Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China

Review

of an Exhibition

by Andrew Coletti

Published on April 07, 2014

  • Description:

    As the first major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art ever mounted by the Met, Ink Art is an ambitious project that features the work of 35 artists in a wide variety of media. Connected to and presented alongside the Met’s permanent collection of Chinese art, it is a dense and complicated exhibition that requires visitors to move slowly, look closely, and take their time. Those who do will glean with some fascinating insights into the China of today and its connections to the China of the past.
    As you enter the Asian Art galleries, conspicuous red banners direct you towards the exhibition, but the actual works that make it up are scattered widely throughout this part of the museum. Sometimes an entire gallery is part of Ink Art; other times the contemporary objects that form the exhibition are hidden among permanent collection objects, many of them hundreds or even thousands of years old. The sprawling nature of the exhibition meant that I was always a little unsure of whether I had seen every part of it, but also encouraged me to look closer in order to find the next piece of the puzzle. The decision to lay the exhibition out in this way felt like a kind of interactivity all its own, an adventure or journey that the exhibition was inviting me to embark on. I personally found something enchanting and a bit mysterious about having to hunt through the galleries for the next pieces of Ink Art, but I can certainly see how this format might not be effective for every kind of museum visitor or conducive to every type of museum visit.
    The works presented in Ink Art are varied, but all of them deal with modern social and political issues as they relate to modern China, especially globalization. The question of Chinese national identity and the survival of Chinese traditions in the face of the widespread influence of other cultures comes to the surface consistently, from a set of world maps that scales countries up or down according to their level of global influence to a facsimile ancient Chinese vase branded with the Coca-Cola logo. All of these works are connected in some way to a traditional Chinese art form, whether referencing it obliquely or flatout imitating it: woodworking, pottery, ceramics, architecture. Of course, “ink art” itself (calligraphy and brush painting) is ubiquitous. Given the most prevalent theme in the exhibition, I find it hard to imagine how it could have been curated anywhere else in the museum but the Asian art galleries. Even the subtitle, “Past as Present”, encourages the viewer to think of the works in the exhibition not just as products of the modern world but products of the modern China, impossible to separate from their cultural and historical context. At the same time, with such an extensive exhibition it’s easy for certain elements to get separated from the whole. A few of the exhibition’s many and varied components did not really connect to the whole for me, in particular the video installations, but on the whole I felt like there was a strong thread that thematically connected the objects even if they were sometimes physically distant from each other.
    No matter where it’s from, contemporary art frequently features humor and flashes of the unexpected, and I felt that the presence of these elements was another strong suit of Ink Art’s. By pulling me in with eye-catching signage and then forcing me to explore and investigate on my own, sometimes with the objects placed few and far between, Ink Art put me into a very particular mindset. I felt serious and contemplative, intent on seeking out the missing objects and completing my understanding of the exhibition. This meant that when I did encounter something humorous, such as the Coca-Cola vase by Ai Weiwei or Zhang Jianjun’s Scholar Rock (a purple silicone replica of a boulder placed in a garden shrine), it was all the more amusing for its being so unexpected and so at odds with how the rest of the exhibition was encouraging me to relate to it. But these kinds of funny moments were not immediately apparent and often involved hidden objects (the purple Scholar’s Rock in particular is in the midst of a garden that bears no other disparate elements to distinguish it from a traditional one).
    My favorite piece in the exhibition was also one of the last pieces I saw: Book from the Sky by Xu Bing, in which a poem by W. B. Yeats is presented in brush-painted English letters that have been distorted and overlaid on each other so that they superficially resemble written Chinese. At first glance the piece, which fills up an entire wall, looked imposing to me. It clearly contained meaning but I also got the impression I would be unable to interpret it. The more time I spent staring at it, the more I began to see meaning and understand its individual components, until eventually I was able to pick out the words of the entire poem from their distorted form. I found this experience reminiscent of the entire exhibition and the kind of attention it demands from its audience (especially its effects on someone like myself, who doesn’t have much previous experience with the subject matter). Those hoping for an immediately eye-catching and engaging experience may not derive much from Ink Art, but those who have the time for a longer, slower looking will find it rewarding.

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