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Ink artworks set for revival in Hong Kong with series of exhibitions, fairs and auctions

Gloomy market brings opportunity for revival of interest in long-undervalued contemporary ink art

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2015, 2:36am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2015, 2:55am

Gallerist Daphne King is on a mission. She wants to reconnect Hong Kong with an art category the city should be proud of, and is realising it with an exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre.

"It is the 40th anniversary of Lui Shou-kwan's passing. I wanted to reinvigorate ink art and to get people more interested in Lui," sid King, director of Alisan Fine Arts, which presents A Legacy of Ink: Lui Shou-kwan 40 years on at the Pao Galleries.

King said Lui had been credited with launching the New Ink Movement, which gave Hong Kong an important role in the development of contemporary ink art. Twenty of Lui's works, together with works from 12 of his students, will be on show.

Despite its long lineage, the market has not been keen on contemporary ink art.

Christie's records show that works by Lui sold for under HK$100,000 in and before 2010. Works by Taiwanese master Liu Kuo-song were sold for just below HK$100,000 in 2008. One year earlier, Chinese contemporary artist Yue Minjun's oil painting Execution, said to be inspired by Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, fetched US$5.9 million at Sotheby's in London, setting a new record for Chinese contemporary art at the time. "It seems contemporary ink art has been under-recognised, and undervalued," King said.

But this might change over the next few months. Amid the pessimistic economic outlook brought on by the mainland's stock market slump, the lower entry prices for contemporary ink artworks might be more attractive to collectors and buyers who are conservative, say art market insiders.

Auction houses, galleries and art fair organisers are placing their bets on this previously undervalued category. While contemporary ink art will be the highlight of the autumn auctions in October and November, galleries locally and abroad are presenting exhibitions of these artworks. Ink Asia, a brand new art fair dedicated to this art category, will be inaugurated in December.

Whether this is purely coincidental or an effort carefully choreographed by various players in the art world, contemporary ink paintings appear to be taking centre stage.

Carmen Shek Cerne, head of Christie's Chinese contemporary ink sale, said now was a good time for buyers to get their hands on ink artworks by artists from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. "The market has begun to mature," she said.

Over the past few years, prices for Lui's works have risen significantly. Many have sold for around HK$500,000 - a fivefold increase in four years, including a record price of HK$3.4 million at Christie's last autumn sale. Works by Liu that sold for HK$100,000 seven years ago could now fetch well above HK$800,000.

Apart from the Lui exhibition, which runs until Wednesday, an exhibition of ink art will open on October 7 at the privately run Liang Yi Museum. Entitled Epoch in Ink, the show co-organised by Asia Ink Research and The Ink Society will showcase works by 12 artists from Hong Kong.

The show is run as part of the Hong Kong Culture Festival, which promotes the city's living cultural heritage. Ink art will also be an integral part of the collections at the Hong Kong Museum of Art and M+, the visual culture museum to open in West Kowloon Cultural District in 2019.

While Christie's kicked off the autumn season with selling exhibition Silent Songs, featuring more than 40 works of Chinese contemporary ink paintings by Xue Liang and Jiang Hongwei, at its Hong Kong headquarters in Central, rival Sotheby's will host a dedicated sale of contemporary ink art on October 5 at the Convention and Exhibition Centre.

With more than 90 lots spanning over five decades, Katherine Don, head of contemporary ink art at Sotheby's Hong Kong, said this sale, with a pre-sale estimate totalling at HK$26 million, was the largest for this category. Taiwanese master Liu Guosong's 1969 ink and colour on paper work Misty Mountains Afar, with a pre-sale estimate at HK$5 million to HK$6 million, is one of the top lots.

"Contemporary ink art has been around for decades and did not break from the ink art tradition, but it has long been overshadowed by Chinese contemporary art in Western medium," said Don. She refers to Chinese avant-garde oil paintings, particularly the multimillion-dollar pieces under the genre of political pop and cynical realism that emerged in the 1990s, which dominated the art market until the Chinese contemporary art bubble burst few years ago.

Don said the upcoming sale would highlight works from 1960s onwards, and unlike classical Chinese paintings, ink works by contemporary artists were more "global minded". "They are inspired by the world around them, not limited to the place they live or travelled," she said. This helped contemporary ink works travel as "successful ink artists are universally understood".

Christie's will host a contemporary ink sale in Hong Kong on November 30. One of the highlights is Zen (1968) by Lui Shou-kwan, which has an estimate of HK$400,000 to HK$600,000.

Shek said many contemporary ink artists, particularly those born after Cultural Revolution, had an international background as they went abroad. "They were influenced by Western artistic movement like abstract expressionism," she said.

Poly Auctions Hong Kong is also highlighting its contemporary ink paintings by masters including Liu and Lin Fengmian. Chen Junfeng, contemporary Chinese ink senior specialist at Poly Auctions, said market transactions were definitely not as vibrant as before.

"But those who buy art this time are those who only make their purchases after careful consideration," said Chen, adding that the market adjustment had weeded out speculators. He said works featured in next month's sale were "relatively inexpensive", ranging around hundreds of thousands. "Buyers can try them out, without a great burden," he said.

There have been few Western collectors, even though black ink also has Western roots. But things could be changing.

Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York is hosting its first contemporary ink exhibition this month featuring mainland artist Tai Xiangzhou, whom the gallery's director Edith Dicconson describes as a "rising star".

"Chinese ink painting has a very long history within China," said Dicconson. "It is the historical gravity, context and continuation of a tradition that interests us ... it is mindfulness to China's past, and a continuation of it to the present that make it exciting."

Calvin Hui, director of Ink Asia, said the growing demand for modern and contemporary ink works had proved the market potential. But he hoped the fair would offer more than a trading platform for collectors and dealers.

"We want to provide an open platform for everyone to appreciate and collect modern and contemporary ink art," said Hui. "This fair offers an open opportunity to explore the potential for the future development of this art category."