Ink Art is the first big show of contemporary art from China at the Met. The idea is conservative. What new things can you do with an old medium? In this case “bimo,” or traditional Chinese brush and ink, on canvas, projected onto video screens, photographed, etc. But the art looks good, a lot of it terrific. My favorites were the more calligraphic ones. As interesting as the art itself is their installation. Instead of putting them in the galleries reserved for visiting exhibitions, space was cleared out for them in the regular Chinese galleries at the museum. This gives the new art a patina of age and antiquity, and also an elegance that they would not have otherwise enjoyed in a different kind of space. Abstract, the art if full of cosmic allusions.
I don’t know if it’s worth reading too much historical trauma into these works, works in which artists explore traditional media and motifs after the straight-jacketing under Mao. I’m going to go through piece by piece the images and installations I liked most, starting with these two here. For a description at the Met’s website of Gu Wenda’s Mythos of Lost Dynasties Series, there’s this. For Wu Shanhuan’s Character Image of Black Character Font, there’s this. As do many of the works in this exhibit, both play at the tension between legibility and illegibility. As described at the Met websites, the characters displayed in this language based art are meant to resist interpretation, comprehension, semantic meaning, and perhaps ideological coherence. Combining incomplete characters and incomplete sentences, impossible to read, what’s left then is the physical visuality of big, inky gestures in black, red, and white that piece together scraps from lost times and places, both ancient and modern.