99 art website www.99ys.com June 25 2013
We are Two Decades behind the West in Accepting Contemporary Ink Wash Painting
www.99ys.com: Wang Yin
Guest: Zhu Wei
Editor’s comment: Zhu Wei is the first artist who introduced Gong-bi into contemporary Chinese art. He started to explore the possibilities of expressing political life of China with traditional Gong-bi paintings when many aggressive artists created oil paintings with “political pop” and “ironic realism” features. In Zhu’s representative works, you can see huge difference between traditional Gong-bi paintings, but the basic features in coloring, outlining and dying are maintained. The contrast between traditional language and contemporary political life in his works demonstrates an irresistible attraction.
People who are familiar with Zhu Wei know that he, though being an expert painter, also loves writing to express his ideas, straightforwardly pointing out problems of our times. As a forerunner of contemporary ink wash painting, Zhu has been vigilantly observing the development of contemporary art also as a bystander. Contemporary ink wash painting is gaining more and more attention these years, and meanwhile increasing problems need to be addressed. So we had our inclusive review with Zhu Wei at www.99ys.com.
www.99ys.com: Ink wash paintings are extremely popular in recent years. Why do you think the “blowout” occurred at this time?
Zhu Wei: There is no “blowout”. Blowout is a disaster. Drillers are terrified by it. Their wives and children may be scared to death by just hearing this word. As for why contemporary ink wash paintings are drawing more and more attention, I believe it’s due to the aesthetic fatigue for oil paintings. People need something else to appreciate. Like the born of contemporary art, we are two decades behind the West in accepting contemporary Chinese ink wash painting. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we held many exhibitions that caused a sensation with Gu Wenda, Yang Jiecang, Wei Dong, Xu Bing and Li Jin who frequently held exhibitions overseas after 2000. Gu Wenda, in particular, deconstructed ink wash paintings in concepts, explored the possibilities of contemporary ink wash paintings from a cultural perspective and facilitated the westerners’ understanding, charting a course for Chinese ink and wash to go global.
www.99ys.com: Many people are still confused about what are contemporary ink and wash paintings today. How do you define it?
Zhu Wei: Contemporary ink wash painting doesn’t refer to painting drawn by any alive artist, only those fully reflect current society and with strong time spirits and experimental nature can live up to the name. For example, after hundreds of years, what kind of work, do you think, could give later generations traces of our times? Paintings of mountains, clouds, grass and flower? Paintings avoiding risks and reality and not explorative? Paintings for leisure appreciation? For those paintings, men of letters in ancient times outperformed us. Even the unprofessional Emperors drew much better paintings on flower and bird as well as still life. Not to mention that their calligraphy was way better, take Sung hui tsung (Emperor Huizong of the Northern Song Dynasty) for instance. Thousands of years have passed, we are lucky to live in this era. It’s a complicated time period undergoing tremendous changes. A slight change can draw attention of the whole world. As artists, we must cherish our time and reflect it as accurately as possible.
www.99ys.com: How should we demonstrate “contemporary features” of ink wash paintings through their largely national art form?
Zhu Wei: In creation, we can explore, research and breakthrough in the following three aspects, which can also be used to judge and measure in viewing. First, it is subject–whether it is about current people and events. After thousands of years’ development, there are many limitations have formed in the creation of ink wash paintings. People may find it hard to add familiar subjects or get them well blended. Second, skill and technique valued in tradition—point, line and facet. Line, in particular is emphasized in ink wash paintings. That’s also where oil painting differs from ink wash paintings. Third, material possessed by ink wash paintings. Oil painting pigments on Xuan paper or ink wash pigments on canvas both do not count.
www.99ys.com: Are strokes still important in contemporary ink wash creations?
Zhu Wei: They are essential. Since the subjects are departing from ancient times, strokes are more important if we are to retain ink wash paintings’ artistic conception and real sense. Without strokes, it’s like cooking without oil or having instant noodles without water—they have all ingredients, but not edible. Good cook are those good at monitoring oil temperatures. Strokes are a subject cannot be avoided by any ink wash painter. Who raises a question like this must have failed in this aspect or flawed at least.
www.99ys.com: In recent years, contemporary ink wash paintings are favored by auction market. Do you think it is accidental or cultural return and identification?
