Zhang Yu in Dialogue with Maxwell K Hearn, Curator of Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China

Zhang Yu (张羽), Participating artist in Ink Art

Maxwell K. Hearn, Curator of Ink Art, Chairman, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art


Date: 2 p.m. 9 December 2013

Venue: Chinese Garden Court, Department of Asian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Translated by Wen Zai/AEMcKenzie




Zhang Yu (ZY): The Ink Art exhibition at the Metropolitan is an exceptionally exciting subject of conversation in the world of painting today. This topic is exceptionally captivating.


Maxwell K Hearn (MKH): Right. I feel that this exhibition of contemporary art is definitely more interesting than the usual exhibitions of Chinese art. I must thank you for your support. Without you and the other well-known artists, we should never have so many visitors.


ZY: Not at all. The main thing is that the topic of this exhibition draws people in. From this it can be seen that it takes more than just hard work to create an exhibition. The key thing is the curatorial intention. This Ink Art exhibition has produced an enormous effect in China.


MKH: That’s great news. In America we didn’t know that so many people in China would be interested.


ZY: Nowadays there are many exhibitions of ink-and-wash art, but generally they are unable to raise issues. The auction companies on the other hand also hold ink-and-wash exhibitions, and a lot of fuss is made of them.


MKH: That’s also great news. Are there mostly Chinese buyers, or do Westerners also take part in these activities?


ZY: It is not important who comes to buy. The main thing is why do they want to buy? What do they buy? This year, the entrance into the market of Sotheby’s and Christie’s has made the ink-and-wash craze completely chaotic, with the result that the critical assessment of ink-and-wash paintings has reverted to something increasingly commercialized.


When it became known that the Metropolitan was also preparing to hold an ink-and-wash exhibition, many people seemed to entertain high expectations, and they were very interested in what kind of exhibition this was going to be. What would its direction be? Which artists would be selected? Perhaps the latter was the cause of greatest concern, for a little while ago, when people heard who was on the list, objections began to be raised about why these artists? And why was it called “ Ink Art”?


I would like to find out when this exhibition originated, and what the curatorial intent was. I feel that this question might bring together some interesting discussion topics.


MKH: The idea of holding this exhibition has an interesting story. In 2006 the Metropolitan Museum for the first time bought (at my instigation) a contemporary Chinese artwork, Zhan Wang’s (展望) Artificial Rock #10.


ZY: That was seven years ago. At the end of 2007 I was invited to take part in the present exhibition, which was originally planned for 2009. However, it was continuously pushed back until the present. At the time my work Divine Light (Lingguang, 《灵光》) was selected, along with a 20 meter long Fingerprints (Zhiyin, 《指印》) work.


MKH: That’s right. Seven years ago I had just started paying attention to Chinese contemporary art. Before that I had always thought that Chinese contemporary art was not my responsibility. The Metropolitan Museum has a Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. It seemed quite wrong for me to be collecting contemporary art.


Later I began to pay attention to our Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. They were collecting very few Chinese or even Asian things. Besides, the works they liked seemed fairly close to home. Andy Warhol would do, or Victor Vasarely. These artists are remote from Chinese traditional art. On the other hand, there is a lot of contemporary Chinese art that I feel does relate to the Chinese tradition. So that scholar’s stone of Zhan Wang got me thinking. There was no sense in placing this work in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, for they had nothing comparable with which to exhibit it. Here however, we have the Chinese Garden Court, which is like a garden with strange and curious rocks, forming a space where dialogue is possible.


ZY: Was this reflection part of your intention with this exhibition?


MKH: There are very close connections between contemporary Chinese art and our Department of Asian Art. I couldn’t pass on this responsibility to others. On the contrary I felt that this contemporary art exhibition could serve as an introduction that could influence young people to appreciate this kind of contemporary art, and possibly to discover traditional art through this exhibition of contemporary art. Take for instance Qiu Shihua’s (邱世華) works. He’s an oil painter! And yet that feeling of vagueness is like the floating of misty clouds.


ZY: This is a visual association, related to the experiences of the viewer.


MKH: I thought of the shanshui landscape paintings of Guo Xi (郭熙), or of Xia Gui (夏圭) and Ma Yuan (馬遠) of the Southern Song Dynasty. Perhaps there is a line that can link them together. There are also the abstract paintings of Wang Dongling (王冬齡), which still maintain the mood of calligraphy.


ZY: Wang Dongling’s abstract paintings are variants and a deconstruction of calligraphy. This is related to the Japanese 1960s artist Inoue Yuichi (井上有一).


