The Chinese Experimental Ink and Wash Seen from the Angle of the History of Art and the History of Ideology

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Wei Qingji
Wei Qingji Object and Image No.8 1999 Ink on Rice Paper 58 x 52 cm

The academic contention about the problem of ink and wash which has gone on for almost a century and the unceasing innovation of ink and wash parallel with it are two of the most thought-provoking phenomena in Chinese culture in the 20th Century.

Pi Daojian - Professor at Huanan Normal University, Art Critic

I. The academic contention about the problem of ink and wash which has gone on for almost a century and the unceasing innovation of ink and wash parallel with it are two of the most thought-provoking phenomena in Chinese culture in the 20th Century.

When in 1910 Jin Shaocheng founded the Researching Society of Traditional Chinese Painting which was opposed to doing anything unconventional or incorporating Western techniques, and in 1917 Kang Youwei appealed to the public in his "Preface to the Catalogue of the Collection of Wanmu Caotang" that "if we still stick to old ways and refuse to make a change, Chinese painting will surely become extinct" and maintained that "we should open a new epoch of painting by combining the Chinese techniques with the Western ones", the prelude to the debate about traditional Chinese painting in this century started. From the 1920s to the 1940s, the contradiction and conflict between the so-called schools of "back to the ancients", "making new creations" and "eclecticism" never ceased. During this period Xu Beihong's proposition of "reforming the traditional Chinese painting" and Gao Qifeng and some others' view about the "New Chinese Painting" were put forward successively and were put into practice. In the 1950s, soon after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the discussion about the reform and innovation of traditional Chinese painting occurred. When this discussion became in the 1960s the debate about the catharsis of Shi Lu, the key person of the "Chang'an School", with the ink and brushwork as the media, characterized by "roughness, weirdness, disorder and blackness", people began to think about the modern transformation of the language of ink and wash. Thus the debate about the problem of ink and wash started in the first half of the century in response to the impact of the Western culture began its substantial progress from the external to the internal, from the social political level to the cultural and psychological level. It is a pity that the "unprecedented" "great cultural revolution" broke off this discussion about the problem of the brushwork and ink-applying technique of traditional Chinese painting which was gaining in its academic level and theoretical value.

Liu Zijian
Liu Zijian
Wings and Feathers Flying in the Cosmos No.2
2002
Ink on Rice Paper
485 x 176 cm

The heated contention about the future and the destiny of traditional Chinese painting aroused by the publication of Li Xiaoshan's "Contemporary Traditional Chinese Painting in My Opinion" in the 1980s was an debate about the problem of traditional Chinese painting in an unprecedented scale in the historical situation of opening up. It deserves of attention that in this debate the concept of "Chinese painting" or "traditional Chinese painting" which had been used for nearly half a century began to change to that of the "ink and wash painting". It seemed that more and more people believed that the concept of "ink and wash" conforms to the actual situation of the modern transformation of traditional Chinese painting better than that of "traditional Chinese painting". It is generally believed that this debate, like that which occurred at the beginning of the century, is the result of the impact of the Western culture on the traditional Chinese culture. Seen from today's viewpoint, just like the discussion about the problem of brushwork and ink-applying technique broken off by the "great cultural revolution", its real impetus comes from within the Chinese society and the Chinese culture: art has shouldered the mission entrusted to it by the changing era. For the new trend of ink and wash concurrent with this debate, the ideas and manners of the modern Western art are nothing but the means and instruments it has borrowed. The same is true of the "new literary painting" which appeared shortly later in response to the '85 new trend art. They are a kind of self adjustment of the modern Chinese art which began in the mid-1980s, or a partial self adjustment of the Chinese cultural tradition in its modernization drive. Their impetus of evolution still comes from within the Chinese society and the Chinese culture.
Thus it is not difficult to understand why the last climax of the debate about the problem of ink and wash in the 20th century ——the rise of the experimental ink and wash artists in mainland China and the academic contention and theoretical exploration around the creation of experimental ink and wash——becomes a cultural problem in China at the end of the century. That is to say, the art of experimental ink and wash, consisting of abstract ink and wash and expressive ink and wash, which was active in the art circles in mainland China in the 1990s, was both the logical result of the development of art history and the result of the interaction between the modernization drive of the Chinese society and the modern transformation of the Chinese culture. The reason why it becomes a present cultural problem lies in the fact that the appearance of the experimental ink and wash is connected both with the modern transformation of the traditional Chinese culture and with the means and the way through which the contemporary Chinese culture may enter the pattern of world culture. It is interesting that the subject of the debate about the problem of Chinese ink and wash in the 1990s was neither the "traditional Chinese painting" nor the "ink and wash painting", but the "modern art of ink and wash". Here we can see something of the change of the cultural situation. The traditional boundary between "traditional Chinese painting" and "ink and wash" becomes more and more indistinct, and more and more Western artistic modes (installment, performance, ideals, videos) have been adopted by some young avant-garde artists; the infiltration and transplant of the ideas and manners of the Western modern and post-modern art into the traditional Chinese ink and wash is no longer unimaginably queer. Only that the media of "ink and wash" still take root steadily in contemporary Chinese art circles as a symbol of the spirit of the traditional Chinese culture. It may be said that the "ink and wash complex" latent in Chinese art circles becomes so strong in the special cultural situation at the end of the century that it seems indissoluble for ever.

