Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China. Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City.
December 11, 2013–April 6, 2014
Review by Jane Librizzi
Seventy works by thirty-five artists covering the past three decades were on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, "Past as Present in Contemporary China." The exhibition, which included including painting, calligraphy, photography, woodblock print, video, and sculpture, was organized thematically into four main sections: The Written Word, New Landscapes, Abstraction, and Beyond the Brush.
Some of the most intriguing works in this show are devoted to ink art, three dimensional works created when artists wanted to capture motion, to freeze it in the round, rather as the ancient Greek philosophers were preoccupied with frozen moments; water stopped in its tracks by cold temperatures.
The Wave has longstanding credentials as a familiar cultural image. I suspect most viewers will be familiar with Katsushika Hokusai's woodblock print Under the Wave Off Kanagawa. When I looked at the celadon porcelain Wave by Ai Weiwei, China's most notorious dissident artist, I was immediately reminded of another work from the Met's permanent collection: Christopher Dresser's Wave. Also made with glazed ceramic, this one in turquoise, it was designed by the British Dresser in 1880 and is, depending on your point of view, either an example of The Aesthetic Movement or a manifestation of Japonisme.
Weiwei made his version with assistance from craftspeople at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, a longtime center of Chinese porcelain production. Weiwei's form, according to the exhibition's curator, has an ancestor in a work of the Southern Song court painter Ma Yuan (ca. 1160–1225).
The beauty of Chinese brush- painting is the product of a turbulent history. The trouble started when calligraphy, an aesthetic medium, became a vehicle for expressing social and political ideas. The works in the exhibition Ink Art portray that history, traditional in some aspects and provocative in others. Constructed of interlocking wooden pieces, Weiwei's Map of China makes a poignant reference to the shape of modern China, fragments of its past reconfigured, this time in the humble medium of salvaged wood. Its complexity is the complexity of the ink aesthetic. The Ruyi was a wish fulfillment scepter, an emblem of long life and good fortune. Here its traditional form of a mushroom-shaped fungus thought to confer immortality becomes in Ai’s simagination an anatomically specific melange of human organs.
Duan Jianyu, born in 1970, has attracted much attention from critics of the exhibition for her series of works Beautiful Dreams, brush painted scenes executed on flattened commercial cardboard cartons. Her brushwork is exquisite and she works the creases into a texture of great and gentle beauty. Like Weiwei, Duan also makes uses of one of China’s best known landscape images, the Welcoming-Guest Pine of Mount Huang, and one of a pavilion framed by a bird perched on a bare tree branch..
For more than two thousand years ink art has been the supreme medium for painting and calligraphy in China. This exhibition showed how it is being reinterpreted through modern techniques and influenced by contemporary Western art, a whispered suggestion of a continuum between these new works and traditional Chinese arts.
For more information about this past exhibition please visit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art