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Is the Era of Modern Ink Art Coming?

陈溪 Cecilia Chen 2016-02-02 14:09

Even now, opinions still vary about the conception and definition of “modern ink”. People try to use this vague term to include all new explorations in ink over the past 30 years. From the standpoint of cultural psychology, this genre seems to have developed because it remains close to Chinese tradition and reflects the new changes of the contemporary era. It conforms to many Chinese people’s wishes for contemporary art which is essentially “Not Western Centric”. 

Take a closer look at the Chinese artists’ exploration with ink in recent years. It doesn’t emphasise beauty or a reproduction of nature any more. It emphasises a conceptual “interposition” into modern-society. In recent decades, the development of Chinese art is a process of seeking a freer and more diversified expression in the mix of foreign culture and self-reflection on tradition. Therefore, on the surface of it, it seems to be an inevitable trend in the development of Chinese art that ink reaches into the contemporary era. As a result, “modern ink” has become not only a subject of ink practice but also of art theory. Under the proposition above, we have made the preconceived judgement on Chinese ink that ink painting is not a contemporary art, but it needs to enter the contemporary art arena. 

201508001 144x220cm 丝绸、尾气灰 2015 201508001 144x220cm Car exhaust ink on silk 2015.jpg

However, as far as today’s contemporary ink is concerned, it’s still very difficult for us to make exact conclusions The patterns which are seemingly diversified are not mature yet. In comparison to other types of Chinese contemporary art, “modern ink” hasn’t decided what form it should take. But academia seems to have formed a consensus on the future of contemporary ink, that “diversification” is the only way out for ink. If it is successfully managed, ink can enter the contemporary era. 

In the context of contemporary art, the problem of ink is indeed awkward: What is the contemporaneity of ink? Is it the same as that of contemporary art? The contemporaneity of contemporary art comes from a Western viewpoint, while ink is a Chinese art. Ignoring Western standards for the moment, are there any Chinese standards for measuring whether ink is contemporary or not? Whilst for those creating ink art works, the problem is: What kind of work would be considered as contemporary Chinese ink art? Does Chinese contemporary ink painting need to be judged by Western standards? Before more and more people shout about “modern ink”, it may be necessary for us to find answers to these questions. 

Ren Zhitian 


Turning to the definition of “ modern ink”, Ren Zhitian said: “I do not know what words to use, I do not even know what the significance of it is. Ink for me is just a medium and it has its own unique effect and meaning." In his view, it is ridiculous for an artist to have creative and spiritual aspirations pinned on a certain type of medium. “This formula for ‘modern ink’ is anti-art, is not academic or insightful, it is a pseudo-concept that is a scam.” He said. 

Ren Zhitian uses ink as the medium for his art, however, he does not rigidly adhere to water and ink. In his series of artworks of Chinese characters, there are many conflicting elements. When you start to simply enjoy these works of art, the conflicting elements will become more and more meaningful and difficult to reconcile, and these conflicts don’t have precise definition. For example, he writes Wandering in Absolute Freedom on the Statue of Liberty, writes Confucian Analects on the American flag, or spreads across a huge map of the world the word Confucian Analects. The abrupt, awkward application of the two artforms cannot be clearly understood, they are confusing and provocative. 

水墨2013-29号 69x71.5cm 2013 Chinese ink painting 2013-29 69x71.5cm Rice paper 2013.jpg

Ren Zhitian talked about this work, “During that time, I was concerned about a problem; how to make xuan paper, the traditional oriental medium for working with ink. I participated in discussions and expressions from cultural standpoints in this age of information. I discovered that there is a complete rupture between contemporary art and traditional Chinese art. The traditional art form is so weak right now.” He also said that the work can be regarded as an attempt at “activating the local art form to speak to the present time.” this was his only appeal at that t ime. Ren Zhit ian made some changes to the paint ing on the basis of his personal aesthetic interest. However, he soon stopped this attempt. “Introducing the images into a paper and ink drawing, was a blunt approach and had an unexpected effect. But soon I got tired of it, mainly because I think there are too many social problems and an emphasis on cultural identity is boring. I increasingly feel that my art has gone astray like many other Chinese artists’.” 

