September 30 2017, Song Ya Feng That's Art
A Way Out for Chinese Contemporary Ink | An Interview with Zhu Wei
Edited by Ran Huaying
Written by Zhao Yuxing
Editor's Note: Artist Zhu Wei's Solo Exhibition "Virtual Focus - Zhu Wei 1987-2017" has been held successively at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Singapore, the Today Art Museum in Beijing, and the Art Museum of Nanjing University of the Art. Now it came to the National Gallery of Indonesia. When we had the chance to interview Mr. Zhu Wei, we talked about the authoritative voice of contemporary Chinese ink art and so on. The dialogue as well as some excerpts from famous art critics' articles are excerpted here for all the art lovers.
Born in 1966, Zhu Wei is a contemporary artist and an explorer of Chinese contemporary ink art. His ink paintings began to show up in large international exhibitions from early 90s, and have since been featured in over 200 exhibitions world-wide. More than thirty different albums of his paintings and retrospectives of his artworks have been published. 43 domestic and foreign museums have added his more than 70 artworks to their collections.
Excerpted from the interview:
Q: What is the status of contemporary Chinese ink painting in the contemporary art world?
A: We like to mention contemporary art all the time, as if contemporary art is a life-saving straw or a panacea that can cure every illness. But it's not really the case. What is contemporary art? Frankly speaking, the situation of contemporary art is like Olympic Games. The Olympic Games was founded by a Westerner named Coubertin, the projects are well-known to all adults and children in the Western world, and the rules are also made in accordance with Westerner’s physical conditions. The Westerners play the games so well and so influential, that people in the rest of the world want to participate in to have fun. Joining in the fun is fine, but you must follow the rules which have been laid down, otherwise they won't let you in. They don’t even mind whether you are there or not, because they themselves have already created enough fun. The Western contemporary art is like the European Football League in Europe or the National Basketball Association in the United States, both represent the highest level in their respective fields.
About the status of contemporary ink painting, objectively speaking, it never has a place in the contemporary art world.
Chinese ink painting has never been taken seriously by the Western contemporary art. What the Western philosophers, theorists, thinkers, and art practitioners care is their own artistic process. They don't have time to concern African sculpture, Iranian Persian painting, or Chinese ink and wash. And they should not. Otherwise it can be said, as it were, to put one's finger into another's pie. Or in the big picture it might be described as great-power chauvinism. Whether ink and wash can be contemporarized is completely our own business. Why do we keep bringing a domestic issue to somebody else's home to let them verify and judge? Is it diffident, or self-righteous?
Q: Can Chinese ink painting have its own authoritative voice and have a place in the contemporary art world in the future?
A: When Li Xiao-shan presented his opinion "Chinese painting has already reached a dead end", no Western critic or historian stood out to question it, which proves that the authoritative voice is in our own hands. Only we can explain and predict its future.
Ink painting carries values of slave system and feudal society as well as trace of social development for thousands of years. The function of ink artworks is more to describe or record, to show artist's skill, or to just complain, than to introspect, which limits ink painting's depth, breadth, and even its highest level as an art form. There is a vast difference between the values of ink painting and contemporary art, and we need to work hard to fill the gap. It requires time and improvement and enhancement of the whole society. Whereas our ancestors have left us enough artistic mood and techniques that we cannot even go beyond, these should no longer be our main problem today. What we can do it to have the contemporary consciousness. Contemporary ink art is not ink painting painted by contemporary people, instead, it is an art created by artists who have contemporary consciousness as well as independent thinking.
If through the improvement of values, our contemporary ink art eventually has the contemporary consciousness, if it eventually becomes uniquely original, interesting and influential, by that time it will certainly occupy a seat in the contemporary art world; or moreover, upsurge a trend around the world like the Western contemporary art.
Q: Is it easier for ink painting to make its own Chinese contemporary way, comparing to oil painting, sculpture, print, installation, or other art forms?
