Traditional and contemporary do not necessarily exclude each other. This is what INK ART is proving.
On first sight, the pieces on view seem te be very recognizable Chinese inspired works. The mainly black and whites, the unmistakable bold brushstrokes, the use of paper, the calligraphy and the paper scroll format can all be associated with the ancient and very traditional forms of Chinese arts. You know that you are still in the ancient Chinese art section of the Met!
But then, on closer inspection, it dawns on you that this is not an exhibition of traditional art. This is tradition translated into contemporary language.
Maybe there are only three forms of approaching art:
1. you copy the past
2. you break completely with the past
3. you embrace the past and lead it to the future
Tradition is often looked upon as an inert concept with both feet firmly in the past. It’s supposed to withstand time, in this way making it timeless. But tradition is inevitably influenced by the present times too. So changes are inherent to tradition.
If tradition is to survive, it has to keep an eye towards the future. It has to live in our time also, not only dwell on the past.
I think the artists in this show have sublimely understood this. Cutting with one’s roots is nearly impossible and not even recommendable. Instead of trying to translate their artistic talents into estranged images of unrecognizable creatures, as there are so many in the contemporary (Chinese) art scene, the featured artists are using their cultural baggage to bring new messages in modern concepts, formats and materials.
Apparently traditional brush painted landscapes with rocks, waves and trees turn out to be photographic compositions of high-rise buildings and towers of electric power lines.
What seem to be traditional Chinese characters are in fact English words, demystifying Chinese script for the western viewer.
Repeated writing on a face, gradually covering up the entire skin, is a reference to body paint and, again, traditional tattoo art. But it’s also the visualization of the slow loss of identity in a world of mechanization.
The meaningful strokes of traditional brushes are reduced to complete abstraction.
The classical block characters on endless scrolls are supposed to tell a story. But in this case it’s a story of nothing. The otherwise so recognizable characters have no meaning at all and are inventions of a non-existing language.
Photographic prints of landscapes are painted over, leaving nothing but a subtle and hazy impression of what was there.
INK ART holds a very smart balance between traditional art and contemporary conceptualism. No matter where your preference goes out to, this exhibition is sure to have you fascinated.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, through April 6, 2014