Rethink the ink

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


This is an astonishing month in Europe for 59-year-old Chinese artist Liu Dan. His monumental black ink paintings on paper are headliners at three prestigious shows: at the British Museum, London's cutting-edge Saatchi Gallery, which is holding a non-commercial exhibition called 'Ink', and the Guimet Museum in Paris, which specialises in Asian art.

All three galleries are making their first major explorations of a new phenomenon on the world art stage: contemporary Chinese ink paintings. So far the big prices for contemporary artworks from China have largely been achieved by oils, but now there is a new excitement about works that use more traditional media.

The two museum shows set contemporary Chinese ink paintings in the context of historical process. Guimet's exhibition puts real scholars' rocks alongside depictions of them by Liu and Zeng Xiaojun, another artist also born in the 1950s who, like Liu, is on a quest to grasp the 'spirit of the scholar'.

Meanwhile the British Museum looks at the genre over the past century, starting with the master of coloured ink painting (and famous forger) Zhang Daqian, who met and swapped work with Pablo Picasso in 1950, and finishing with today's younger artists, who have their own explorations to make.

'I think that New Ink Art is probably the most audacious pictorial experiment in China today,' says London-based Asian art dealer Michael Goedhuis, who is curating the Saatchi show, and who has spent many years working with contemporary artists. 'It's the next huge thing in Asian art.'

His could be a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Saatchi Gallery has sufficient clout to make 'the next thing' happen by holding an exhibition like this. To put it into context, when in 2008 the gallery held a show called 'The Revolution Continues', featuring contemporary Chinese oil paintings, it broke the record for the number of visitors attending a contemporary art event, with more than half a million visitors, averaging 5,200 a day.

That was the year The Guardian newspaper in Britain reported that 'curiosity about Chinese contemporary work reached fever pitch', noting that 'many of the most financially successful artists in the world were working in or come from China, including Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi.' And that of the 20 top-selling international artists, 11 were Chinese.

Liu Dan is not among the top 20. But some believe he could be in the future. He specialises in depicting the world of the scholar, including scholars' rocks (which is the subject of the Guimet Museum show) and textured brush paintings of trees. Last year, he painted a monumental and realistic picture of a pocket dictionary fallen open at a page about art. The work sold for US$173,000 at Sotheby's New York, a record for contemporary ink paintings at auction.

The Saatchi show will feature work by some 20 artists, including mystical paintings of animals by Xu Lei, the art director of the Today Art Museum in Beijing, whose dreamy depiction of a ram was chosen for the 2008 vintage Chateau Mouton Rothschild wine label, 'mouton' meaning 'sheep' in French.

It includes work by exiled Nobel Prize winner for literature, writer-painter Gao Xingjian, with his bold brushstrokes on white paper which have been characterised as 'writing of the idea' (xieyi).

There's also Qin Feng, who paints bold calligraphic strokes on 30 layers of thin paper that he glues together and then stains with tea (representing China) and coffee (representing the West).

There are also some delicate yet huge pieces by Wang Tiande, who covers his paintings with the thinnest rice paper, and then carefully, with the tip of a cigarette, burns the image of another, fleeting, landscape over the top.

It seems that common concerns among many of the artists in these three shows are the fragility of the bases upon which we depend, the blending of cultures, and the traces of things that are hidden.

Collectors are mostly from outside the mainland. Interest started in Europe 10 years ago, then American collectors became interested, and now there is increasing attention from Hong Kong and Singapore.

The Saatchi show is supported partly by Wilbur Ross, who bankrolled the Northern Rock banking deal with Virgin last year, and who specialises in spotting growth areas for investment. Last year Business Insider magazine put him among the 25 most influential art collectors on Wall Street.

Another artist in the Saatchi show is Chinese-American artist Gu Wenda. The work on show features Chinese landscapes portrayed with bold monochrome brushstrokes. But they are often sexualised - the lakes and rocks are in the shape of genitals, and the landscape is that of the human body.

Born in Shanghai, Gu studied under one of the great classical ink painters, Lu Yanshuo. From the beginning he rebelled, and other students, as part of their test, were asked what they thought of Gu. The correct answer was along the lines that he was 'a wild horse. Not a handsome one, or a clever one.'

Gu's first solo show was in Xian in Shaanxi province. The exhibition closed down before it even opened. 'I was a young guy. I didn't really pay too much attention. I was a theorist, always, and I wanted to find new theories. I was the only student who went in another direction.'

The wild horse went on to find new pastures in the US, experimenting with installations made from human hair, used tampons, great stone stelae on which made-up words are carved, and more recently green tea - 2,000 kilograms of the stuff - made into paper, on which he plans to paint ink made of burned Chinese hair 'so it has Chinese DNA'.

'America has the strength and the vision that could provide what I wanted,' Gu says of his move to the US in 1987. What he wanted - which is also what other contemporary Chinese ink painters are exploring in their own ways - was a new way of establishing a cultural identity through learning, and then subverting, the ancient traditions of Chinese art.

'All these artists are finding a way to explain the reality of contemporary China in pictorial terms, using traditional formats to say completely new things,' Goedhuis says.

Which is something quite different from the oil painting movement in China, where artists use completely new formats to say some quite traditional things.

'Rochers de lettres, itineraires de l'art en Chine', Guimet Museum, Paris until June 25; 'Ink', Saatchi Gallery, London, from Tue until July 5; 'Modern Chinese Ink Paintings', British Museum, London, until September 2