In the later series Tail Gas Ash, Ren Zhitian created his work on ready-made silk canvas and used his collection of the deposits from a car exhaust pipe to make his pigment. The Elegant and Exhausted Series uses paint made from food colourings used by unscrupulous Chinese food manufacturers - chemical red dye paint. He converted these materials into a beautiful pattern, which was presented on the silk canvas. The work made the ‘waste’ and the beauty coexist. Beauty and ugliness were hidden in the form at the same time. But Ren Zhitian made those beautiful patterns deliberately. Those patterns have a bottom line: there’s no other meaning but patterns. This as a device works through the juxtaposition of the two. In fact, it is hard to say whether this is irony, or just elements from two different stages of civilisation coming together and coexisting nicely. 

ElegantAndExhausted 29_苏丹红29号126x126cm 2011 ElegantAndExhausted 29_Exhaust gas ash NO.29 126x126cm sudan red on silk 2011.jpg

Tail gas ash or tony red only exists in the titles. They are not obvious in the work. It gives the viewer the chance to think of it is just as an abstract painting. But as an abstract painting, it has no sense of “pure” or “elegant”. This is just a modern form. This dislocation between the obvious position in the title and the sense of the “no meaning” is the part of the work I am interested in. The gap between the idea and form may have expressed both, or perhaps nothing is expressed. This made viewing the characteristics unconstrained, so it allowed more possibilities for open communication. 

Qiu Deshu 


Qiu Deshu founded Shanghai Cao Cao She in 1979 to seek free exploration and expression in the field of art. The “independent spirit, unique skills and original style” he proposed deeply influenced many artists, but he also insisted on modern ink painting for over 30 years. The ‘fission’ technique he created uses the art symbol of Qiu. This attitude towards life is behind fission as well as his experimental ink. 

While talking about the establishment of Qiu’s artistic style, we need to go back to 1975 when he participated in the national art exhibition. That year he took his work to Beijing and attended the opening ceremony of the exhibition on behalf of the Shanghai painters. After returning to Shanghai, he began to rethink his own artistic path and the future development of art in China. He had a faint feeling that it seemed to be an impossible task: “I found the East and the West are like two art camps. After opening the door for creation in the East camp, I found that around this camp there are the footprints of modern Western art masters. When we go out, we will set foot in their tracks. But when we turn around to see, we find that there are many traditional art masters’ footprints in our own camp. When we go out, we will also set foot in their tracks. So I felt sad that there was no way to go.”


QIU DESHU 仇德树 b. 1948 Fissuring 裂变,2009–10 Acrylic on Xuan paper and canvas布面宣纸丙烯 80 x 160 cm ( 31 1-2 x 63 in.).jpg

Based on having similar thinking, Qiu together with some other famous artists, set up the Cao Cao She, which remains loyal to the spirit of its original style and concept. “I began to prepare for the development of Chinese painting in 1978, and finally decided to organise a group of young artists in 1979 to find new ways of progressing, based on their collective knowledge; facilitating mutual consultation and exchange.” Later, he found the “natural ink method”, and a “cut” method where cuts are made in the back of drawn ink paintings, and then mounted. “I felt some grief doing this, but to emphasise a spirit of independence, a spiritual force is also felt, similar to a test of martyrdom.” At the time Qiu had a belief that his art should not be like Matisse’s “chair”, or Picasso’s “birdcall”. “I think art is like the fifth limb God has given to man. On the bumpy journey of life, art is the only reliable power. It can produce the sublimation of personality. When I cut the paper, I hope to find my own spirit of independence, unique techniques and creative style. Meanwhile, I also hope to sublimate my spirit through this method.” On top of that, Qiu’s fission technique is gradually maturing. This kind of work, which is made by tearing and drawing along the outline of ink, or using a succession of methods like carving, grinding, striking and chiselling is well-liked by the Western art-world. “It is not like Western oil painting or traditional ink painting, in which colours were layered on top of each other. My colour is different, it’s kind of mysterious because part of it is blocked and there are some additional light effects. These are my paintings’ characteristics.” 


