China’s Enduring Passion For Ink: A Project On Contemporary Ink Artists

Liu dan painting a portion of a landscape, © Britta Erickson
Liu dan painting a portion of a landscape, © Britta Erickson
Photo of Karen Tsui
30 January 2017

Chinese ink art has long departed from the old-school of scrolls and calligraphy. Contemporary ink art artists are today breathing new life to this medium. In an unprecedented manner, top Chinese ink artists will open their studios to an international audience, via The Enduring Passion for Ink with Britta Erickson.

Few, including the Chinese or those of Chinese descent, understand ink art beyond its aesthetic qualities. Adding to that, the art market has been flooded with works of varying quality, adding to the challenge of differentiating the gems from the chaff.

In response, The Enduring Passion for Ink hoped to familiarise audiences from both the East and West, by asking: Why did the artist choose ink as a medium? How is ink’s expressive range distinct from that of other artistic media? How does the artist go about creating an ink work? How does the artist approach issues such as tradition, creative innovation, and personal expression?

Yang Jiechang painting, | © Britta Erickson

Artists chosen for the film showcase the variety of approaches, backgrounds, and techniques. These artists include bigwigs such as Xu Bing, Zheng Chongbin, Bingyi, and Chen Haiyan.

These artists are the vanguard of contemporary art production internationally, yet are still grounded in the rich tradition of ink in China. And each naturally focuses on a separate salient issue in ink painting.

Even if their names don’t ring a bell, the documentary offers an intimate experience with these artists as their art takes form: the essence of which the art expresses transcends the boundaries of art, and touches that of all humanity. Chen Haiyan, one of the featured artists, works trance-like and describes her work as, ‘realising a dream, something that’s in me that is yearning to be expressed onto the wooden board’ – Chen works with carved wood block prints, and brush and ink painting.

Filming at the studio with bingyi, | © Yang Jiechang painting, | Britta Erickson

Rapport and Deep Conversations

The level of comfort and trust between these artists and Erickson is apparent from the artists’ open-hearted conversation in spite of the camera — and makes for a large part of the documentary’s success in lifting the veil over ink art, via the sharing and art-making from the artists. Likewise, film-maker Richard Widner offers the perspectives and rhythm to the film, bringing the audience closer to experiencing the artist interaction first hand.

The beauty of watching artists in action and the unfolding of their art, Erickson reckons, is served by film; ‘there is something very much time-based, and can be so explained (and understood) only via film.’

‘By watching the artists paint, I learned many new things I would never otherwise have learned,’ said Erickson on what she found most interesting in making these films. ‘I wouldn’t even have known to ask questions about particular things had I not been there, witnessing the process.’

Liu dan painting a portion of a landscape, | © Britta Erickson

Contributing to The Field

The idea for The Enduring Passion for Ink came when Erickson turned 50. She decided she had to create a project that was 100 per cent her own – with no answering to a museum, gallery, journal or artist; a project that would have a significant and long-lasting contribution to the field, and one she was uniquely qualified to do.

Erickson’s background is unique. She was one of the first Western scholars to focus on contemporary Chinese art. Having spent several years working with leading American collector of Chinese painting in his generation, Jung Ying Tsao, she learned connoisseurship of Chinese paintings from the Ming up to the Cultural Revolution. With a doctoral degree focusing on 19th century Shanghai artists, she has the qualifications to understand, and in turn explain ink painting currently produced in China and elsewhere, in a direct and uncomplicated manner.

The Enduring Passion For Ink | © Britta Erickson

While these artists’ works may grace the walls of many top-tier galleries and museums around the world, it’s rare they would open up and share their thoughts or allow viewers access to their studios.

With The Enduring Passion for Ink, viewers get to step into the studios of these artists to get a taste of the breadth and variety in this burgeoning artscape.

For trailers and further film information, visit The Enduring Passion for Ink website.

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