Late last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” the institution’s first survey of contemporary art from the country. Situated within the museum’s Chinese art galleries, the exhibition interspersed the old with the new, adding context—or, perhaps, simply conserving space. In the permanent Ming Scholar’s retreat, an aubergine rubber scholar rock by Zhang Jianun cast a long shadow over its limestone brethren, while unusable furnishings by the artist-activist Ai Weiwei—a wobbly stool constructed like craniopagus twins, and a table folded at the middle so its four legs have become two legs and two arms—seemed poised to animate and wander away from their sixteenth-century predecessors. Resistance to tradition is a prominent theme in Ink Art, as is the importance of writing in—subtext, of course—a country with an active policy of censorship.
The exhibition looked at the evolution of China’s calligraphic traditions, but its most powerful statement came with works that play on an idea of language, rather than on actual words. Song Dong’s 1996 performance Printing on Water (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet), in which the artist futilely stamped the water’s surface with a large wooden seal, alludes to the hopelessness the act of writing can evoke, particularly if it leaves no trace. The final two works in “Ink Art” are also concerned with meaningless writing—but they combined to create a more comforting message. Xu Bing’s installation Book from the Sky filled the last room with scrolls covered in block-printed Chinese characters. The text cascaded in soft arcs across the ceiling, wallpapering the room and coming to rest in neat piles on the floor. The careful organization evokes a calm—which is abruptly displaced when one learns that the text comprises four thousand nonsense characters. Most Western viewers wouldn’t be able to read the text anyway, but the realization that no one can is transformative. An expanse of gibberish becomes an inhabitable space of words: the viewer is absolved from the act of reading. Read More