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Chinese ink makes a big splash

Contemporary artists are breathing new life into an old art form

Wei Ligang’s Golden Dragon, 2012, at Alisan Fine Arts (3C32). Photo: © Norm Yip 2013

Interest in contemporary Chinese ink painting, the age-old tradition that is currently undergoing a renaissance, has never been greater—and not just in China. Traditional ink painting is one of the oldest forms of Chinese art and commands huge respect, as well as high prices. Today’s painters are using the medium to produce art that links back to this long tradition.

At the end of this year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will present a major survey—“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” (10 December-6 April 2014). Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the planned M+ museum is seeking a specialist contemporary ink curator. Hong Kong, in fact, has been the cradle of the new ink movement since the mid-20th century.

The market is sitting up and taking notice, and there is even talk of ink being “the new contemporary Chinese art”—and attracting a rush of collectors. Whether this is a good thing is debatable: the senior curator at M+, Pi Li, who co-founded Boers-Li Gallery (3C05) in 2005, says: “There is quite a bit of marketing going on here. I think it would be better to take this more slowly.”

Time and thought are, indeed, important when it comes to this art form. “Ink painting is demanding, and it requires connoisseurship to appreciate it,” says Johnson Chang of Hanart TZ (3D07). In his gallery in the Pedder Building, he is devoting a show to Qiu Zhijie, whose “Bird’s Eye” maps, inspired by GPS systems, fuse cartography with contemporary urban and rural landscapes. At Art Basel Hong Kong, another series of Qiu’s maps (priced at $20,000 each) was pounced on by a leading New York museum at the opening. What defines ink art is a topic of endless debate. Qiu himself rejects the label applies to his work.

Official support

Chang says there is the political will to promote this quintessentially Chinese art form. “Since the 1990s, the government has been actively supporting exhibitions of ink,” he says. As demonstrated at a major Unesco conference held in Hangzhou this month, the Chinese government sees culture as an important way of developing “soft power” in the world.

Backing for the art form is also building commercially, with Sotheby’s and Christie’s dipping their toes in the water by holding private selling exhibitions, rather than auctions, in Hong Kong. Both firms have shown ink in New York, and Christie’s has now brought its private-sale exhibition to Hong Kong (it opened on Thursday).

Ink painting already has a strong international following. Yahoo’s co-founder Jerry Yang, who collects calligraphy, has acquired work by the contemporary artist Tai Xiangzhou and others. A work by the same artist—Paradise Hills, 2013—sold at Paul Kasmin Gallery (3D34) for around $165,000 on the first day of the fair. Other fans include Guy Ullens, the founder of Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, and the French collector Sylvain Levy.

Hong Kong-based Alisan Fine Arts (3C32) is showing artists such as Wang Tiande, who paints landscapes and then uses sticks of incense to burn a second layer of silk, combining them with rubbings of Qing dynasty calligraphy (HK$288,000). Wei Ligang, showing Golden Dragon, 2012 (HK$140,000, US$18,000), updates calligraphy with a bold, expressive stroke. Another local gallery is Grotto (1D15), which is showing five Hong Kong artists who work with ink.

More subversive is Yang Jiechang’s On the Rock (Stranger than Paradise), 2011, at Arndt (3C08), which depicts animals getting up to no good in a classical Chinese landscape (€70,000): Christie’s owner, François Pinault, is a fan.

Beyond the fair

In Hong Kong, Galerie du Monde (1B34) is showing work by the brothers Qin Feng and Qin Chong in “A Brush with the Future” (until 17 June). The gallery’s Fred Scholle notes the growing buzz. “Last year, we sold out our show by Li Hao,” he says (prices from HK$15,000 to HK$70,000). In Beijing, a specialist gallery is opening next week. Ink Studio’s inaugural show is by Zheng Chongbin. With all this interest building up, it seems sure that ink painting is once again making a splash.

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