Tradition and individual talent
Many of the artworks showcased at the Ink Asia art fair last week were about artists trying to question and renew their relationship with a traditional art medium. Chitralekha Basu reports.
Collectors reaffirmed their confidence in the viability of contemporary ink art last week. The second edition of Ink Asia — purportedly the world’s only art fair dedicated exclusively to showcasing contemporary ink — attracted over 10,000 visitors. The sales were promising. Quite a few among the participating 50 galleries sold their highlight pieces. Leung Kui-ting’s huge four-panel landscape, brought to the fair by Hanart TZ Gallery, for instance, was snapped up by a museum. The lecture hall, where experts shared their views on understanding the intricacies of ink art, was well-attended. At a time when the sales are down for art of almost every hue, and pretty much across all platforms of art trade, contemporary ink art seems to be one of the few genres attracting sustained buyer interest. While a market slowdown is scarcely expected to affect the sales of 20th-century stalwarts in the field — Liu Guosong or Qiu Deshu, for instance — a whole new generation of younger artists like Lin Guocheng and Chloe Ho are also getting noticed by collectors for the freshness they bring to a time-tested tradition.
Calvin Hui, director of Ink Asia, wouldn’t quite call the steady growth in the market for contemporary ink a “trend” though. Ink, he says, is too inhered in the “DNA of the Chinese people” to be a passing fad.
Buying ink art, says Hui, “will go on for a very long time as ink has always been a part of the Chinese cultural heritage. It’s part of the Chinese way of living, with reflections in architecture and design”.
He sees a connection between the growth of this market, over the last five years or so, and the Chinese people getting increasingly conscious of their cultural identity. “China is getting bigger, its economy growing stronger. These are times when people start looking for art associated with one’s cultural identity,” he explained.
Expectedly, artists trying to locate themselves in the canon of cultural heritage often make this the subject of their art. Many among the millennials who work in ink — combining it sometimes with video, 3D printing and other techniques borrowed from the ever-widening pool of digital resources — have adapted a traditional medium to a multi-media format.
For example, the artist Yang Yongliang has taken tropes from the traditional brush and ink Chinese landscapes and recreated a more apocalyptic version of the craggy hills and lashing waves, juxtaposing these with panoramic shots of swirling city traffic, in a short digital film, Fall into Oblivion.
It’s his comment “on the uncontrolled rapid urbanization in China,” says Pearl Lam of Pearl Lam Galleries who represents the artist.
“Yang examines cultural and personal TheSixPrinciplesofChinesePainting:Transmission, memory, highlighting moments of alignment — and discord — between the two,” says Lam. “Yang forges a connection between traditional art and the contemporary world, marrying ancient oriental aesthetics and literati beliefs with the experimental open-mindedness and digital technologies of the modern age.”
The artist Hung Fai, on the other hand, works with more traditional tools. Although a similar spirit of critiquing and renewing a modern-day artist’s relationship with his heritage may be found in his creation, The Six Principles of Chinese Painting: Transmission, which was one of the highlights at Ink Asia.
Hung had invited his artist father, Hung Hoi, to paint a scene using cinnabar red color on xuan paper, in the tradition of the Chinese red landscape. Hung junior folded the sketch his father made, had it moistened, and then himself traced it using black ink dots. “The ink penetrated through the red landscape, layers through layers, leaving subtle, faded marks. Upon unfolding the paper there appeared a deconstruction and transformation image of the original model,” says Hung Fai, explaining his process. “The usage of ink dots, water and folding rice paper created a new method that allowed me to deconstruct the conventional notion of ‘red landscape’, which symbolizes authority,” he adds.
When Hui started Ink Asia last year, one of his primary goals was to try and break the perception of ink art being “black and white, traditional, boring and old-fashioned”. From the outset he has encouraged participants to imagine ink art in its all possible manifestations — from massive installations to designs on items of everyday use, like furniture, cushion covers and yoga mats.
“Ink is about an iconic, Oriental cultural language,” says Hui. Indeed, anyone visiting Ink Asia would not have doubted that ink art has come a long way since literati paintings and ancient Chinese calligraphy.
Hung Fai traced and tweaked a sketch by his father, Hung Hoi in one of the highlight exhibits at Ink Asia.
Yang Yongliang has taken tropes from the traditional brush and ink Chinese landscapes and adapted these to digital media.
The Ink+ section at Ink Asia had artworks on paper turned into fun installation pieces.