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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first full-on foray into the world of contemporary Chinese art, Ink Art: Past As Present In Contemporary China surveys 70 works by 35 artists. Maxwell K. Hearn, the Department of Asian Art’s head curator, populates various pieces alongside the vast and stunning treasure-trove that is the Met’s Chinese collection, including a bubble-gum-pink silicone sculpture of a scholar’s rock by Zang Jianjun, docking it inside the newly refurbished Astor Court. But Hearn bit off more than he could chew with this valiant but over-arching show that careens off-message despite some stunning inclusions. To a Western audience, the show is confusing; for a Chinese one it is incomplete and oddly selected.
The exhibition begins in an entrance hallway to the galleries, and if you didn’t know to look to the left by the small set of stairs, you would miss Qui Zhijie’s “30 Letters to Qiu Jiawa,” part of his A Suicidology of the Nanjing Yangzi River Bridge project. Zhijie’s triptych investigates the site of one of the highest number of suicides in China and inadvertently prefaces larger issues inherent to the show.
Chinese ink art or bimo (brush and ink) has an incredibly long and storied history originating from cave paintings and tomb reliefs, emerging as a true art form during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).
Thus its textual and literary allusions are completely lost on the contemporary Western viewer, who can only discern its conceptual and design elements — we lack the classical literary references and practice of writing calligraphic script. In the 20th century, after the Chinese Revolution, bimo took a back seat to Soviet Socialist realism. After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, it began popping up again in more experimental forms, running neck-and-neck with the bulbous surge in the contemporary Chinese art market. Zhijie’s triptych references this odd history of the Soviet roots on contemporary art, including a representation of Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International.”
What, exactly, is “ink art” is a question that hounds the show. Is it just, as art theorist James Elkins so deftly put it, “ink, brush, paper, technique”? Or does it leap from its origins into unexplained forms? Hearn, a newcomer to contemporary Chinese art, states that the Met’s first acquisition was in 2006, of a scholar’s rock in stainless steel by Zhang Wang — acquired after Hearn attended his first exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Sotheby’s. That timeframe does not afford the Met a long track record in sorting out the complex and contradictory frissons between market forces and that nation’s burgeoning art world.
There are some stunners in the show, such as the indomitable Gu Wenda, whose bold stroke pieces help define the genre, and of course Xu Bing’s MacArthur grant-winning “Book From the Sky” that takes up an entire side viewing room. There are a number of pieces that substitute the physical body for paper, like Zhang Huan, whose solo show at the Asia Society also included the same photographic performance “Family Tree,” or Song Dong, who has also shown at MoMA. Selected for this show is Dong’s photographic record of his haunting performance “Printing On Water,” carried out in Tibet’s Lhasa River. The images depict the artist repeatedly slapping a woodcut block with the Chinese character for water into the river.
There is a lovely series of animations showing woodcut and ink vignettes, like Sun Xun’s “Some Actions Which Haven’t Been Defined Yet In the Revolution.” But there are also excessive amounts of pieces by Ai Weiwei that are tangentially relevant: bizarrely placed metal and wood chairs meant to mimic traditional scholars’ chairs, and videos and photos which don’t really add up thematically, serving only as a pastiche for scattered remnants of imagined literary times.
Still, this is an important show in that it’s the Met’s first foray into presenting contemporary ink art to a Western audience. For those who know nothing, they will probably glimpse some revelatory works, and for those familiar with the genre, reacquaint themselves with old favorites.
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until April 6.