Zhu Wei: Cultural return takes a longer time. I believe the current phenomenon is more due to price factors. Cultural return means on the basis of adequate food and drinking, after taking a look at art of the West, people finally start to think their works are not that great and we have absorbed some of their essence (I mean authentic art works, not imitated rubbish that doesn’t count and incomparable) and finally pay attention to stuff around. I have not seen foreign art works collected by national museums and art galleries. Chinese people are good at campaigns. In the 1960s and 1970s, we took national cultural campaigns; from the 1980s till now, we are busy at national economics campaigns. Once the order gets issued, Chinese people will enthusiastically follow it, jumping at one goal all together. Though no one may get the benefit in the end, at least they feel they did not make mistakes and took the opportunities. Creation is almost the same with collection. They both emphasize originality. What’s got collected is creativity—the thing we are in desperate need of or have not realized.
www.99ys.com: Since contemporary ink wash paintings are popular no matter in exhibition or auction, do you think the mentality of contemporary ink wash painters will change accordingly?
Zhu Wei: I don’t believe the effects are immediate. You can see it by looking at the works. Good artists, like scientists, are exploring all their lives. They do not limit themselves on one subject or style. It’s painful to repeat oneself. Only people with limited talent or curbed by some kind of interest would do that.
www.99ys.com: Though there are more and more exhibitions on contemporary ink wash paintings, it’s still hard to see those paintings at art expos and they hardly show up in Hong Kong and Basel. How do you view this phenomenon?
Zhu Wei: This year may not display ink wash paintings, but I participated some art expos in the past. But due to various reasons, ink wash paintings will not be a main part. It’s already difficult to have the chance of getting exhibited once or twice. Expos dominated by contemporary art, especially in the west, showcase works with strong explorative, explosive and rebellious senses. Many of those works, in our eyes, are hardly able to be sold. Our expos are more like pre-exhibitions of auctions. They are filled with commodities. That’s the difference. The time it takes to eliminate that difference is the time it takes to close the gap between us and the world in terms of contemporary art.
www.99ys.com: Are there more Asian collectors or Western collectors in terms of contemporary ink wash paintings?
Zhu Wei: I do not know others. For me, I heard from art galleries cooperated with me that 90 percent of my works were collected by western collectors and overseas Chinese. I never sell paintings by myself, so I do not know any of the buyers and we have never met each other. Western collectors and overseas Chinese tend to collect works with contemporary explorative features, not so called Chinese elements. They are not idiots. Their art appreciation quality is much higher than Chinese artists since they started to get art education as a child. Simply showing off Chinese elements cannot support all these contemporary Chinese artists.
www.99ys.com: What do you think the international context of contemporary ink wash paintings is? Is it accessible in international community?
Zhu Wei: You asked two questions. Context is created by artists, while circulation is the business of art managers. Context includes creation and painting language issues that we have talked about as well as value issues and discourse power based on that. Globalization divides contemporary art from traditional art. Now the judgment is universal. Artists from all over the world could join together and see who is more creative. Ink wash paintings are distinctively Chinese. It’s up to us to determine its level. Li Keran, Fu Baoshi, Gu Wenda and Xu Bing’s works are all rich in international context. Last year, Metropolitan Museum of Art held an exhibition for Fu Baoshi in which all works are on modern subjects, including fishermen going to sea and military trainings. I never thought ink wash paintings could be so contemporary, so uniquely expressive and with so powerful international context. That exhibition was held during Asia Week New York, so it attracted a lot of people. I was more excited than at my solo exhibition.
Different from oil paintings, ink and wash paintings are classified into three categories in content, namely figure, mountain and water and flower, bird and side horse; in painting method and technique, there are two kinds: free hand and Gong-bi. Freehand is more abstract and stresses more about the mastering of ink; Gong-bi is meticulous but more likely to fall into imitated paintings. Whether contemporary ink wash paintings can go global depends on painters.
99 art website www.99ys.com November 6, 2013 Super Interview
Zhu Wei: Contemporary Ink Should Be In Accord With Chinese Reality
www.99ys.com: Today many contemporary ink artists are dismantling the material of "ink", as well as re-understanding the concept of "ink", however, the expression of your creation seems to be following the traditional techniques to express personal ideas. Why haven't you tried to do a lot of experiments on the media of "ink"?
Zhu Wei: There are two ways to change or improve one thing: one is changing the subject but not changing its carrier; the other is a completely denial of the old world, such as experimental ink. I do not exclude experimental ink. I hold a positive attitude to it because I think the experimental ink is the only new species and new way of painting in the thousands years of Chinese ink painting history.
