Brush with uncertainty

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2007, 12:00am

Chinese ink used to be widely taught and practised in local schools. Not any more. 'When we were young, writing out characters using a Chinese brush was a form of classroom punishment,' says Chan Shing-kau, 54. 'It was one way to expose kids to the medium. Now, even that opportunity has disappeared.'

Chan is among the older generation of ink artists who worry that the centuries-old medium is in danger of extinction in Hong Kong. They say young local artists today prefer installation, photography and video to Chinese ink, and that a continual lack of education in the art form will see the end of it.

'I find that a shame, given that Hong Kong has all the conditions that can take this art form forward and make it our own,' says 72-year-old artist Chu Hing-wah.

An exhibition of traditional and contemporary works opening this Friday will demonstrate how the art form has evolved, show-casing the works of 35 Chinese ink artists from the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas.

The New Face of Ink Paintings, organised by Sino Group, also features works by the likes of Liu Kuosung, Wucius Wong, Zhou Lu-yun and Gao Xingjian, and includes a symposium with author and art director at the Shenzhen Museum of Art Lu Hong, Hong Kong Museum of Art chief curator Tang Hoi-chiu, and Ink Society chair Alice King.

'With the integration of cultures from the east and west, Hong Kong is nurturing the development of modern ink painting,' according to the exhibition notes.

It's hard to imagine today, but Hong Kong spearheaded a new trend in Chinese ink in the 1960s and 1970s, under Lui Shou-kwan, who experimented with new forms and expressions. His innovative style, theories and Zen paintings gave birth to the New Chinese Ink Painting Movement, which placed Hong Kong artistically ahead of the mainland at the time. However, by the 80s its momentum had faded.

The local education system was partly to blame, says Laurence Tam Chi-Sing, who studied under Lui. Under British rule, art as a subject in the school curriculum was almost completely in the western format, in line with the British system, he says

'The teaching of Chinese ink painting wasn't much encouraged by the Education Department at that time,' says Tam, a former chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of Art. 'That was partly due to the lack of Chinese art teachers capable of teaching Chinese art in line with modern educational principles, and partly due to the general adherence to the long tradition of learning and teaching Chinese painting through copying. There was no plan in the Education Department to provide facilities to train more teachers to teach Chinese art in a more enlightened manner.'

Today, the number of art students taking up Chinese painting remains low compared with other disciplines. Tong Kam- tang, associate professor in the department of fine arts at Chinese University of Hong Kong, says about one-third to one-quarter of intakes choose Chinese painting. Most opt for western media such as mixed-media, installation, oil painting and sculpture.

'But it doesn't mean students don't like Chinese painting,' he says. 'They don't choose Chinese painting because they're not familiar with the art form, which has much to do with the education system.

'Students weren't exposed to Chinese painting when they were in primary and secondary schools. Their training was mostly in western mediums. When they study it at university, many don't even know how to use the brush.

'Chinese painting requires painstaking training and solid techniques. It's hard for them to grasp the techniques in three years if they've never learned before. So, many of them lack the confidence to choose Chinese painting for their graduation works.'

Wong attributes young artists' lack of interest in the art form to Hong Kong's political history. He says handover uncertainties in the 80s and 90s meant many locals were unenthusiastic about learning anything from across the border.

'That lack of interest is reflected in the city's eagerness to define its own popular culture, which is relatively shallow when compared with that across the border,' Wong says. 'This city has become quite parochial in that sense.'

However, a handful of artists is determined to keep Chinese ink alive. Alan Lee Kwok-kee, 50, an art teacher and one of Tam's students, is now introducing Chinese ink in his lessons. He says traditional Chinese paintings can be fun to learn if it's taught in an interesting way. Lee recently asked his students to depict Hong Kong scenes by combining the art form with digital photography.

Margaret Yeung Kwok-fan and Stanley Wong Ping-pui are also experimenting with the medium. Whereas Yeung combines Chinese ink with computer technology in her calligraphic series, Wong marries the medium with architecture and design.

'Ink isn't just a technique,' Wong says. 'It's not a craft to be mastered, but more about the mastery of the mind. I'll be focusing on the medium in the next five years.'

Chu says the government should play a greater role in protecting this heritage. 'No one else in the world does Chinese ink better than us Chinese,' he says.

'It's the best material for us to express our emotions and feelings, and it's our heritage. Yet, the art hasn't been supported by the government. We don't even have a proper academy for visual arts, so how is the art form to develop?'

Additional reporting by Joyce Siu

New Face of Ink Paintings: Modern Ink Painting, group exhibition and symposium, Aug 3-26, 9am-9pm, 1/F Lobby, Central Plaza, 18 Harbour Rd, Wan Chai; OC Gallery, G/F Olympian City I, 11 Hoi Fai Rd, West Kowloon