A: The authoritative voice, material and technique of ink painting are entirely controlled by us. It has lived for nearly four times longer than the 700-year-old oil painting, and is very matured today. However, the contemporary process for ink painting is never easy. From the ink painting revolution in late Qing dynasty, to another ink painting revolution in the New China, from the 85 New Wave Movement, to the Post-89 Movement, this art form has been more or less improved. But the improvements are only confined to method, technique, or material. Some change is nearly senseless, like peasant revolt or a pure accident. Unlike our Western counterparts, who have theoretical support from many philosophers and thinkers, we are somewhat powerless to resolve new problems with old values on the road toward contemporaization.
The contemporarization of ink painting needs our own Three Masters of the Renaissance, our own Kant, Descartes, Socrates, Nietzsche, Hegel, Sartre, and Russell. Contemporary art requires a strong theoretical framework. To be contemporarized, there is no other way but to build artistic practice on that framework. Otherwise the only thing left will be cadaverous imitation and helpless artists, like what we can often see in Today’s contemporary Chinese art.
About the development of Chinese contemporary ink, here are some relevant interpretations from well-known critics. The following is excerpted from Mr. He Guiyan's article "Context and Logic: The Art Career of Zhu Wei":
"Zhu Wei's dialogue with the tradition, his knowledge of the tradition, and his quest of contemporary transformation of art language can be found in his works created after 2000. In his opinion, Chinese contemporary ink painting and Gongbi should develop in two ways: first, artists should get rid of the influence of Western art and create new and original art language and rhetoric on the basis of tradition and art history; second, artists should concern themselves with reality, culture and aesthetics, and keep up with social changes.
"Briefly, since the reform and opening-up of China, the development of contemporary ink isn't just an artistic issue, but also a social, cultural and even ideological one. Especially in the early 1980s, under the influence of the reflection of Cultural Revolution, modernized revolution, and Western modern and postmodern culture, contemporary ink painting bore an important cultural mission— to reverse and alienate socialist realism, to reject and deconstruct traditional ink painting, and to accept and absorb Western modern art and post-modern art language. These artistic and cultural demands are not separated but interwoven."
Mr. He Guiyan puts forward the question in this article:
"What's the characteristics of rhetoric and expression of Chinese contemporary art compared to Western modern and contemporary art? Whether Chinese contemporary art have its own idiom, language and pedigree?"
Zhu Wei said in an interview, "I've been working on ink painting for years and I think I should make some breakthrough. But at last I haven't done anything so meaningful. Then I think there must be some problems with contemporary art—I'm not the only artist who is not creative. Chinese contemporary art is only in the exploration stage. Our main task is to stay active."
"In Zhu Wei's view, the return to the tradition and learning from the tradition means that the artist should really mine the connotation and spirit behind the traditional schema, language, and style, and build new idiom and rhetoric under the guidance of new ideas and methods.
"Since 2013, 'new ink painting' and 'new Gongbi' have been the integral part of Chinese contemporary art movement. But there is no clear definition of 'new'. However, there must be a frame of reference. It is traditional ink painting and traditional Gongbi. Actually, on mentioning traditional ink painting and traditional Gongbi, we not only refer to art form, art language, but also artistic and cultural system which is already complete after hundreds years' development. From this perspective, "new" things should be considered in the context of art history. How to create "new" art? Whether through language, rhetoric and methodology of art creation or through media, aesthetics and theme? Zhu Wei doesn't care whether his works are 'new Gongbi' or 'new ink painting'. He keeps current art trend at a distance. As for the inner logic of art language, he is seeking for a way to stick with tradition without being fettered by tradition.
"But for Zhu Wei, this image narrative is not important. What is important is that through his paintings people can feel the cultural and aesthetic experience of contemporary Chinese people."