MKH: Westerners cannot make this kind of abstract painting. It has the training in calligraphy behind it. As for the old calligraphy, there were Xu Bing (徐冰), Gu Wenda (谷文達) and Wu Shanzhuan (吳山專). Later discoveries in the area of shanshui landscape painting were Ren Jian (任戩) and Liu Dan (劉丹). And there are your own great works, which a lot of people like very much. They look like cosmic explosions. There are also people using photography and video. They also use the format of ink-and-wash to create, or come from the traditional style of ink-and-wash.


ZY: Viewed as visual form, these works seem to be connected to it somehow, yet this connection is basically representational or a matter of external form, for instance in terms of composition, as images, in the use of symbolization or of certain elements.


MKH: Speaking of composition, it is like Yang Yongliang’s (楊泳梁) hand-scroll, which he based on a Southern Song Dynasty shanshui landscape painting. At the level of contemporary Chinese art, I have expanded the scale and scope of ink-and-wash art, also including Zhan Wang. Later I also felt that Zhang Jianjun’s (張健君) stone materials were very appropriate for the Metropolitan Museum’s Garden.


This exhibition is not about traditional ink-and-wash, but is connected to the tradition in a relevant way. For the topic of the Exhibition, I felt that “Ink Art” did after all represent the Chinese tradition. Had we spoken of “the contemporary development of Chinese traditional art”, the topic would have been too extensive.


ZY: But I would still like to ask, since that is the aim of the Exhibition: looking at the works by the artists chosen to participate in the Exhibition, it seems that they are closer to the traditional symbols or elements. You also just mentioned Zhan Wang’s Stone, and there are other works that are photographic. These works don’t have anything to do directly with ink-and-wash. Yet they may have some connection in terms of elements or factors. Why are these necessarily to be linked with ink-and-wash in name? Why are they not called “factors in traditional ink-and-wash” or by some other such terminology?


MKH: I discovered that the genres associated with ink-and-wash were very numerous, so I could not, just because they were not works completed in ink-and-wash, arbitrarily exclude them, including artists such as Yang Yongliang or Xing Danwen (邢丹文), whose black and white photographs are related to it both by traditional content and the form of painting. Although I know that ink art in China refers to ink-and-wash, this topic is characterized by appreciation. It is also a title that is very easy to remember.


ZY: And I believe that, in the context of this Exhibition, it is a title that very much deserves reflection. Three months ago, when I did not yet have a full idea of the list of participating artists in this Exhibition, I also had my doubts, but when I received the list of the thirty-five artists a little more than a month ago, I discovered what linked them together.


On the other hand, when we discuss ink-and-wash in China, our research and criticism definitely gives a lot of attention to this boundary, because it connects the development of the issues of ink-and-wash, and may affect the line of development of ink-and-wash itself.


Yet, reflecting on this at the level of contemporary art, that is a different matter. In fact, I strongly agree with your method of beginning from the viewpoint of contemporary art to get started on the issues. This talk of ink-and-wash is, for the present Exhibition, only a matter of association.


I pondered this problem in 1999. At the time I was drafting a curatorial project called “In the name of Ink-and-Wash”. Later I passed the project over to Lu Hong (鲁虹), a Chinese critic, and in 2001 he held the exhibition: Reshuffle – in the Name of Ink-and-Wash (“重新洗牌——以水墨的名义”).


MKH: I hadn’t thought about it. From our position in the West, this Ink Art also includes the authentic style [of ink-and-wash]. It is not only ink-and-wash that can be represented, but also other new ways of doing things. As long as they are realized on the basis of ink-and-wash, that’s fine.


ZY: In fact this issue that you are talking about is not about the concept of ink-and-wash, nor does it take ink-and-wash as its standpoint. It considers the relationship between ink-and-wash and the tradition and is thus a concept of ink-and-wash culture.


MKH: That’s excellent. Right! I like your way of putting it, “ink-and-wash culture”. We’ve got to the nub of the matter. From now on, I’ll just say that this is the ink-and-wash culture that Zhang Yu talks about. This is a very interesting topic.


ZY: In fact, a concept. So, in the past, ink-and-wash was ink-and-wash painting, but now ink-and-wash is no longer the same as ink-and-wash painting. This is change. It is development.


MKH: Right. Ink Art is ink-and-wash art, and not ink-and-wash painting.


ZY: Besides, I should like to exchange ideas with you on a neglected problem. This problem is my new reflection on and cognitive understanding of the medium of Chinese traditional ink-and-wash. It links ink-and-wash with deep research in contemporary art, without being just an extension that widens the connections of ink-and-wash.


