. A lot of nongovernmental funds supported the creation and academic activities of experimental ink and wash. Quite a few farsighted entrepreneurs and collectors participated in the early activities and collection of Chinese experimental ink and wash. I may mention here the Joint Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Experimental Ink and Wash held in San Francisco, U.S.A., in 1996, the Symposium on the Contemporary Chinese Ink and Wash Toward the 21st Century and the Exhibition for Viewing and Emulating held in 1966 under the auspices of Guangzhou Xinlong Group, Looking Back to Chang’an: Invitational Exhibition of Modern Ink and Wash for Collection which I curated and which was held in Xi’an in 1998, China: 20 Years of Experiment in Ink and Wash held in Guangdong in 2001, etc. Works of experimental ink and wash also had an important place in large scale and comprehensive exhibitions of ink and wash such as Shanghai Biennial and Shenzhen International Biennial of Ink and Wash held in 2000. Chinese artists of experimental ink and wash also participated in a lot of joint exhibitions and grand exhibitions held in Europe and America, such as New Art of Ink and Wash Touring Exhibition held at Berlin Art Museum, Germany, Inside Out: New Chinese Art Exhibition held at P.S.1 Modern Art Gallery, New York, and Modern Art Gallery, San Francisco, U.S.A., etc. This shows that Chinese experimental ink and wash has joined the trend of exchanges in the world culture. It is indeed a noteworthy phenomenon that during these exhibitions quite a few works were collected by the sponsoring organizations and collectors. When we are still contending about the future of traditional Chinese painting and discussing the problem of the cultural status of experimental ink and wash, some farsighted art museums, collecting organizations and collectors has found a new artistic resource, and begin to collect works of experimental ink and wash. Experimental ink and wash has become an important phenomenon in the history of development of contemporary Chinese art since the 1990s. The analysis, study and collection of the art of experimental ink and wash will become an important subject in the history of Chinese art of the 21st century.

Yin Shuangxi – Doctor at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Art Critic
Si ringrazia Red Gate Gallery per la collaborazione


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