In the past the ink painting include landscapes, figures, and flowers and birds, while only experimental ink which emerged in the 1980s is never seen before. Experimental ink is mixing of western concept, western contemporary art theory, western installation art and Chinese ink painting, Chinese traditional culture. It probably will be a way that Chinese ink painting can interact with western culture in the future. For me, drawing is more enjoyable. Maybe my ability is so, being good at expressing through drawing, while not so good at tossing the medium of ink. Anyway, I totally agree in experimental ink. This is a very good way.
www.99ys.com: In fact, many people are questioning about the word "contemporary ink", thinking that its concept is not very clear. What do you think about this?
Zhu Wei: We must always go into the whys and wherefores of anything. Here is the why: why the ink was called contemporary when nothing goes wrong with it? If a girl instantly stresses that she is eighteen, why she keeps on stressing her age? There must be an attempt behind it. Sometimes being contemporary is because a lot of people cannot use brush, ink, paper and inkstone to reflect contemporary subjects, therefore they can only add a "contemporary" before "ink" in the name. Even what they paint is very traditional and not interesting. Moreover, the so-called "contemporary" is not necessarily a good thing. Contemporary is a present continuous tense with certain experimental meaning, while an experiment is not necessarily successful. Many people may not have understood the other side of contemporary. "Contemporary" means that it can be or cannot be successful. It's just a process and the result remains to be determined. So, why people are fond of contemporary? Because it tells a contemporary story, which we have a sense of it. Taking the painting "Han Xizai Evening Banquet" as an example, we have never seen what the ancient life is like with our own eyes, so it's not very connected with us. Even the painting, a political pop meticulous ink painting we can say, was extremely contemporary in its days, the audiences today still cannot experience the life of the time. Therefore, emphasizing on contemporary needs courage. First of all you have to prepare for admitting that your works are likely to be a failure.
www.99ys.com: People who know you must know that you love Rock and Roll, and you are good buddy with a lot of rock stars. Then, does rock and roll have any influence on your creation?
Zhu Wei: When I was young I like rock and roll, because of the critical and rebellious things in it, and later I suddenly realized that rock and roll is not only an emotional catharsis of young people. The rock music and ink painting seem to be two incompatible things. Even to the western classical music the rock and roll is a great scourge, then to the thousands-years-old Chinese traditional art, how could it be penetrated? I have been doing this, and it's successful. I made some friends who do rock music. They also think this combination is very appropriate. This is a challenge for me, because when ink painting and rock music can be combined, it proves the possibility to make ink painting contemporary. In many of my ink paintings there is not much literati's sentiment, but strength and the rebellious and critical spirit behind the strength. Talking about influence of rock and roll, it is subtle, for something in common there.
www.99ys.com: As an artistic creator who loves rock and roll, writing book, and expressing contemporary concept through traditional way, you are a contradiction who tie tradition and contemporary so closely in a harmonious way. In fact, there should be a very personal way of understanding the tradition and contemporary. Could you please tell us how you understand the traditional culture? And as a contemporary ink painter, how do you integrate with the world without losing our own traditions?
Zhu Wei: Cui Jian once told me very seriously: "Zhu Wei, there is music in your painting". This music is certainly not classical music. He actually referred to rock spirit and rock music. I appreciate this sentence and feel very good about it. It indicates that my attempt to contemporize ink painting is successful. The traditional culture is worthy of respect, because if there is no past, there is no future. We should respect and learn it, but to improve it is nonsense. How can we improve something while we merely scratch the surface? For the tradition what we should do more is to learn and study. But here is a problem of ink painting. The contemporary themes must be taken into it, or otherwise just as Li Xiaoshan said, it will really be a dead end. Of course, this is related to the ability and preference. Some people do not want to do so, since different people have different aspirations. My opinion is if an artwork does not have a contemporary theme, it should not be called contemporary. Taking about integrating with the world, in this exhibition over 80% of the document literature shown are western mainstream media. They explain Chinese contemporary art through these paintings, as well as understand the social change in China through Chinese contemporary art. There is no much difference between contemporary ink and contemporary oil painting. For a much wider audiences, they don't know what you paint is ink painting. If only what you paint is in accord with Chinese reality, they will accept it.
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