“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a rather unfair exercise, firstly, because it is at the Met and that raises the expectations far too high; secondly, because the art is placed beside and in front of pieces from their permanent collection of Chinese art which inevitably dwarfs their post-modern counterparts and finally, because it comes across as an attempt to make a traditional discipline ‘contemporary’ for the sake of it. I wondered what was the intention of the curator of the Metropolitan Museum and I have a few ideas about it.
When it comes to the history of Chinese art, there are few traditions as revered as bimo, or brush and ink. From this simple combination of tool and material, China’s greatest achievements — landscape painting and calligraphy — flowed for centuries. Bimo did not have an easy time in the 20th century, thanks initially to European modernism, and then to the Soviet-influenced Socialist Realism imposed by Mao. But things began to loosen up after Mao’s death in 1976, and brush and ink have enjoyed a kind of comeback that some artists call “experimental ink painting.” This has happened alongside but also, in some cases, coincidentally with the Chinese art market boom.
In a way, this show examines this resurgence. It presents 70 works by 35 artists, most born in the 1950s and ’60s, and several of whom have had little or no exposure in New York. It demonstrates that some artists have found new ways to use brush and ink on paper, while others have conjured its effects in photography, video, animation and even photo-based performance art.
An example of this is Zhang Huan’s well-known “Family Tree,” from 2001, which consists of nine color photographs of the artist’s face being progressively inked with Chinese words. There are also two color photographs by Huang Yan from 1999 where he paints a landscape in his torso. Of course, this conflation of land and body is that sort of Third-World-Ana-Mendieta-like concoction that we are very much used to, at this point and always seems to be a crowd pleasure in the States. Look how much they suffer for art! It is as if Van Gogh’s ear is still hanging over us like Damocles’ sword! The show is arranged in patches and the level is very uneven. In fact, Ai Wei Wei’s signature objects should not be here. He is not an ink or bimo artist to the point that the show seems pointless and, at the end of the day, comes across as a marketing exercise. But what are they really trying to sell?
Roberta Smith is right when saying in her review for The New York Times that: ‘Many of the works simply put a Chinese spin on familiar art-making strategies, especially the remade readymade sculpture. Here, this means round-back Chinese armchairs in stainless steel, scholar’s rocks cast in purple silicon (like Rachel Whiteread’s mattresses) or stainless steel (like Jeff Koons’s “Louis XIV”) and a handsome ceremonial robe made in clear plastic and embroidered with pale green vinyl fishing wire’
The exhibition begins in the mid-1980s with post-Mao Chinese pop and conceptualist waves. However, that was the time when skill and modesty (which are the two qualities required for good quality bimo and ink art) were thrown out of the window and never came back. That was the time when Chinese artist became either lazy or exploited. That was the time when Wall Street and the financial world started creating a bubble out of very uneventful and mediocre Chinese art. So the question is why the Metropolitan Museum keeps trying to use its branding and legitimacy to elevate mediocre artistic expressions that are overvalued in the art market and would never be included in an art history book. Why is this happening?
I am saying this because I read Roberta Smith’s rather formalist analysis and even though she agrees with me that the show is rather pedestrian, she seems to justify it and I cannot understand why are we being so complacent with an institution like the Met who has been persistently organising unnecessary and odd shows. Of course I am thinking about the Fashion Department and the Punk Exhibition to give just one example.We should not forget that the Board of Trustees of the Met is packed with Contemporary Chinese Art Collectors and this show is the only attempt that anyone can make at turning shit into something somehow acceptable. Is that the new role of the Metropolitan Museum? Well, if you try to be included in art history books, a show at the Metropolitan would be the starting point, wouldn’t it? Just a thought.