How important is art to the future of Chinese society, and what will the consequences be of it taking a backseat in the name of economic progress and Western influence?
I recently had the opportunity to speak to prominent contemporary Chinese artist Zhu Wei—renowned for his ink painting technique—on this topic and more.
In your opinion, do young artists in China have the desire to pursue and modernize traditional art forms such as ink painting? Is this something you think is important in preserving Chinese culture?
Preserving the culture of a country or a nation is very important, especially now. Nowadays, with science and technology being so widespread, people all over the world are using similar basic modes of communication, so culture is going to be the last trump to differentiate a country or a nation from another. And it’s also integral to keeping human society varied. In China, there’s going to be a gap in the continuity of traditional Chinese ink and wash paintings. Although every year hundreds of thousands of students get admitted to oil-painting and design departments of art schools, few students choose to study ink and wash paintings.
What’s more, their parents discourage them from learning such techniques, because the future career is unpromising. As a result, the ink and wash painting departments of art academies countrywide can only enrol three or four students. And even these students are often unwilling to concentrate fully on this. Normally they’ll select a design course as their second major, opening up a way to better fit into society in future.
Of course, not all students are like this. One of my assistants is from Japan, and she’s very focused on learning ink flower and bird paintings in China. She got a bachelor's degree at first, and now is studying for a doctorate degree.
Ink and wash painting has an interesting recent history in China that might also be applicable to others parts of Asia, such as Japan and Korea. Could you tell us a little bit about this?
It’s been over 150 years since Japan underwent its Meiji Restoration, during which the country saw an all-round reform of its political and economic systems. However, it wasn’t until 1978 that mainland China began to reform its economic system—and the reformation has only lasted a little over 30 years up to now. During these 30 years, China’s society has gone through changes in all aspects, including its culture. Of course, Japan has also experienced similar changes. However, since they are just happening in mainland China now, they stand out.
The ink and wash painting is a symbol of Asian civilization, and what accompanies it is a comprehensive cultural system. However, countries with deep roots in ink-and-wash painting culture, such as China, Japan and South Korea, have all been affected by the impact of the West. The May Fourth Movement in the early 1900s badly threatened the survival of such paintings. During the Cultural Revolution, the slogan ‘Reforming the ink and wash painting’ was stamped out, and the rationality behind traditional Chinese paintings was questioned. Later generations called it ‘a revolution against ink and wash painting.’ What’s more, in the 1980s, art theorists in China proposed that ‘the ink and wash painting has seen its doom,’ sparking an impressive nationwide discussion.
Your work, using the traditional Gongbi painting techniques, often doesn't appear to have the same style as the traditional paintings most people in China and the world are most familiar with. Are you trying to reinvent the genre for a contemporary audience?
At present what I should tell you is that now few so-called contemporary artists are engaging in ink and wash paintings. Some of the ‘contemporary’ large-scale exhibitions even exclude ink and wash altogether, because they worry that such works may spoil the sense of modernity and fashion. Currently, Chinese contemporary art works are highly publicized, with their prices booming, and there are hardly any traces of contemporary ink and wash paintings in them. The phenomenon reflects China’s current national conditions, namely, Western technology and culture being highly praised here. I think this will last for some time.
So, working in such a general environment and social background, contemporary ink and wash painters in China, myself included, have started to explore ways to make our paintings more contemporary. The changes we make aren’t in the technique or colour choices; rather, what we’ve chosen is to bring in more contemporary figures and events. In the past ink and wash paintings were done passively by the artist, particularly for the court painters who received orders to paint things like banquet, hunting and parade scenes as their subjects. It’s the same with the ‘revolution’ theme paintings that were prominent during the Cultural Revolution. In contrast, artists are now more or less working on their own initiative, covering a more extensive range with much braver push.
Your artistic vision has been described as ‘anguished and alienated, personal and political at the same time.’ Is your art personally and politically motivated? If so, from what experiences in particular have they been motivated in the past few years?
Since the implementation of Reform and Open Policy in 1978—over 30 years ago now—China’s economy has undergone a qualitative leap, and the level and quality of people’s lives has significantly increased. However, Chinese society is still power-oriented. Of course, such a social structure is beneficial and effective at the primary stage of the social development, but in the long run, it needs to be improved on a smaller level. Justice, openness, a fair legal system, as well as democracy should be put in place as priorities. They are after all, as we’ve seen from history, essential for the development of human society. What artists can do is only give these aspects a boost, and to do so, what artists should do is to express what’s happened in an accurate way.
If you are in Tokyo this month, stop by the Tobin Ohashi Gallery to see five of Zhu Wei’s paintings on display, through June 5. It’s the celebrated Beijing artist’s first solo show in the Japanese capital. For more information, visit the Tobin Ohashi Gallery website here.