Ink Asia 2015

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Dec 18-Dec 20
 

As Ink Asia – the art fair focusing solely on ink art – debuts in Hong Kong, Eunice Tsang investigates the hype surrounding this undying art form and discovers what to expect

Ink. Such a tiny, unassuming word, with a sound that is subtle yet confident. This small word carries the largest significance – a symbol of tradition, of culture, of an entire country. Mention ink painting and it inevitably conjures up images of ancient China, depicted through monochrome paintings of rolling mountains in the mist, or galloping horses and bamboo groves. A deceptively simple medium, it has existed for thousands of years. Even today artists continue to explore and experiment with its versatility, while strengthening its cultural symbolism.You don’t have to be an art insider to have heard for years that Chinese ink is ‘the next big thing’. Following Sotheby’s Contemporary Ink Art sale in October, which totaled more than $31 million, Ink Asia is coming to town. Clearly, the art form is on a roll. 

Ink Asia focuses on modern and contemporary ink art, with more than 40 participating galleries from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. Calvin Hui, who oversees 3812 Gallery and Fine Art Asia, is the director of the event. An experienced art collector, Hui has an affinity for ink paintings. “Ink art is a crucial part of the language of Oriental art. With the rapid economic growth of Asia, especially China, there is an increasing demand for the recognition of our cultural identity and autonomy.” When asked about the process of setting up such an ambitious art fair, Hui explains, “We have ‘five pillars’ – modern painting, abstraction transformation, emerging, salon and co-curation – which act as the basis on which we hope to accomplish our mission, which is to explore the possibilities of ink art and to expand the dialogue between the traditional aesthetic and contemporary interpretation of the medium.”

Ink art is not simply defined by its medium. To talk about ink art one must first talk about Chinese ink art, for in China it’s more than merely putting ink to paper. It symbolises a whole culture – from lifestyle and tradition to the individual and collective identity of a nation. Contemporary ink artists are evolving, revolutionising and revitalising, making the definition of modern ink art an unenviable task. After thousands of years of Chinese painters developing their art generation by generation, it was during the New Culture Movement of the 1910s and 20s that Chinese artists began to adopt Western ideas, techniques and materials like oil paint. The 1950s and 1960s was the most recent period when ink art flourished, particularly in Hong Kong. That melting pot of East and West provided the perfect backdrop for innovation and creativity. 

Local artist Chu Hing-wah, now in his 80s, fondly remembers those years. “I’ve lived in Hong Kong for 60 years and have found many inspirations for my creations here. It’s a unique location which has everything you need.” Chu came to Hong Kong from Guangdong in 1950, and seized the once-in-a-lifetime chance to get paid to study psychiatric nursing in London. Naturally, being submerged in one of the most exciting cultural capitals of the world transformed his life, and Chu began to explore painting. Returning to Hong Kong, he worked as a nurse in psychiatric wards for more than 20 years before embarking on a career as a painter. No wonder he insists that people are the most important aspect in art. “Being in contact with patients every day, I observed human psychology and behaviours, and they became inspirations for my art. I’m interested in painting character and personalities.” His quiet, slightly unsettling paintings are on show as part of the Charity Exhibition programme, curated by Chang Tsong-zung, co-founder of the Asia Art Archive.

Speaking of influential people, an unmissable part of the fair is the solo exhibition for Liu Kuo-sung, widely regarded as the father of modern ink since the 1950s. During Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s Contemporary Literati: Early Ink Masters auction held in 2013, Liu’s painting Midnight Sun was the top-selling lot, fetching $6.28 million. The Taiwanese pioneer was trained as a traditional painter, but decided to abandon what he had learned and opted for a more Western, modernist style. For this, he was branded a rebel and, worse, labelled a political subversive by his staunchest critics. But as Liu began to find his own path, he swapped his oil paints for ink once more, experimenting with ways to combine Western abstract expressionism and Chinese painting materials. He even developed his own unique kind of paper. His strong, energetic brushstrokes and vibrant coloured planets create strange, ethereal environments. It would be no surprise if Christopher Nolan had taken inspiration for Interstellar from one of Liu’s works.

Ink Asia also features innovative contemporary artists who take the concept of ink art so far it almost becomes unrecognisable. One example is Zhu Jing-yi, who creates ‘ink sculptures’. He quite literally elevates the medium of ink, bringing it into the three-dimensional realm. Like his predecessors, he takes his inspiration from nature and organic forms, but his methodology is brand new. Using a resin that’s tailor-made in Taiwan, he uses a heatgun to squeeze out the melted gooey material, laboriously building up intricate architectural structures. His work smashes the boundaries between painting and sculpture, as some of them are freestanding, while others are reliefs on canvas. Zhu is a perfect example of the contemporary artist reinterpreting ink tradition with a twist.

“Collecting ink painting is nothing new,” says Daphne King, board member of the Ink Society and director of Alisan Fine Arts, a local gallery that has focused on presenting contemporary ink art for over 30 years. “If there are painters, there are naturally collectors as well. In the 1950s the arts started to take off because artists from China emigrated to Hong Kong, and with them merchants, bankers and collectors. In the 1960s the first collectors’ association in Hong Kong, called the Min Chiu Society, was established by a group of Chinese collectors from Shanghai and Hong Kong. The social elites of this private group started collecting not only Chinese paintings, but also antiques and ceramics. They would get together once a month and discuss scholarly items.” 

There has been a dip in the number of art buyers due to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, which formerly used to consist mostly of expats. Things have significantly changed since then, with an influx of new collectors coming from the Mainland and the rise of young local entrepreneurs interested in rediscovering their roots. “I think as Chinese people, we share that cultural connection. Ink art is always with us, wherever we go. It’s our visual language and what makes up our cultural identity,” Hui explains. “We expect a lot of Hong Kong-based collectors to come to the fair and we rely on them to support us. Ink Asia acts as a platform to offer a wide variety of works across different price ranges, which will cater to new and professional collectors.” 

It’s difficult to imagine this ancient art form ever dissolving and fading away. Especially in Hong Kong’s recent era of political clashes and cultural confusion, there’s an ever-increasing desire to investigate our collective past and understand our roots. Rarely does any group of people do it better than artists, who understand the significance of revisiting the past in order to revolutionise the future.

Ink Asia 2015 Dec 18-20, Hall 3G, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai. Tickets: $50 (for two). inkasia.com.hk

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