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16 Nov 2017 / by Lesley Ma

Ask an M+ Curator About Ink Art

Two people with their backs turned to the camera look up at a wall covered in small flattened coins with miniature ink paintings on them. Cartoon speech bubbles are coming from them, one of which has an emoji of an artist before a question mark, and the other with an emoji of a hammer, a pen, and a palette of paint before a question mark.

Visitor's in front of Ni Youyu's Galaxy (2008–2011). Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Throughout the exhibition The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+, M+ is open for questions! Curious visitors have been asking Lesley Ma (Curator, Ink Art) about ink art and the works in the exhibition. Below, Lesley answers questions about what defines ink art, why the exhibition contains such a large number of artists, the techniques behind certain artworks, and more.

Ink painting on silk of a landscape with mountains, fields, and big purple clouds. Two small human figures can be seen at the bottom of the painting.

Yang Jiechang. Mustard Seed Garden III, 2010. Ink and mineral colour on silk. M+, Hong Kong. © Yang Jiechang

My question is about the piece Mustard Seed Garden III. It says that the landscape in the painting is the backdrop of a horrendous scene, serving as a reminder of painful episodes in recent Chinese history. What are the painful episodes that it is referencing?

Lesley Ma: In the foreground of the painting, you see two figures with their backs towards the viewer. The Red Guard holds a gun and stands behind a landlord kneeling on the ground. The artist Yang Jiechang uses landscape painting as a way to reflect upon these dark episodes in history—the pain and sorrow caused by the Cultural Revolution.

Watercolour painting on paper of warmly coloured lines of paint emanating outwards from a point like a burst of colour. The point from which they emanate consists of brushstrokes of cool blue.

Krishna Reddy. Formation, 1964. Watercolour on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Krishna Reddy

Is Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+ showcasing ink art? Ink-inspired art? Art that has something in common, but without a direct connection with ink art? Or all three?

Ma: Yes—to the first two ideas. And I would like to comment on your third proposal. The exhibition showcases artworks that are connected to East Asian ink art through their ways of expression or on the spiritual level. For example: José María Sicilia ‘live-sketched’ nature by recording bird songs, and through this documentation, contemplated the relationship between human and nature. Meanwhile, comparing the compositions and the traces of the strokes, Krishna Reddy’s and Qiu Deshu’s artworks seem to share a visual affinity. When you only look at the artists’ backgrounds and experiences, they may have nothing in common. If you focus on the artworks’ visuality, however, you may find clues of communication; the possibility of them responding to each other.

Two paintings side by side. On the right is an ink painting on paper of white and black squares painted in lines against a marbled black background. Red seal marks are imprinted on top of the white and black squares. On the left is an ink painting on paper of small, colourful abstract shapes painted on a white background amongst sections of thin, connecting monochrome lines and shapes.

Right: Qiu Deshu. Red Mark Jumping between Black and White, 1981. Ink, seal marks, and paper collage. M+, Hong Kong. © Qiu Deshu / 仇德樹. Left: José María Sicilia. The Instant, 2013. Ink on Japanese paper. M+, Hong Kong. © José María Sicilia

Why would you decide to feature such a large number of artists in a single exhibition? What are your criteria in choosing whose/which work to display, and what did you do to present them in a harmonious manner that answers to the theme?

Ma: The geographical and chronological breadth of ink art within the M+ Collection is an important aspect to highlight in this first presentation on the subject. The artists chosen for the exhibition are all important voices, even game-changers, in this active field. The exhibition is organised into three themes that address the major concerns in ink art since the mid-twentieth century: calligraphic influences in mark-making, the possibility of landscape painting, and the spiritual aspirations in artistic pursuits. Within the exhibition, I created clusters of artworks based on visual affinities or historical connections, and decided on placements and spatial arrangements based on subthemes within a larger topic to illustrate a point.

To what extent is your exhibition inspired by the Met's 2013 exhibition Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China?