MKH: I would like very much to hear what you have to say.


ZY: In 2010 when you came to my studio, we discussed in a simple way how I had engaged in some completely new reflections about water in my ink-and-wash over the preceding two years, especially in the last year. I believe that water is far, far bigger than ink. It is the core of ink-and-wash. The key thing is that water can directly be transformed into expression on the basis of ink and wash. Water in this context can become a method. Even more important, the expression of this transformation through the water method is both ink-and-wash art and also contemporary art. And even more interestingly, it can provide a fresh interpretation of “the five shades of ink” (mo fen wuse, 墨分五色) and of the “energy-resonance life-force” (qiyun shengdong, 气韵生动).


In China there are many people who are aware of the baseline of ink-and-wash or of ink-and-wash painting. This baseline is the painting that is achieved using a brush-pen. Similarly the ink-and-wash expression of the physical properties of the ink-and-wash medium also has a baseline, which is the expression that is achieved using the medium of ink-and-wash.


As for the relationships of ink-and-wash, such as ink-and-wash, ink-and-wash painting and ink-and-wash culture, this Exhibition that you have curated provides a third trail, namely the contemporary art presentation that relates to ink-and-wash culture.


The first of the former two trails is a state of development, but neither of these two trails falls within the reflections of this Exhibition. I should like very much to hear your reflections and ideas on this.


MKH: Here you want to ask me about the transformation of this kind of ink-and-wash in itself into a state of contemporary art, a reflection on water and ink and painting. Your reflections on water in ink-and-wash are very interesting. It is a format of dialogue with ink-and-wash painting, and is very interesting.


As for my own views on the question of ink-and-wash painting and ink-and-wash, I very much enjoy the dialogue with ink-and-wash painting, especially as there are so many famous ink-and-wash paintings. In this Exhibition the fundamental issue in my dialogue with ink-and-wash painting is about relationships and connections.


The position of using traditional brush-and-ink (bi-mo) or ink-and-wash painting is different from our position as Westerners. My question is not a question about traditional Chinese painting, but one about the different directions of Chinese contemporary art in the West. What is, from the Western position, the greatest difference between the West and the East, with Asia, and in particular with China? If “ink-and-wash” is ink painting, there have been people in the West who have also done that, such as Robert Motherwell, but that is different. In China you have the brush-pen and ink. I believe that Westerners should understand this point. Why, in the history of the West, was it oil painting rather than ink-and-wash painting? This time, China in the West is using in some cases ink-and-wash, in other cases video, but the important thing is still the relationship with tradition.


ZY: I am very clear on this point, that is, about this Ink Art exhibition at the Metropolitan. “Ink Art” is just a concept, a Chinese contemporary art-form in the West, and related to traditional culture. It is a very wise and sensible take on the subject, but unfortunately it has neglected the direct excavations of the ink-and-wash medium. If it had been possible to have a presentation of that aspect, this Ink Art exhibition would have been a perfect exposition in the West of Chinese contemporary art.


MKH: Possibly. My viewpoint is that the purpose in using Ink Art as a title was not at all to refer to ink-and-wash painting, but rather to ink-and-wash culture. I wanted to clarify this Chinese tradition’s relationship with the Western tradition: Is it still developing?


ZY: There is no contradiction in our ways of understanding things. Although I am completely able to understand this viewpoint of looking at Chinese ink-and-wash from a Western standpoint, ink-and-wash has an inherent systematic logic. I am wondering whether it is possible to get closer to the inherent systematic logic of ink-and-wash at the same time as looking at it from a Western standpoint. It is not just a matter of symbols, elements and so on. Perhaps we need to transcend these.


The more than two thousand year old history of ink-and-wash in China is in fact a history not of the development of ink-and-wash, but of ink-and-wash painting. Ink-and-wash has always been used as a tool. It is through the use of the material of ink-and-wash that ink-and-wash paintings have been created. My thinking on this is the opposite: ink-and-wash is not the same as ink-and-wash painting, and my aim is to excavate an expression of the physical properties of ink-and-wash as such in order to expand the contemporary cognitive understanding of the depth of ink-and-wash.


MKH: I also believe that this “ink-and-wash” is something that is categorically wider and deeper than ink-and-wash painting. If ink-and-wash painting is to have a future, it must move forward. It definitely must open up traditional concepts. Ink-and-wash is not just ink-and-wash painting. It must have a wider future than that, or there will be no way forward.


ZY: In fact, this is a reflection on whether it can attain the level of contemporary art.


