Two years ago, 10 artists were invited to create contemporary Chinese pieces at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as a response to ancient Chinese masterpieces featured in the museum. The result was the Fresh Ink exhibition, the subject of a lecture last Monday in the List Art Building by Hao Sheng, the museum’s curator of Chinese art and one of the creators of the exhibition.
The Fresh Ink exhibition was intended to create a dialogue between the contemporary and the ancient, a way of having the new and the old interpret each other, Sheng said. The ancient and contemporary pieces were shown side by side so museum visitors could view the relationship between the art.
This was Sheng’s first contemporary art show, and he cited a plaque from 1912 containing four Chinese characters as his inspiration. The plaque is in Chinese, but means “Keeping Company with the Past.” He said he intended for the show to allow artists to look at what has come from the past and respond to it, a common concept in Chinese culture.
When giving his lecture, Sheng ran through each of the 10 artists’ creations, talking about what they picked and what they created by extension, with a slideshow of the artwork displayed throughout the talk. Sheng discussed the two things he looked for when choosing the artists – active engagement with artistic traditions and what their strategies of interpretation might be. Sheng said he wanted the art to be diverse, and he succeeded on this front by bringing in 10 very different artists with different approaches to the masterpieces.
Yu Hong created an immense silk painting in response to the painting “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk,” using it as a reflection on women’s work. Hong used female figures she had painted before, allowing the audience a glimpse of contemporary China.
Liu Xiaodong, a figure painter, worked off the image of soldiers driving off animal spirits to engage in a discussion about violence. The process of creating his piece involved intense communication between himself and the student models he was painting. The students wrote their own views of violence on the painting at the spot where a Chinese colophon – a description of the artist and painting – is normally found.
Arnold Chang worked off the American painting “Jackson Pollock Number 10″ because, as he claimed, he was born in America and therefore could use an American painting, Sheng said. Chang looked at Pollock’s drip canvas as if it were a Chinese landscape and created his own painting from there with the brush tip as an extension of his hand. Chang said people would have an easier time looking at Chinese ink landscape if they understood Pollock, because, with each painting style, the audience must peel back the layers.
Li Huayi and Zeng Xiaojun both chose the painting “Nine Dragons,” which is considered the most important dragon painting in Chinese tradition, according to Sheng. Huayi focused on the yin yang in the center, while Xiaojun reinterpreted the dragons as trees following the Chinese tradition to see cyprus trees as dragons.
Qiu Ting, the youngest but most traditional of the artists, chose a monumental piece of Chinese landscape, “Whiling Away the Summer at Lakeside Retreat.” Ting talked about the three aspects of Chinese art – nature, tradition and inspiration of the artist. For him, the site he visited, the scroll he looked at and his brushwork represented each of these elements.
Conversely, Xu Bing questioned the importance of brushwork with his creation, Sheng said. He chose a very mundane piece, the “Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting.” He copied drawings from the book, cut them out to make a landscape and then made them into a woodblock to create the final piece complete with notations on how to paint. There was never any touch of a brush. As Sheng explained, Bing asks a question that has no answer. Is brushwork needed to create a Chinese landscape? The work is a reminder for the audience to think about what a Chinese landscape is.
Qin Feng was an audience favorite. Feng was a sheepherder from the farthest corner of China. He chose a ritual vessel that included a very long, old inscription. Sheng said Feng responded in the piece to a self-posed question, “What if the bronze could speak?” From this he created large books expressing what he thought the bronze might say, as if it were a messenger from the past.
The exhibition was over a year ago, which in exhibition time is decades ago, Sheng said, but for its original audience, it seemed to be fresh in their mind. Many remembered exactly how they felt when they walked through, and one member of the audience described it as “the best show of contemporary art.”