What is contemporary? What is contemporary art? And what is Chinese contemporary art? How can contemporary Chinese art follow its own logic to carry on the fine traditions and form truly and uniquely Chinese approaches instead of worshiping and copying western art? Can traditional Chinese painting, as a time-honoured and profound discipline of art that has seen the emergence of large numbers of outstanding artists and body of works, become contemporary, and, if so, how? These questions are asked and discussed in "The End of the Brush and Ink Era: Chinese Landscape". The exhibition is about the contemporariness of Chinese paintings and originality of Chinese contemporary art. Works in this one-of-a-kind exhibition have transcended the material and conceptual boundaries of traditional Chinese paintings and highlight the fact that Chinese contemporary art should rely on local and traditional sources and find inspiration from the Chinese culture.
The title of this exhibition, "The End of the Brush and Ink Era: Chinese Landscape", reminds us of the proposal by Liu Guosong in the 1960s that the brush and ink language should be abandoned. It also reminds us of the statement by Li Xiaoshan in the mid-1980s that "the Chinese painting is already dead" and the argument by Wu Guanzhong in the early 1990s that "the brush and ink will amount to nothing". This exhibition is the result of profound deliberations by participating artists on these complicated issues. The first half of the title, "The End of the Brush and Ink Era", represents a belief that the traditional Chinese paintings should break free from the shackles of brush, ink and other media in seek of more extensive contemporary means of expression amid a vast pool of traditional resources yet to be exploited in order to thrive on greater possibilities. The argument that "the Chinese painting is over" refers to the end of a "brush-and-ink-dominated" era, rather than saying that the brush and ink and the Chinese paintings should be banned. We are seeing the emergence of a diversified value system. Instead of a doomsday scenario in a Western progressive sense, the fall of the brush-and-ink rule manifests itself as a clear and promising vision which, in the broader context, carefully examines the traditional Chinese painting philosophy and experiments with Western artistic forms.
The second part of the title, "Chinese Landscape", on the other hand, defines the bottom line which helps maintain the "Chinese-ness" of the contemporary developments of Chinese arts, drawing a line between what is Chinese and what is west and setting the threshold to the extent of which the west approaches may be referred to. This is a bottom line which applies to neither the media nor the means of creation, but which speaks only of the Chinese spirit and Chinese traits. As long as the bottom line is not breached, all kinds of media, techniques and references can be used without the risk of becoming a slave to western art or our own tradition.
The 15 participating artists in this exhibition of significant depth and width includes the deceased Mr. Lang Ching-shan, Wu Guangzhong as well as artists in their twenties; and their works of a variety of media are deeply rooted in our traditions and forward-looking at the same time. These artists come from different parts of China, three of them from Taiwan. Their works, whether in the form of traditional Chinese paintings, oil paintings, charcoal paintings, photography, installations, videos, or multimedia technologies, have one thing in common: they are all very Chinese and contemporary.
For example, Lang Ching-shan was the first to apply the principles of Chinese painting to photography and the credited creator of the photomontage technique that creates something rich in the elements, such as artistic conception and ancient techniques, of Chinese paintings. Wu Guanzhong's approach to landscape paintings goes against the traditional steps by starting with sketch rather than imitation to render a rich Chinese flavour to his works. Shang Yang employs both the traditional means of canvas and paints, and the digital technologies, to transplant, juxtapose, paste and combine sections to form a landscape. Shen Fan made use of the neon light tubes in place of brush and ink and transposed the inherent image of the neon lights with the revitalized emotional appeal of brush and ink to achieve seemingly simplistic and intangible aesthetic beauty. Xia Xiaowan made great efforts in the dissection and reconstruction of spatial elements in landscape paintings, creating a unique genre of "space painting".
The artworks in this exhibition will give visitors a distinctive sense of Chinese-ness and contemporariness. They bring back memories of long-standing cultural traditions and sparkle with, nonetheless, the flourishing contemporary spirits as forms of new experiment and refreshing exploration. This show is based on solid artistic exploration and creation, rather than an exhibition that only replies on empty theories and buzzwords or one that gives more weight to concept than form.
This exhibition shows that contemporary art is not only about time or medium, but also about attitudes. Traditional Chinese paintings can be contemporary; they have to be contemporary. It is the firm belief of many ancient masters to follow the trends of the era. In order to become contemporary, traditional Chinese paintings need to break away from the sole medium of brush and ink and establish a new and diversified evaluation system and value proposition. As one of the most important categories of Chinese art, traditional paintings will have to become contemporary before there is truly contemporary art in China. Chinese contemporary art shall be rooted in local and traditional sources and find inspiration for original works from Chinese culture. Only when it is based on local cultures and traditions will contemporary Chinese art become sophisticated and justified.
"The End of the Brush and Ink Era: Chinese Landscape" opens in the True Colour Museum on September 8th, 2011 and will last for six months. The opening event will feature a Guzheng zither concert by the master player Wang Peng as well as Kunqu Opera and tea ceremony show. In cooperation with SH Contemporary, there will be two VIP sessions on September 9th and September 10th. Opened in the end of 2008, the True Colour Museum in Wuzhong District of Suzhou City is committed to academic research on "oriental aesthetics in the 21st century". It is an experimental ground for Chinese contemporary art and demonstration space for aesthetics of everyday life. The Museum holds exhibitions regularly in its Huizhou-style old houses and is also the perfect site for occasional Guzheng zither concerts, tea ceremony shows and gourmet weeks.
It is particularly worth mentioning that due to the consistency between the academic positioning of True Color Museum and this exhibition and the lifetime artistic pursuit of Lang Jingshan, Lang's family will donate a piece of work by the artist to be put on the permanent collection of the museum to mark the return of Lang's art to the Chinese mainland.