“ ‘Mordern ink’ isn't a genre. It is a product advancing with the times.” Qiu said, “In this era of fission, many talents are exploring it.” He thinks one should do it rather than just talk about it. “Breathe modern life into tradition. There’s no deadline. An abundant range of styles can continue ‘til the cows come home. Let lots of people come to try their hand.” 

Wei Ligang 


As one of the important artists in the post-modern calligraphy movement in China in the 1990s, Wei Ligang thinks that being a real artist is like building a bridge. The construction cost keeps increasing, doing calligraphy included. “Once the bridge is built, it looks old but prettier because of two hundred years’ wind and rain. Architect’s plans are constantly changing in China, as a result, after 20 years of weathering, when it has a patina, the building is considered a failure. The city is always new, I feel very sorry about this. The famous painters began by painting in an unhurried way. It is easy to lose the inner strength of personality. If a work is damaged, it is destroyed.” He said. 

We will certainly think of his most representative “Widmanstaten magic block” when we talk about Wei Ligang. Wei keeps trying to keep a traditional hand running through his work and seal its character into his creation. In his world, calligraphy has “character” and is also a “painting”. His inspiration for putting traditional calligraphy into a modern art context comes from his personal philosophy. “From the beginning of modern times, the late Qing Dynasty, China did not enjoy the right to talk in the world. As a big country only recently rising out of this, China has not completely got rid of the legacy that this has left in the eyes of the West. Moving into oil painting happened only fifty years ago. What else can China do? Add a little national character? Show off some local speciality? ” Wei asks these rhetorical questions. In his work, people can see his re-interpreted Chinese characters. Wei realised the characters’ value as visual signs. He has taken the ‘Deconstruction’ of Chinese characters as painting elements, resulting in his “magic block”. Wei explains, “In Wei’s magic block, Wei is me; block is a block structure and character; it has a magical element to it which comes not from any specific dynastic text, but from the mobilization of all your strength and inspiration in the moment of creation. Something magical comes from the composition and production phase and it is unprecedented.” 


But for ink, it's in China. In 2010, Wei Ligang had an art exhibition called “modern ink” in a Shanghai art gallery. He directly put the current situation on the table. He tried hard to tell it thoroughly. “Everyone writes calligraphy in China. The focus is on whether it is good and if it is drawn according to ancient ways. In the West, no one writes calligraphy. As long as you write, you are a calligrapher. That’s the problem.” While talking about the “modern ink” in the Western context, he said: “Is it possible that they have a book with which to evaluate Chinese ink? No. The right to evaluate oil painting and the validity of the discourse lie absolutely in the West, because it belongs to their culture, diet, blood. We should correct this subjective leaning to wards Western judgements.” Wei Ligang thinks that China’s political pop art about the cultural revolution has had an ironic effect in that it satisfied the West’s curiosity about what was going on in China, but a focus on this art form at the expense of other forms such as Chinese ink has meant that since the reform and opening up of China, allowing a Western influence to pervade, its contemporary art journey has been ruined. 

WEI LIGANG Red Plum Blossom H123xW245cm 2009.jpg

Therefore, he pleads for the art to be dealt with truthfully, believing “truth” to be essential to art. “The education of art should be real and good, to become noble. After the cultural revolution there is literature and political pop art which reflects and criticises previous errors. Art criticism is not enough. It is important to build. You need to build a noble beacon to shine for others. We have adhered to a so-called unpopular route until now. There are so many works that seem to have a lot of stories told about them and critics can write a lot. It is the very deep and invisible spirit of the East that we need to establish. It is also our cultural responsibility.” He concluded. 

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