CHINESE INK painting is enjoying a new lease of life, thanks to modern artists who are giving a contemporary twist to the traditional technique.
The past, present and future of the genre is the focus of the 5th International Ink Painting Biennial of Shenzhen which starts tomorrow, in four venues.
'The biennial has focused on establishing a profound and systematic display of the achievements in the field of ink painting,' says Dong Xiaoming, one of two chief curators. 'Being a significant expression of traditional Chinese culture, ink painting remains a fascinating medium in the contemporary arts arena.
'While some artists show their concern and respect for tradition and carry it on, others try to change it. The variety of ways of interpretation and expression has made it one of the most appealing genres of our time and an essential part of our culture.'
The exhibition at Guan Shanyue Museum of Art, for instance, will focus on Design & Ink Painting, with about 10 international designers invited to explore ink as a medium in contemporary public art. 'The aim is to open up the expressive capacities of ink painting, and to discuss how such an ancient artistic language can develop in a contemporary context,' Dong says.
Heritage of Brushwork & Ink Painting, at the Shenzhen Fine Art Institute, brings together Chinese artists who specialise in traditional brushwork and those known for traditional poetry, literature and calligraphy. At Shenzhen Museum of Art, National Metropolis Ink Painting focuses on the effects of urbanisation on the genre.
One highlight of the biennial will be held at He Xiangning Museum of Art. Ink, Life, Taste - To Sugar Add Some Salt is a group show of more than 30 international artists from different cultural backgrounds. Each experiments with the medium and injects contemporary expressions and concepts into the works.
Curator Martina Koppel-Yang has included modern ink paintings that focus on society and everyday life, such as a 1965 painting of the first Chinese atom bomb by Wu Hufan and a series of 1920s and 30s works by Huang Shaoqiang, whose paintings reflect the lives of the poor, of beggars, of those forgotten by society. The exhibition also features works by Ming Fay, Wu Shanzhuan, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Leung Kui-ting, Ruth Barabash, Miroslav Tichy and Yang Jiechang.
'Spirituality, social and political engagements are timeless concepts; they are important values expressed in traditional Chinese literati painting, and still compelling concepts today,' says Koppel-Yang. 'The exhibition concept is further developed from a position considering ink painting as a spiritual discipline rather than a technique. It, therefore, comprises works executed in a variety of media, such as ink painting, photography and multimedia art. This suggests the permeation of the spirit and taste of ink painting into other media.'
Singapore has a big presence at this year's biennial, staging the Singapore Modern Ink Painting at the Guan Shanyue Museum of Art. Featuring eight artists, the show illustrates how Chinese ink has evolved elsewhere in Asia, with evidence of western influence.
Chinese ink painting in Singapore has had a long association with the 'Shanghai School', a movement started in the late 19th century. Instead of focusing on traditional landscapes, birds and flowers, the Shanghai School explored urban living and city lifestyles.
Individualistic brushwork accentuated self expression and many of the ink painters embraced xieyi, an aesthetic theory that emphasises the spiritual essence of the subject.
Many Chinese painters migrated to Singapore in the first half of the 20th century and this style became the form of Chinese ink painting there, says Kwok Kian Chow, director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).
The impact of this first generation of artists can still be seen in the contemporary art scene in Singapore, and in this exhibition curated by SAM. Some 60 artworks painted over the past 25 years are on display. The painting style in Singapore evolved into what is sometimes referred to as the Nanyang Style, with the incorporation of western techniques and values into the works which include local subjects, says Kwok.
Contemporary artist Chua Er Kay, who studied under Shanghai ink master Fan Changtien and in Australia, offers examples of the Asia-meets-west vision in his works. 'I'm interested in looking at the context of Chinese painting from a western point of view,' Chua says.
His latest series, inspired by Borobudur, tries to capture the 'inner mindscape' of walking through the ancient Buddhist monument. 'This is my second series on Borobudur,' he says. 'The first time, 20 years ago, I was very impressed by the aesthetic details of this monument and painted a lot of architectural details. But this time, in July, I was able to detach myself and paint from further away.'
Tan Swie Hian gives ink painting a new dimension by drawing inspiration from philosophy and religion. A calligrapher, poet and writer, Tan incorporates a lot of colour into his work, which he says are 'spiritual visions' or 'inner visions' he's trying to capture. In Night Kites, executed in the traditional Chinese hanging scroll format, Tan has completely covered the surface with ink and pigment.
The exhibition is the first major showing of Singaporean ink artists in an international biennale and Kwok hopes it will help to open new frontiers and opportunities for the practice.
Additional reporting by Kevin Kwong
The International Ink Painting Biennial of Shenzhen closes on Jan 10