Mr. Li Xiaoshan elaborates his opinion of Chinese contemporary ink art in his article "Zhu Wei":
"These critics (including art curators) outside China inevitably hold a common stand in their interpretation of contemporary Chinese art - they try their very best to crack the ‘secret political code’ hidden in the work of Chinese artists; with thoughts turned to a political linkage even in seemingly ordinary scenes or depictions. I think the political interest in the Chinese artists has obviously been exaggerated - even demonised - by some Westerners. Yet, from an ideological and psychological perspective, this phenomenon is enhanced by a relationship of mutual dependence.
"I have written an article titled From Chinese Painting to Ink in which I state the change in concept is actually a change in standpoint. The endless debates on ‘Chinese Painting’ are due to the ambiguity in concept, while ‘Ink’ is a medium. Hence it is highly flexible, in terms of the scope and form of its expression. Zhu Wei doesn’t care much for the kind of expressive (xie yi) ink paintings which are casually composed, and rejects others which are shabbily painted on the spur of the moment. An American researcher of Chinese art history has asserted that the rise of the expressive (xie yi) painting halted the development of Chinese art history. Putting aside the issue of whether this is bigotry, his judgment was formed on account of the phenomenon he observed. Chinese painters are fond of saying 'One should follow the spirit of the ancients and not their way.' This rather reverses the correct order of things. From the works of many contemporary artists one can see that much of the way of the ancients has been used with the 'spirit' thrown to the wind."
(December 25, 2004)
About the 'way' and 'spirit' of the ancients, let's see Mr. Lu Hong's understanding of both Chinese traditional Gongbi painting and contemporary art:
"I realized from the study of traditional Gongbi that the skeleton of Gongbi, namely what is defined as a line, is purely a product of mind as it is extracted by an artist from objective subject; aesthetically, it is more suitable for it to be performed on a flat surface with ornamentation and exaggeration; besides, as auxiliary means for lines, coloring and rendering must be in harmony with lines while paining Gongbi, as the overemphasis of "three sides and five shades" and changes in warm and cold colors will certainly weaken the expressive force of lines, making Gongbi akin to the 80s pen drawing prevalent during festive seasons, reducing the aesthetic merits of the technique to nothing."
Excerpted from Mr. Lu Hong's "Preface for 'Virtual Focus: Zhu Wei 1987-2017'
"In fact, artistic forms, including composition, modeling, brush work and coloring, are comparatively independent systems which have both their origin and history. It’s forming up and development depend more upon their internal structure and self-improving rules. If an artist skips to create new approaches or rules before he could enter the existing ones, then it’s impossible for him to be written into the history. Therefore, in the history of art, even those most creative artists cannot but choose patterns and conventions in tradition to be their starting point of certain stages, then change and re-construct them according to needs. There is no other way out.
"I believe that audiences from home and abroad can sense from Zhu Wei's art of both traditional style and contemporary meaning; and world-oriented with Chinese characteristics. This reminds me of the following words of Ooka Makoto, an artistic critic of Japan:
“’All products of human civilization hide in the past time and space, which is unknown world to every one of us. What we need to do, is to start exploring it from now on and take it as something of our own, namely to acquire ‘future’ again. Based on such a consideration, what I try to discover is new Du Fu, new Mozart, new Baudelaire, and new Matsuo Basho. For me, they are never peoples of the ‘past’, but on the contrary, they are peoples of ‘our future’. When we enter their worlds, we enter the future rather than withdraw back to the past. In this sense, I think, one of the greatest powers of culture and art is that they can turn the past into the future.’
“In the new era emphasizing artistic invention and personality expression, Zhu Wei kept good tension between ‘creation’ and “reservation” which well worth learning from for other painters. The inspiration he gives us is: when seeking for the expression of contemporary life, it’s important to inherit and develop the traditional expression and make something new and better. Against the background that contemporary art is going on a globalized homogenous development, isn’t this pursuit of differentiation expression even more important?”
(December 16, 2012)
Excerpted from Mr. Lu Hong’s article “The Successful Integration between the Tradition and the Contemporary – An Interpretation of Zhu Wei’s Artistic Pursuit”
中国当代水墨发展之出路 | 朱伟采访