When I visited China in 2011, I was puzzled by the absence of a contemporary arts culture. Were technological expertise and massive industrial growth now the new “art” of modern China? Had the country’s incredible artistic heritage been abandoned?
It turns out I just didn’t know where to look. Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China at the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrates how Chinese artists have adapted this heritage in new ways to reflect the world around them. Their concerns are familiar: political conflict, cultural identity, environmental destruction, censorship, and ever-growing dystopian cities. But their interpretations are uniquely Chinese.
The show takes ink as its foundation. Ink is the medium through which scrolls and calligraphy, some of the most revered and enduring art forms in China, have been created over the centuries. In one of the five triptychs that make up Yang Jiechang’s Crying Landscape (2002), pictured above, a traditional painting format and color scheme are used to depict an entirely modern, man-made landscape. Another triptych in the same series reminds me of the landscape along the Huangpu River towards the mouth of the Yangzi, which I toured by boat when visiting Shanghai:
As in many cultures artistic expertise was taught and preserved in religious orders, through the work of monks and monasteries. Ai Weiwei’s Map of China is constructed of the fragments of Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) temples and is “a poignant assertion that modern China is a mosaic of fragments from its past.”
Language has long been co-opted for gaining political control, and this was certainly true during the Cultural Revolution. With Character Image of Black Character Font (1989), Wu Shanzhuan upends the graphic big-character posters of that era. Instead of issuing imperatives, the characters here are just random words. They are intentionally ambiguous; the viewer is allowed to have a subjective response.
We think of using ink to reveal, to show. But in Family Tree (2001), Zhang Huan employs layers of culturally specific language and lore to blur, and ultimately obscure, his cultural identity. Who is he without it?
Ink is used as both medium and subject in 100 Layers of Ink, No.2 (1994): layers of ink on paper have turned a canvas into a sculpture. This work is the (visual) definition of the term “inky.”
The exhibit includes a number of decorative arts objects that are new takes on traditional forms. Artificial Rock #10 is a scholar’s rock re-imagined for the industrial age, perhaps bound for a prized spot in one of the rapidly proliferating high-rise towers springing up across China. Similar natural rocks were traditionally collected and contemplated by Chinese scholars, and are frequently depicted in Chinese art.
Finally, Dream of China (2008) conjures the imperial robes of the Qing Dynasty, but without the courtly pomp and excess that went into the sourcing and construction of those garments. This robe is made from readily available PVC and embroidered with vinyl fishing line.
The visitor experience: what worked
Content: This is the first exhibition of Chinese contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum and in place of a separate special exhibition space, it is presented within the permanent galleries of Chinese art to provide historic context. While the integration with older works felt hit or miss to me, that the museum is showing non-western contemporary art at all is very exciting. And, execution aside, the integration of these works with older Chinese art makes for a much more interesting viewing experience.
Digital is part of the contemporary art world, and while I did not mention it above, there are ten video works in the show – too many to take in at once, but just the right amount to come back to after seeing the rest of the show.
Audio guide: The audio guide is well-scripted, well-narrated (by three curators), and adds interpretive nuance that would be missed otherwise.
Website/digital images: I don’t know why other museums aren’t following the Met’s lead on making digital images available. As with the Interwoven Globe show, every work in Ink Art is available online, some with detail shots, and all with accompanying text. It’s a pleasure to be able to view the works again, and eliminates the pressure to “take it all in” during the in-person visit.
The visitor experience: room for improvement
Exhibition Design: It was not clear to me where this show actually started. In fact, I walked past the first works just off of the Grand Balcony and down a long gallery past several other works (including Weiwei’s Map of China) before I finally figured it out. There is no prominent signage at the entrance, and neither of the two kiosks (a permanent information booth and a tiny audio guide kiosk) in the area related in an obvious way to the show. One big sign at the entrance explaining that the exhibition is displayed within the permanent collection, and identified with red text labels, would have solved this.
Even so, it was sometimes hard to identify the Ink Art works. I support the integrated approach, but the next iteration needs a more prominent signage/identification system within the galleries. And in some cases integration didn’t really seem to make sense – Dream of China was displayed along other robes in the upstairs galleries, but it was the only work from Ink Art on the second floor.
These small hiccups should not dissuade anyone from visiting; this show is a welcome view into the dream and the reality of modern China. Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary Art is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 6, 2014.