Ma: The Weight of Lightness, the first M+ exhibition introducing the museum’s framework of collecting ink art, showcasing works from the permanent collection, is an exhibition a long time coming. Ink art has been an integral part of the curatorial purview since M+ began collecting in 2012, and in truth, since the preliminary planning stage of the museum in the mid-2000s. The development of ink art is ongoing, as our exhibition and many other exhibitions held in other institutions have demonstrated. The Met’s exhibition in 2013–2014, which is their first project addressing this important aspect of contemporary Chinese art, comes out of their desire to find a link between the development of ink art since the 1980s to their esteemed collection of classical Chinese art. The M+ collection of ink art does not include works before the twentieth century, so the exhibition can focus more on the modern and contemporary development in ink, tracing back to the 1950s and stretches until a few years ago, as well as covering wider geographical range.

The thematic overlaps between the Met’s exhibition and ours is natural, because one cannot discuss the development of ink art without mentioning the legacy of calligraphy and landscape painting. Furthermore, our exhibition pushes the boundaries of ink and think of it as an aesthetic, which is a point of view derived from our institution’s scope as a museum of twentieth- and twenty-first-century visual culture, with a breadth of modern and contemporary works to work with.

Ink painting on paper of thin black lines painting on a criss-cross pattern across a large square canvas.

Li Huasheng. 9902, 1999. Ink on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Li Huasheng

Is Marimekko’s cross hatch pattern inspired by Li Huasheng or just a coincidence?

Ma: Pure coincidence. Li Huasheng abandoned a career of making literati landscapes after seeing mid-twentieth-century American art in the flesh in the 1980s. He took ten years to internalise what he saw abroad and started making total abstraction with simple strokes and grids since 1998.

Oil painting on paper and felt of a barely distinguishable field of grey against a field of greyish-white.

Qiu Shihua. Untitled, 1993. Oil on paper mounted on felt. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Qiu Shihua

How does Qiu Shihua create the subtle textured colours in his work Untitled (1993)? Or is it the paper that he painted with oils on that is textured?

Ma: The artist worked with extremely diluted oil paint on regular paper to create this work. The repeated action of applying wet oil paint on paper resulted in the surface texture.

I am particularly fascinated by the work Galaxy by Ni Youyu. What is your intention/rationale to include this piece of work in the exhibition, since it does not conform to what 'conventional' ink art looks like (in terms of both material and representation)?

Ma: Ni Youyu trained as an ink painter and transferred his superb painting skills to create miniature paintings on flattened metal coins, turning the perennial pursuit in making ink paintings—to find one’s place in relation to the larger context—into an installation.

Multiple small round ink paintings on flattened coins are clustered together on a black surface. Each painting depicts a different singular, delicately painted image, ranging from people, landscapes, and animals.

Ni Youyu. Galaxy (detail), 2008–2011. Acrylic on metal coins, single-channel video with sound. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Ni Youyu

As I mentioned in the curatorial statement, the work ‘simulates the sensory experience of floating through suspended space and time—which is yu and zhou, or 'the universe', in Chinese—and allows us to savour sights and scenes that define the transience of human existence’. Ni’s work, in my reading, transforms the ink aesthetic into something beyond the visual and philosophical. It is experiential. I think many works in this exhibition do not look like ‘conventional’ ink art, and we hope that they could help expand the understanding of what ink art can be, has been, and will be.

Many works of modern art embody the tension between ‘the material and the spiritual’, such as Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings and Giacometti’s sculptures. If ink art is not defined by medium, techniques, or regional culture, how can we distinguish ‘ink art’ from other concepts and norms of contemporary art?

Ma: As you said, many artworks embody the tension between ‘the material and the spiritual’, regardless of the artist’s cultural background or means of expression. Works of the ink aesthetic definitely fit this description. Our exhibition examines not only material and spiritual aspects of traditional ink art, but also suggests the possibility of ink responding to and conversing with art from other cultures and backgrounds; for example, with the works by Rothko and Giacometti that you mentioned.

Lui Shou-kwan. Zen, 1970. Ink and colour on paper. M+, Hong Kong. © Helen C. Ting

The Zen work by Lui Shou Kwan—is it painted on one paper but folded or joined? I can see two lines across the work.

Ma: The artist joined together three pieces of paper for this painting.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories to coincide with The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+.

Lesley Ma is Curator, Ink Art at M+.

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