Beginning this month, we have the privilege of distributing for The Metropolitan Museum of Art a magnificent new book entitled Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China by Maxwell (Mike) Hearn. The book, and the museum’s exhibition that it accompanies (which opens today!), represent a landmark exploration of contemporary Chinese art that shows how China’s ancient pattern of seeking renewal through the reinterpretation of past models remains a viable creative path. Our friends at The Metropolitan Museum of Art have shared with us a wonderfully insightful interview they conducted with Mike Hearn, and we are pleased to share it with you.
Nadja Hansen: Your past books have been about traditional ancient Chinese art and culture. What compelled you to write, for the first time, about contemporary art? Was there an art work, a book, an exhibition, a conversation that inspired you?
Mike Hearn: The first piece of contemporary art we purchased was a little sculpture by Zhan Wang, and it was a scholar’s rock, only it was made of stainless steel. I had admired a similar piece at a friend’s home in Beijing. It struck me as an interesting juxtaposition to our collection of other traditional scholar’s rocks, and had the effect of bringing the past into the present.
Then in 2006, I went to the first auction of contemporary Chinese art at Sotheby’s and was struck by the diversity and quality of some of the pieces. I realized that there are contemporary works of art in China that resonate with me and I’m not sure that they would have the same effect on my colleagues in the Modern and Contemporary Art department. Before, I had always thought that modern and contemporary art was someone else’s milieu. But, this experience made me realize that there are fantastic contemporary Asian works that resonate more meaningfully in our galleries than they would in a Western modern and contemporary gallery space.
In that same year – 2006 – I borrowed a piece by an artist named Wang Dong Ling that had been bought in the Sotheby’s auction. I put it in an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy with much older art. I realized that Westerners can’t read Chinese calligraphy, but they can read conceptual art. The tools for reading calligraphy aesthetically- looking for contrasts of positive and negative line and space– were already in people’s repertoires – they just needed permission to use them. So, I put this piece from1999 next to calligraphy from 1099. I loved the reaction. I had a Chinese reporter come in and say, “How can Westerners appreciate this? They can’t read it!” So, I took him to the contemporary piece and explained that it is not necessary to be able to read something to appreciate it.
That experience gave me the idea that ink art is something that is uniquely Chinese but that the same skills and vocabulary you would use to look at abstract expressionism are used to look at Chinese calligraphy. There was this wonderful crossover.
Nadja Hansen: Did you collaborate with the Modern and Contemporary department on this exhibition? Do you see that being a trend in the future?
Mike Hearn: I haven’t really collaborated with the Modern and Contemporary department yet, but now I hope to in the future, especially when it comes to acquisitions. I will want to continue to collect works of art that will elucidate and extend our collection of Asian masterworks, but I don’t ever want to transgress on initiatives that are being taken by our Modern and Contemporary curators. I want their buy-in; I respect their opinions. They bring the contemporary artwork perspective, I bring the Asian perspective. A work of art is like great literature – you may be able to translate it into another language, but the indigenous language is the language of style. That is what I bring to the table. It is something that modern and contemporary can’t do in the same way. They speak the language of global style, I speak the language of tradition. The only way to truly appreciate art is to see it in different contexts. That is what having an encyclopedic collection enables us to do: put art in a global, varied context. We have no modern curator in the Asian art department, so we get excited when we see something contemporary that makes sense to us. It gives a sense of power to the institution.
Nadja Hansen: Were you afraid of pushback or criticism from traditional Asian art scholars and/or from colleagues in modern and contemporary art?
Mike Hearn: I was so excited about the project that I didn’t think of it as taking a risk. It was more that I was stretching myself. This is my response to what is happening in the contemporary art world. I wanted to look at modern Chinese art from my perspective, which comes from a traditional background. But, I didn’t want to look at traditional artists, but at those who are challenging and subverting tradition. So, I began to look at photography, video, oil on canvas – really anything that I could relate in some way to ink art.
I have been thinking for a long time of doing an exhibition on the Guo Xi tradition. Guo Xi was an artist who lived from around 1020 – 1099. Then I looked at a Qiu Shihua [a contemporary artist] piece and I loved the spacious elements of it and how it was a contemporary piece but drew from the Guo Xi tradition. I see works that are clearly using contemporary materials but that have the same spiritual resonance as older, traditional ones.
