Ink outside the box

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2008, 12:00am

Not all ink art has to feature ink. An exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art shows it can also take the form of a piece dusted with gunpowder or marked with burned holes. It can even be an installation of a life-sized dining table and chairs.

Titled 'New Ink Art: Innovation and Beyond' and guest curated by the head of Ink Society Hong Kong, Alice King, the exhibition has gathered 64 works by nearly 30 Chinese artists and sets out to trace how the traditional art form has evolved. The show, starting on Friday, is part of the museum's Hong Kong Art: Open Dialogue exhibition series 2008-09, which gives independent curators the chance to explore art from a different perspective, making use of its collection.

'The new ink art movement originated in Hong Kong and underwent various transformations,' says Tang Hoi-chiu, chief curator of the museum. 'We're opening up new possibilities, so that everything can be permitted and all [media] can be mixed. The challenge of this traditional medium is to showcase Chinese ink art, past and present.'

Perhaps the most intriguing, even controversial, part of the show is a section entitled Is It Ink Art? showing works that may not be deemed ink art at all. The featured works by artists such as Man Fung-yi, Lui Chun-kwong, Wong Chung-yu, Ming Fay and Cai Guoqiang range from organic installations to acrylic on canvas and digital works.

Cai's Glass-crashing Birds 1: Project for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006) and Drawing for Fetus Movement II: Project for Extraterrestrials No9 (1992) are from his signature series of works featuring gunpowder on paper - an explosion of fine powder seemingly dancing across a white surface.

New York-based Cai has another claim to fame, as co-director of visual and special effects of the opening and closing ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics.

'I'm not saying gunpowder is ink, but the spontaneity of the explosion can be likened to the spontaneity of brushstrokes we see in ink paintings,' says King. Similarly, Man's Not This, Not That, Not Here, Not There is more about the tradition of Chinese ink than embodying the art form itself. The installation features seven hanging scrolls and one hand scroll decorated with floral patterns made up of burnt incense holes.

King says Man's piece is innovative in that it highlights elements of tradition. And curator Tang says the artist has executed the work with a concentration and contemplation that 'echoes pure Chinese ink art'.

King is aware that the inclusion of cutting-edge contemporary 'ink' that doesn't use the medium may upset purists but she stands by her decision. 'Some traditionalists may not accept the new works as ink art, but that's fine,' she says. 'We try to make people think: 'Is this ink art?' Of course, some of the works are stretching the imagination, but what art doesn't?'

Not that more traditional works have been ignored, however. They are given ample coverage in the other five sections entitled The Innovators, Beyond Tradition, Evolving City Life, Transformed Text and New Frontier.

The Innovators features senior masters of modern ink painting, including Ding Yangyong (1902-1978), Luis Chan (1905-1995) and Lui Shou-kwan (1919-1975). King considers Lui the 'doyen' of modern ink painters. Tang agrees, adding he was one of the most important artists in Hong Kong, who inspired a generation starting from the late 1960s. Lui taught many artists such as Leung Kui-ting, Wucius Wong, Chu Hing-wah, Irene Chou and Kan Tai-keung, whose works are featured in the exhibition.

While Lui's versatile style moved from traditional landscapes to abstract and semi-abstract, the artist is most known for his iconic 'Zen paintings'. Tang says Lui was well versed in Chinese philosophy and religion, so he incorporated ideas of Chan, or Zen as it is better known, into his paintings - ideas of being one with nature and the universe, of trying to transcend into enlightenment.

In Yi Xiang (1951) Lui uses large, bold brushstrokes, leaving a stark contrast of positive and negative space, with a circular outline of red in the centre.

King says: 'Lui Shou-kwan draws you into the picture; his strokes are powerful, lifting you into a state of meditation.' Describing Liu as 'a leading figure in Hong Kong', she says, 'Why don't we take advantage of showcasing the best of what we have?' She hopes that by taking part in the Open Dialogue series, Hongkongers will come to view ink art as a discipline that deserves special recognition and attention.

Tang concurs. 'It's a comprehensive art exhibition of a unique art form from China, but it's also important in the context of contemporary art, as well as bringing out Hong Kong's status in new ink art,' he says.

Because King is also owner of the Alisan Fine Arts Gallery there has been some criticism of the museum's choice of a commercial operator as partner. Tang acknowledges that choosing a gallery owner could be seen as a conflict of interest but says they have an agreement that King does not deal or sell any newly commissioned artworks for a certain period.

King insists that in this role she is wearing the hat of the Ink Society and her sole intention is to raise public awareness of the importance of Chinese ink, its history, significance and relevance to Hong Kong's culture and heritage.

'I wanted to show people how Chinese ink painting has evolved throughout the ages [and through] different artists and different dynasties,' she says.

'Ink art has been part of our history for 3,000 years. It has come a long way since then, it's no longer painted the way it was even 20 years ago.

'New ink paintings are about respecting tradition, but going into a new horizon, with some evolving into the contemporary art realm.'

New Ink Art: Innovation and Beyond, Fri-Oct 26, Sun-Fri, 10am-6pm, Sat, 10am-8pm, closed Thu, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Rd, TST, HK$10, free on Wed. Symposium: Sat, 10am-4.30pm, features speakers including curators Tang Hoi-chiu and Alice King, and artists Liu Guosong and Wucius Wong, free. Inquiries: 2721 0116