One of the reasons I’m excited to be home for the holidays right now is because there is so much of great interest going on at the Met. Two exhibits in particular struck my fancy, and I am so glad that I was able to be here to see them.
First, the Met’s first major show of contemporary Chinese art, entitled simply Ink Art. Though dominating the main Chinese galleries, I thought it a quite fun and interesting move that the show also spills over into all of the other Chinese spaces in the museum’s Asia wing, with contemporary pieces interspersed among traditional and historical artworks. I walked into the first of the Chinese galleries – which features massive Buddhist wall painting and sculpture – expecting to have to keep my eyes open for signs, or simply to ask, where the Ink Art exhibit was. But, as soon as I walked in, there they were – a set of stunning scrolls hanging from the ceiling, in bold, bright, mineral pigments (below), and another set, in monochrome ink on paper streaming along one wall. Each uses traditional formats and media, a link to history and tradition, rather than a break from it, as they address new, modern, contemporary subjects. All too often, we tend to see history as broken into two parts – the historical or traditional, and the modern or contemporary. But, even as people throughout history, whether in Song Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, saw themselves as “modern” or at least as “contemporary” – even as they saw their own lives as “now” and the past as past – they addressed what for them were very modern, very new, very “now” topics and issues, in forms and styles and media which developed directly out of the traditions of the past. Ming Dynasty painters addressed the issues of their times, what for them were very contemporary issues, in modes and styles of the Song and Yuan, in inks, in birds & flowers, in mountain landscapes on scrolls of silk and paper. Can we not today do the same? Must we throw out the traditions of the past to produce things as utterly and completely “new,” different, “modern” as possible? Why should it be seen as so radical that we, in 2013 as in 1013, address the issues and topics of “contemporary” Chinese society in ink painting?
Curator Maxwell Hearn and his team have truly done an outstanding job choosing works for this exhibit. So many of them are by big-name artists, who I was quite excited to see – it’s a great feeling to feel you’re looking at works by Ai Weiwei, Gu Wenda, Xu Bing. Weeks or months or years from now, I can say I’m familiar with those artists; I can say I’ve seen those works. And, fame or name aside, they are truly great works. Not trying to be international, pan-cultural, or acultural, not trying to blend in with the global “modern art” scene, these works engage directly with Chinese identity, culture, history, tradition, and do things uniquely Chinese while at the same time no less cutting-edge, no less modern, than what any Western artist is doing. And they are so much deeper, more multi-layered, more meaningful for it. To name just one example, a work by Gu Wenda features large Chinese characters written in a grid, in black and red on white paper. Each character is covered by a large X or O, a typical technique in East Asian school culture for marking correct and incorrect work. And, as the gallery label explains, in this particular work, the criteria for why each given character is marked right or wrong is left quite unclear, evoking resonances of Cultural Revolution era censorship and re-education. It’s a work with a (relatively/somewhat) overt political message, but not so stark that the message overrides the traditional referents (like traditional calligraphy, but quite untraditional as well) or general aesthetic appearance.
I enjoyed, too, a map of China by Ai Weiwei made of pieces of wood re-purposed from Buddhist temples, showing that China is made up (literally) of its past, of its traditions, and that even when one perhaps cannot see the traditional influence or traditional origins (wood is wood, and you’d never know this was from temples if not for the gallery label), it’s still there. Xu Bing’s “Book from the Sky” was also installed – easily one of the most famous, most iconic works of Chinese contemporary art (1980s to present), it was a great privilege to get to see this in person, after seeing it so many times in books, in lecture slides, and online.
And, finally, I really quite liked how the museum incorporated works into the rest of the Chinese galleries. Scholars’ rocks in steel and rubber took up positions within the otherwise quite traditional-feeling space of the Astor Court Chinese garden, and a plastic sculpture of a Qing dynasty dragon robe stood alongside a collection of actual Qing dynasty robes, with each of the contemporary pieces clearly labeled with the Ink Art logo, and nicely juxtaposed against the traditional objects to which they refer, or upon which they draw.
Chinese contemporary art remains among the most vibrant, most interesting, most culturally & politically engaged contemporary art scenes in the world. I am so glad to have been introduced to it by Prof. Aida Wong, and to have gotten the chance to see so many wonderful exhibits of it in recent years, keeping me always discovering new works, my enjoyment of these artists and what they do growing every time.
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC through April 6, 2014.