Nadja Hansen: This spiritual resonance seems to have been a guiding factor in how you put this exhibition together. You say in your introduction “asserting the primacy of spirit over technique,” you selected works in all mediums that are “seen to embody aesthetic choices or stylistic references that are indelibly linked to China’s cultural past”—that seems a more abstract criteria than what you are used to working with, did that make it more challenging or freeing?
Mike Hearn: That is something that the Chinese themselves talk about: that there is a spiritual connection to the past that transcends the need to be literally minded about media. It is the force behind my book’s fourth chapter, ‘Beyond the Brush’. I realized that pieces like a stainless steel rock are clearly connected to the past, but are no longer done on canvas.
So, I’ve had fun with it. I approached it like the artists themselves. They are sifting through the past in a way that reminds me of a jazz musician. Why can’t I, as a curator, do the same?
Nadja Hansen: You label the exhibition and catalogue Ink Art although it covers so many other mediums. Why do you emphasize the ink art tradition specifically?
Chinese art today is unprecedented in its diversity, and this exhibition only seeks to illuminate one segment. That portion that seems to draw information from its past. There is no culture with the same artistic continuity as the Chinese, and it is because of this tradition of writing.
Millions of Chinese do calligraphy as a hobby in the same way as Winston Churchill did water colours. The tradition is no longer a vocation but an avocation: a hobby. People collect handwriting in China; it is enormously proficient and varied. I mean, these guys can handle a brush! These are just letters, but the ability to write well was the mark of a man for 2000 years. People were judged based on their handwriting.
I love the material [of traditional handwriting]. I’m just dumbstruck by the quality. Everyone now uses computer keyboards or ballpoint pens. There has been an enormous loss of something that was fundamental only one hundred years ago. Ironically, the Chinese have gained fluency in Western forms of expression and, at the same time, have lost some of their own.
Wan Du Ling’s contemporary art almost looks like it is from the tradition of abstract expressionist but he has a calligraphic technique that Pollock did not. His abstraction comes from a totally different place: 2000 years of brush writing techniques. Every turn and twist of the brush represents a technical facility.
Nadja Hansen: In the catalogue, you compare the recent Chinese absorption and reinterpretation of western philosophies and methodologies to what is also happening in the arts, can you talk about some of the ways this is playing out artistically?
Mike Hearn: China is undergoing a sea-change in economics, politics, and society. On the surface, it is embracing the culture of the west, whether it be in the form of Marxism, Capitalism, or Consumerism and commercialism. Artists are inevitably responding to these social changes by exploring earlier Western stylistic movements that reacted to these philosophical/ cultural shifts, such as Dada and Surrealism, which have now become as relevant to them as they were relevant here almost one hundred years ago.
So there is an exciting discovery by the Chinese of Western responses to Western society. At the same time, there is an identity crisis: what is China? It may look Western, but scratch the surface and underneath you will find a tradition of philosophy and social norms that is completely different. This is not a schism but an imposition of a whole array of cultural influences—clothing styles, music, and consumerism.
As they become more sophisticated and knowledgeable about Western art, there is a return to traditional roots. Artists who are discovering Western philosophy are also rediscovering Zen Buddhism and Daoism because their own ancient philosophies were part of what influenced ours.
So “borrowing” is the wrong term – it is more about finding what is useful. We have to assume that Chinese artists are using both their own and Western traditions to solve new problems that they are posing for themselves. Truly great artists find a new way of thinking about a problem that is in front of them. In the future, we will see artists using a variety of cultural sources to solve the problems they are dealing with.
Nadja Hansen: Contemporary Chinese art is relatively new to the global art market. Can you talk a little about the art world’s reaction to this art and the new place of the “Chinese contemporary artist” within it?
Mike Hearn: Chinese contemporary art has become a big business because certain styles appeal to Western taste. The market really began in the West. The Chinese artists that have been discovered have to think about branding as well as how to escape that.
When a Chinese person comes to the West, they are labeled as Chinese. What does that mean? Each of these artists in their own way has to be asking that question: what does it mean to be Chinese? Are they just Chinese, or just an artist? Am I a Chinese artist or an artist who happens to be Chinese? Both are correct.
For me, it is an enormously moving opportunity to show the Chinese-ness of these artists. At the same time, I never want to negate that they are first and foremost artists. The works of art express a Chinese identity that needs to be appreciated and realized. That is what this is about.
The Ink Art exhibition runs from December 11, 2013–April 6, 2014, see more information on The Metropolitan Museum of Art website.
Maxwell K. Hearn is Douglas Dillon Curator in Charge, department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. View the exhibition catalog on Yalebooks.com.