Wei Qingji
Wei Qingji
Object and Image No.8
1999
Ink on Rice Paper
58 x 52 cm

II. When we glance in retrospect over the Chinese culture in the past one hundred years at the turn of the century, we can see not only many thought-provoking points in the debate about the problem of ink and wash painting, but also unprecedented gigantic achievements due to the transformation and development of Chinese ink and wash in the 20th century. These achievements are mainly embodied in two important aspects:

1. A group of great masters of ink and wash have emerged who are closely associated with this century. The name of each great master represents a splendid artistic achievement, and these achievements constitute the history of the modern transformation of traditional Chinese ink and wash painting in the 20th century.

2. The diversified artistic pattern in the development of ink and wash has been formed. Beginning from the 1990s, the field of ink and wash consists of three types: the brushwork and ink-applying technique school which purely follows the tradition, the academic school which uses the Western realistic painting and modern language of painting for reference, and the experimental ink and wash which appropriates the Western modern and post-modern artistic experience.

It should be said that the latter aspect is more important. It has made the contemporary field of ink and wash a modern system of ink and wash with the internal impetus that unceasingly pushes it toward modern mode. In this system, the three types or orientations have by no means formed a situation of tripartite confrontation. The traditional brushwork and ink-applying technique school is declining, the academic school holds a central position and becomes the mainstream, and the experimental ink and wash has just entered the margin from a disreputable position. The boundaries between them are not very distinct and there is something of each in the other. However, their differences are obvious, and it is these differences that constitute the internal tension of the system of ink and wash and endow it with an internal impetus which pushes it toward the modern mode: the brushwork and ink-applying technique school is connected with the traditional culture and conveys the cultural resources; the academic ink and wash, incorporating things at all times and in all lands, is the most important cultural vehicle of the spirit of traditional ink and wash at present; the experimental ink and wash, though seemingly alien to the traditional ink and wash, is in essence still within the Chinese cultural tradition, and it is through its antagonism against the purely westernized artistic mode that it has won for the art of ink and wash its status and position in contemporary art and makes it possible for the spirit of the ink and wash culture to be handed down in contemporary art.

III. Since the experimental ink and wash of the 1990s is the last of the important links of the modern transformation of the Chinese ink and wash in the 20th century and is the artistic expression, based on local culture, of the rich content containing the psychological structure and the collective unconsciousness of the contemporary Chinese society, criticism should be directed straight at the works of the experimental ink and wash themselves instead of merely quibbling over such nonessential problems as that of the experimental ink and wash and its cultural status. As a matter of fact, so long as we treat the works of experimental ink and wash seriously, it is not difficult to realize that, as a kind of modern discourse in present China, many works of experimental ink and wash indeed reflect the great changes of the relation between man and nature and between man and society in present China and the profound changes at the level of individual psychology brought about by these changes.

As what is said above, seen from the logic of the development of art history and its internal connection, it can be said that the Chinese experimental ink and wash (including expressive ink and wash and abstract ink and wash) in the 1990s started from the "Chang'an School" in the 1960s. When looking back at its place of departure Chang'an, the modern ink and wash of the 1990s immediately found that it had already traveled a long way from there. Among the experimental ink and wash painters of the 1990s, Shi Guo was most directly connected with the "Chang'an School" which had ruled the domain of ink and wash in the 1960s. Although seen superficially the works by Shi Guo are still quite different even from some works by Shi Lu in the 1970s in which abstract factors are already remarkable, it is not hard to discern the "blood relationship" in art between them. We have every reason to say that this is a typical instance of the assertion that "the Chinese experimental ink and wash in the 1990s started from the Chang'an School in the 1960s". However, Shi Guo is representative of experimental ink and wash artists of the 1990s not so much in that the black and white images he created distinguished by the thick and broad black frames, incomplete ink strokes and masses of ink and wash are distinct and not substitutable in style and systematic and complete in its language of techniques as in that the "pure personal ultimate pursuit" (according to the painter's notes) he devotes himself to through his experiments in ink and wash with a clear aim involves both the fondness of the value of native traditional culture and the curiosity about the possibilities of the cultural characters opposite to those of the native culture. It should be said that the latter has the more profound internal character of culture and times. Compared with his father, the famous painter Shi Lu's depressing, abnormal, unrestrained and fantastic expression in ink and wash, Shi Guo's new schemata of ink and wash obvious possess much wider field of vision of the world culture and more profound and complex historical and cultural connotations.As far as the originality of the abstract schemata of ink and wash is concerned, Liu Zijian and Zhang Yu are, like Shi Guo, conspicuous in the field of experimental ink and wash of the 1990s. However, they are different in the schemata of ink and wash and the language of techniques. In Liu Zijian's dark space, the combination of large areas of spilled ink, collage and rubbing results in the soul-stirring dynamic feeling and whistle of the objects floating in disorder. On the contrary, in his Divine Light Series, Zhang Yu depicts the suspending broken squares and the floating incomplete circles with subtle variations of ink and wash in the hope that the appearance of divine light would lead the mortals to attain holiness.

Wei Qingji is representative of the youngest generation of abstract ink and wash painters. In his abstract ink and wash paintings, he uses some non-ink-and-wash instruments and materials with facility to express his experience of life and so proves to us the openness and limitlessness of the language space of modern ink and wash.
Obviously, we have no reason to allow the fear of the subversiveness of new art some people have to affect and hinder the dialogue between new criticism and new art. On the contrary, since experimental ink and wash has already become a real language event in the present cultural context, and since the discourse of ink and wash is no longer the prescriptive speech and the speech of appraisal, but is full of various possibilities, we have every reason to encourage the dialogue and exchange between new criticism and new art, and establish jointly the modern character of our culture through this dialogue and exchange.