In the tradition of Chinese ink painting, which most art historians agree began during the Tang Dynasty, the artist’s aim was to capture the spirit of the subject rather than to create a realistic representation, or likeness. Today, discussions about ink painting are at the center of global discourses about contemporary art in China, with the practice itself in flux.
James Elkins, in his essay ‘A New Definition of Contemporary Ink Painting’, describes this highly contested and increasingly controversial form as:
‘a Chinese art practice with an unparalleled density, complexity, and historical depth of reference…ink painting connects to a tradition that has been traced back to Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 220) tomb reliefs, and even to cave paintings and the decorations on Shang ( ca. 1600 – 1050 B.C.) bronzes…No other genre of Chinese image making draws on such signiﬁcant history or requires so much knowledge and experience on the part of the viewer.’
He goes on to state that his is not a visual description, nor an account of a method of making:
‘The art could have ink, brushwork and paper, or use video, performance, sculpture, or other media; it may not even look like a traditional ink painting at all.’
It is this layering of past and present, of tradition and its constant transformation, that distinguishes contemporary Chinese art and provides much of its fascination for both Western and (increasingly) Chinese audiences.
In fact, it seems that ink itself is no longer necessary for a work to be defined as ‘contemporary ink painting’. The gesture or the mark is sufficient, even in the form of sculpture, video or photography. From Xu Bing’s re-interpretations of literati masterpieces using debris and rubbish behind back-lit screens, to the digital multimedia works of Yang Yongliang; the Family Series of Zhuang Huan; the gunpowder works of Cai Guo-Qiang; and the recent cartographic works of Qiu Zhijie, the label of ‘Contemporary Ink’ is being applied to the works of many artists who may themselves not always agree with the interpretation. The Wall Street Journal has identified contemporary ink painting as the ‘next big thing’. A major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China, opens in December 2013, and will include Xu Bing’s installation ‘A Book from the Sky’ (1989), and Ai Weiwei’s ‘Map of China’ (2006), which is constructed entirely of wood salvaged from demolished Qing dynasty temples. Sotheby’s and Christies have recently gone head to head with sales of contemporary ink works in Hong Kong.
Even the most casual observer of Chinese contemporary art cannot fail to notice the myriad of ways in which Chinese artists are working within and reinterpreting these traditional forms. New interpretations of a ‘Shui Mo’ (ink and water) tradition pose a challenge to the hegemony of oil painting, which has dominated the art world in China since the rise of the avant-garde painters in the early 1990s. One might take a cynical view and suggest that there is a great deal of marketing going on.
In the work of one Beijing artist, however, the tradition of brush and ink has become a way to express deeply personal, spiritual, cultural and even political concerns. Bingyi Huang (usually known simply as ‘Bingyi’) lives and works in a Yuan Dynasty temple building on the ancient central axis of Beijing, near the Drum and Bell Towers. The vast space of her studio, with its enormous pillars and antique furniture, orchids and birds fluttering in large cages, is a tranquil oasis. Once across the stone threshold and inside the heavy wooden doors the shouts of street vendors, and the honking horns of motorcycles and cars navigating the narrow lane-ways of the hutongs, seem very far away.
When I met Bingyi in October, she had just returned from a period of some months painting in the mountains a few hours outside Beijing. Her assistants carefully unrolled a 30-meter long painting to show me how she has developed a unique approach fusing ink painting with land art, installation art and even performance art. I ask her what she thinks about the current international interest in renewed traditions of ink painting, and she laughs, saying, ‘I could not care less.’ I am doubtful, asking again, why she thinks western audiences are so intrigued by the contemporary interpretations of this ancient art form. But she says again, emphatically, ‘I couldn’t care less about the art market, about auction prices, it’s boring. In my case it’s not about reinterpreting Chinese traditional ink painting. If you are truly ‘Shan Shui’ you don’t need to think about it. If you are the being, you don’t need to think about the being. You just are.’ She describes her work in an intensely spiritual manner, ‘It’s the universe working through me,’ she says, ‘and sometimes it’s that space between human hand and God’s hand.’
Becoming a practicing artist only six years ago, after an extraordinarily diverse career in which she switched from bio-medical engineering to art history, along the way also studying computer programming, music and finance, she has created a painting idiom which she describes as a search for the sublime. This is not the European Romantic sublime of the human being as a passive observer of the power of nature, however, but rather a specifically Chinese notion informed by Buddhist beliefs and by her years of art historical research into the Han Dynasty. Bingyi completed her PhD at Yale in 2005. ‘I lived with the Han Dynasty for seven years,’ she says, ‘I was them!’ And what she learned from the years researching her dissertation was that through art, ‘one can embody the notion of eternity. If you can feel and express eternity and transience, then you are approaching a much higher level of metaphysics.’
She tells me that she began painting in her mother’s living room in 2006. ‘What drove you to become a practising artist after a successful academic career?’ I ask. ‘I always wanted to,’ she says. ‘What lies in the heart of humans is a desire to express. We all wish to express, but the question becomes “What is your embodiment? What is your medium?” It was completely inside of me, completely contained… One could say that it’s fate, but we Chinese have a different way of perceiving that.’
