What is Contemporary Ink?

17 December, 2015  |   Written and published by: 3812 Gallery

There is something forceful and natural about the emergence of ‘Contemporary Ink Art’ as an emerging category on the secondary market. On one hand, we are starting to observe the emergence of a unique art historical phenomena; on the other hand, the meddling of market forces, especially in the secondary market have somewhat undermined the legitimacy of the said movement.

The term ‘Contemporary Ink Art’ only started to gain prominence in 2012 as an amalgamation of existing terms of various sub-movements such as ‘experimental ink’ (of post-85 Mainland Chinese artists), ‘new ink’ (of postwar Chinese diaspora artists) or ‘modern ink’. The term was first popularised by Mainland auction giants in 2012 to promote late modernist paintings or contemporary ink works of younger artists, and the term ‘contemporary’ was understood entirely in its chronological sense. Then, in 2013, Sotheby’s introduced its stand-alone ‘new Chinese paintings’ category termed contemporary literati, followed by Christie’s in 2014 adopting the term ‘contemporary ink’. It is comical and noteworthy that soon after, Poly Auction Hong Kong had started its own ‘contemporary literati’ sale and Sotheby’s renamed its ‘contemporary literati’ category as ‘contemporary ink’.

In a way, the attention the category receives is disproportional to the size of the market. Important works of the most high profile artists in the category have just broken through the 1 million dollars (US) benchmark. And despite the emergence of academic forums, exhibitions at prominent museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) and Boston Museum of Fine Art, art fairs and growing list of artists and galleries, the market is still in its infancy. An entire contemporary ink sale at Sotheby’s and Christie’s achieved no more than 5 – 6 million USD, hardly a large scale work by a prominent Chinese contemporary artist, let alone comparing with Western Contemporary works. But it is precisely the sense of immense possibilities and growth potentials the category so convincingly holds that grabbed people’s attention.

Post-Cultural Revolution avant-garde ink art movement began in 1979, long before the better-known ’85 New Wave movement. In autumn that year, Qiu Deshu, the now prominent ink artist was still a staff-painter at the Lu’wan District House of Culture in Shanghai, started an artist collective called ‘grass society (Cao cao)’ with ten other ink artists including Zengmi and Chen Jialing. In February 1980, an exhibition called ‘1980s Exhibition by the Grass Society’(草草社八十年代画展) was held. To avoid controversy, they even removed a nude painting and some of Qiu Dish’s abstract works that were due to be exhibited. Nonetheless, the Shanghai Municipal Propaganda Committee did not appreciate the ‘bourgeois liberalism’ manifested in abstract forms and colours of the works exhibited. In the end, Qiu Deshu was criticised, and the society effectively disbanded. The catalogue of the exhibition was reprinted in 2005, but still incredibly rare to find.

Qiu Deshu (b.1948) Fission, 71cm x 77cm, Acrylic and rice paper on canvas, 1984

Why is it important to mention this brief episode? Because it was an acute manifestation that, before Mainland China had anything that resembles an art market, and when knowledge of contemporary art development outside of China was scarce, academically trained ink artists were already looking for a new language of expression from the orthodoxy of tradition and officialdom of socialist realism.

There is a large body of art historical writings devoted pinpoint the innate abstract tendency of Chinese ink paintings and its unique philosophy and system of value that treats reality as a medium of inner expression as opposed to a mere subject of depiction. Furthermore, the expressive forms of traditional ink paintings share many similarities with Western Expressionism. Early ink masters, particularly Lü Shoukun of Hong Kong and Liu Guosong of Taiwan had already seized upon this similarity in the heydays of abstract expressionism during the 1960s, and sought to engage actively Chinese painting in the international dialogue. They have achieved a varying degree of both commercial and academic success in the 1960s and 1970s. In retrospect, the similarity between Lü’s work and that of Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb was clear at first glance. Their attempts of entering ‘contemporaneity’ by situating contemporary expressions borrowed from the West firmly in the paradigm of Chinese ink painting was incredibly difficult, and often misunderstood by both Chinese and Westerners as ‘modernisation via westernisation’. To date, this is still an issue faced by many ‘contemporary ink’ artist, and some experimental artists have chosen to complete abandon the baggage of traditions or actively rebel against it.

Liu Guosong (b. 1932) Clear and Vibrant, 85.5cm x 55.5cm, Ink and colour on paper, 1964

It is at this juncture that we encounter the ultimate driving force behind the art historical phenomena known as ‘contemporary ink’. As its name ostensibly suggests, it concerns the relationship between ink painting and contemporaneity. There are two fundamental conditions that naturally undermine any claims of ink being contemporary, one is the orthodox tradition and system of value, the other being an international art scene dominated by the cultural hegemony of the West. Hence, two obvious reactionary developments emerged. The first being an adaptation of Western art history as a point of reference where ink painting has no place to be, and can only prove itself via techniques and figural possibilities, this is evident in contemporary ink landscape paintings. The second being an engagement with the wider socio-philosophical context of contemporary life, including the reality of a postcolonial international art scene, represented by the introduction of concept and symbolism into ink paintings as in the case of Gu Wenda, and the ‘pseudo characters’ of Xu Bing.

Liu Dan, Scholar’s Rock collected by Jian Song Ge, 68cm x 68cm, Ink on paper, 2014

This article focuses on the immense potential of contemporary ink art. What makes contemporary ink an art phenomenon highly relevant to our time is its intricate relationship with the ethos of contemporary Chinese society. In an era characterised by identity crisis, rapid breakdown of traditional values, financial volatility and political apathy; the audience is inevitably drawn to art forms that offers a narrative solution of its own to the contemporary anxieties. In the new contemporary ink paintings of young and emerging Chinese artists, the rigid confrontation between China and the West is diffused and articulated as sustainable hybridity, and ink as a medium itself offers not only a nostalgic link to past but also capable of conjuring poised, sensual imageries.

The vitality of expressing contemporary cultural realities and urban human existence via ink in the Chinese context highlighted the opposite: that Western forms of expression and language are inadequate when addressing issues of Chinese identity and realities. Arguably, the cultural baggage and unique properties of the ink medium have afforded contemporary ink artist expressions and conceptual possibility other Western mediums are unable to provide.

Li Huayi, Landscape, 53cm x 97cm, Ink and colour on paper, 2012

After all, reception of artworks is a social phenomenon inextricably linked to the dominated ethos of an era. So, a word of advice to ink-loving collectors: look out for works from artists with both solid technical foundations and seductive concepts. And if these works also happened to be favoured by youngish Chinese audiences, the future market foundation is likely to be solid.