MKH: I agree. I am not talking about using “ink-and-wash” to describe video installations or Zhan Wang’s Artificial Stone or the like, but through this title and this Exhibition to get people to reflect on things. This Ink Art represents a path for insiders, not for outsiders. The path of the insiders is to appreciate the differences between Chinese contemporary art and the West from within Chinese culture.


ZY: The title Ink Art is indeed very good! Today especially, it carries a great challenge as well as great allurement. It can make people reflect on many levels, even as they doubt. In fact, in my thus pursuing these questions face to face with you today, Mr Hearn, my purpose is exactly that of getting more readers and viewers become aware of the intentions of the Curator.


Besides, as for this Exhibition, I should like to ask an outsider question that, from an insider’s angle, one shouldn’t ask. This is about the phrase, or slogan, of “carrying on the tradition”. In China at present, under the conditions of modern culture, do you feel that the tradition of ink-and-wash painting is one that can be carried on or continued?


MKH: I hope that it can be carried on, and also that it can be continued, yet here we have to look at whether or not the Chinese artists have the ability to do so. Previously, everybody used a brush-pen to write characters. It was every day. What they mastered was not a technical problem. Today, they use a computer, or a ball-point pen. The painters use a brush-pen. It is technical. They play with it. It is a different thing from using it everyday. Therefore, the present is no match for the past. How many people today could measure up to the standard of calligraphy that applied during the Song, Yuan, Ming or Qing Dynasties? There is no way you can do it. If you apply the traditional concepts or standards in your appreciation, you’ll definitely be disappointed, for there isn’t a single painter today who has this skill. That is also the reason I selected no artists working in this direction.


ZY: If one thinks about it according to that cognitive understanding, the slogan of “carrying on the tradition” is fantastic and impossible. “Continuing” however should be premised on conditions of creativity, and creating is also the best way of carrying on the tradition. In the tradition of the past, writing with a brush-pen was not a problem at the technical level. It was a necessity of everyday life. It was an educational and appealing exchange inherent in the writing process, for those were their cultural circumstances. As for the tradition, the uses of sinology, Song and Ming Dynasty Neo-Confucianism, poetics, epigraphy, Buddhism, Chan (Zen) Buddhism and so on are obvious, yet this part is completely lacking in today’s reality.


MKH: Although some of the artists in this Exhibition might not possess the traditional techniques, they do have new ways of thinking. This new thinking is their creativity. That’s the angle from which I approach the appreciation of their works.


ZY: I am confident that the international influence of a flagship museum such as the Metropolitan means that this Exhibition will attract a special public attention. What sort of reaction do you feel that it will have on the state of ink-and-wash in China, or on the state of contemporary art? Is development still possible for painting ink-and-wash paintings?


MKH: I hope that more people will ask this question. I feel that this Exhibition is not an answer, but a question.


Ink-and-wash art is a very living thing. Having looked at so many works, I am very happy. I feel that ink-and-wash definitely has a future. What will it be like? I don’t dare answer that for now. My main purpose was to let people understand that in China, contemporary art has many faces, and one cannot see many of these works in the West.


Paintings such as those of Zhang Xiaogang (張曉剛) or Yue Minjun (岳敏君) are relatively common now. Everybody knows of Picasso and Qi Baishi (齊白石). I don’t understand whether Picasso was better than Qi Baishi. Was Qi Baishi better than Shi Tao (石濤)? Not necessarily. So is Zhang Yu better than Shi Tao? They are different.


I like these works. First, I enjoy and admire them. Second, I feel that they are relevant to the Chinese tradition. Third, I believe that they recreate the tradition into something with a new face. This creativity is very important. I feel that the artists provide us with this traditional influence. In China, millions of people can write calligraphy, but there is not a single calligrapher in this exhibition. Many people can paint ink-and-wash paintings, but I didn’t want a single ink-and-wash painting. This form of the tradition is heading downhill, and that isn’t what my thinking was about. That is not what I was aiming for.


I believe that the thirty-five artists have developed this tradition into new patterns that are different from the past, and I think that is great. I just hope that ink-and-wash can still find an opportunity for creativity. I just wanted even more people to become aware of China. This tradition can influence the future.


ZY: There is a connection between my history and reflections over the last thirty years and my exchanging views with you on so many issues today, Mr Hearn. I am convinced that this Ink Art exhibition will also be able to get many people thinking. We eagerly await the future.



Related Links: https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/objects?exhibitionId={2CCA0D85-6307-4AC7-9674-C4E4F675C08E}#!?perPage=20&offset=60