Her recent work, Journey to the Center of the Earth, created for a site in Essen, Germany, a mining region of dramatic mountainous landscapes, is an ink painting of 150 meters in length – a length which equals the depth of the shaft of the first mine. It is developed from meticulous research. Weather, geology, geography, history and sociology are all elements that Bingyi investigates in the planning process for a project such as this. She began the research in Germany and then moved into the mountains outside Beijing for two months, camping in 45 degree heat, in order to physically create the work. With four assistants she worked on the painting section by section, applying the ink to the paper with a variety of techniques and tools that would astonish the traditional literati painters. In an exhaustive and painstaking process her assistants even created a man-made pond large enough to make the sheets of paper that are joined end to end to create the vast scroll.
‘I was standing between the heaven and the earth,’ says Bingyi. Dealing with the extreme physical discomfort of the conditions, she says, and even finding herself covered with mosquito bites, was all an important element of her practice. ‘I could feel I was no different than a mosquito, I was no different than a toad. That’s eternity – you are so minimal, you are nothing. And that is the sublime.’ She explains that this process is entirely different than traditional notions of landscape art or Chinese ‘Shan Shui’ (water and mountain painting) in which the artist observes and records nature. ‘Nature is just a projection of the universe.’ This is not landscape painting in either its western ‘sublime vista’ guise or the Chinese ‘Shui Mo’ (water ink) tradition. ‘It’s conceptual, it’s land art, it’s performance art,’ says the artist. ‘It’s a ritual I perform between Heaven and Earth. I am not a shaman, I am just a human, but this ritual is relational between the universe and the individual, it’s a kind of sublime. It’s intensely primal. It raises questions about our fundamental being – what is pain, what is suffering, what is loneliness.’
These large scale site specific ink works, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth and Cascade (which also included an operatic performance with original music and costume design by the artist herself) are quite extraordinary, featuring what appears to be spontaneous gestural mark-making on an epic scale. I am reminded of Jackson Pollock and his performative, dance-like movements around his abstract expressionist canvases, inspired by North American Indian shamanism and Navajo sand-painting rituals. ‘No!’ says Bingyi, adding that nothing could be further from her careful control and the meticulous planning of every element of the work. She likens her process to a cross between researching a complex novel, composing passages of music, or writing a computer program. For The Shape of the Wind: in Fuchun Mountains (2012) she created a scroll work 2.65 meters wide and 160 meters long on hand-made rice paper, described by some critics as an ‘action painting’ (there’s that Pollock connection) and shown inside the nave of St Johannes- Evangelist Church in Berlin.
‘Cascade’, a site-specific work commissioned for the lobby of the Smart Museum in the University of Chicago, is thought to be the largest ink-on-paper work ever created, exploring personal and mythological subject matter through reinventing and transforming traditional brush techniques. In creating this work she made reference to a Buddhist temple named Zhihuihai (The Ocean of Wisdom) in Beijing’s Summer Palace, which has similar proportions to the Chicago site. The work refers to elements in nature – wind, fire, mountains, earth and water, as well as to human and animal DNA. An artist highly conversant with both western and eastern traditions, conventions and theories, Bingyi told me that these site-specific works are ‘like Walter de Maria inverted.’
Her earlier, more figurative paintings (which the artist tells me she intends to return to in a new series of portraits) are expressionist, delicate works which reveal aspects of the artist’s own life. A serious accident in 2009 left her very badly burned and subject to a series of medical interventions and operations. I Watch Myself Dying expresses the horror of this experience, with the artist’s fragile body lying on the operating table like an Egyptian sarcophagus. This work, part of her series Six Accounts of a Floating Life is intensely revealing. Other works in the series deal with childhood memory, love, sexual passion and tragedy. Looking at some works from this period on the walls of her studio I tell her that I am reminded of Symbolist works by Odilon Redon and Bingyi acknowledges the connection. She points out that she is particularly interested in poetry, and indeed she selected her college in the United States, Mount Holyoke, on the basis that it was the alma mater of Emily Dickinson, her favorite poet. In addition to philosophy, history, and science, poetry, both Chinese and Western, continues to inform and inspire her work.
At the end of our conversation, Bingyi shows me a beautiful series of small ink works on rice paper, not yet exhibited, which she describes as ‘manifestations of nature’. She intends to create more than a thousand of these works, painting every day in a process almost akin to meditation and to the daily practice of the calligrapher, involving great control of fine brushes. They are in the form of fans — a classical allusion representing dreams. The contemporary world is here, however, with images such as a plastic bag flying through the air in the wind. It’s really about the energy of qi, she says. Subjects include insects, scallions, the cocoons of silk worms, walnuts, a cloud devouring the moon, the buds of flowers, a silk knot and a willow tree. By the end of our discussion, they are spread out along the full length of an enormous table, one delicate, subtle image after another, revealing once again the expressive and timeless quality of the calligraphic mark.