The original Chinese Literati, we learn from a quotation by Chen Jiru in the late Ming era that is noted in this exhibition’s accompanying essay, led a sheltered life. Their pastimes included ‘tasting tea, revising books, waiting for the moon, midday nap, walking about with a cane, washing ink stones…’ – not exactly a frenetic schedule. The situation of contemporary artists now is very different; as much as many might cultivate a degree of distance in order to maintain a creative space of their own, to renounce engagement with society in such a way, wilfully extracting themselves from its machinations, or ‘noise,’ is unrealistic. To survive and to succeed in the climate of contemporary art now requires application, not withdrawal.
On show in M50, slightly removed from the chatterings of SH Contemporary, are works by eleven contemporary artists that express their relationship to and reflections upon the Literati aesthetic tradition in China. The spectrum here is broad, ranging from abstract installation to kitsch sculpture and sensitive painting. Shi Jinsong – whose drilled rubble sculptures mimicking scholars’ rocks appeared in the first edition of ‘Learning from the Literati’ last year – occupies the first section of the gallery with a broad swath of charcoal that sweeps in a large bend over the wooden floor. The direct and elegant contact of this installation with the actual skin of the gallery is unusual, creating the illusion of the floor as the artist’s surface – like paper – and thus distorting an ordinary sense of scale between viewer and work. The dust from the charcoal – made from burning a locust tree and animal skeletons, pieces of which accumulate in places - in turn echoes ink pulled along by a brush.
Also distinctive are Wang Taocheng’s individualistic ink scrolls. Painted with great delicacy are scenes from real life that include the artist himself, in which he desires to show a ‘lack of research.’ In A Romantic Person (2010) he is seen standing awkwardly outside his apartment block, for example, and we are privy to an exchange between a woman and a tenant clutching chopsticks and a bowl in their kitchen, where a fly lies on a side table. There is a slightly surreal or eccentric aspect to these ‘normal’ scenes, rendered with such care in a traditional medium - daily yet detailed, furnished with leaves or the pattern on a lino floor, the perspective warped sometimes to show the inside of a room and outside the door in the same frame.
Astutely kitsch is New Chinese Potted Landscape (2006) by Ji Wenyu and Zhu Weibing. A miniature scene in stuffed cloth, the work is a parody of a Bonsai tree. Installed in a mock white and blue porcelain pot are vertically protruding rocks, green branches and little striped skyscrapers. The work is born of the idea of cities like Shanghai as models of development for the nation – ‘it’s like a life-size big bonsai that we’ve established on land,’ the artists say. There is something in the softness of this object – the folds of the cloth rocks and puckered edges of the flower pot – that speaks with irony of the city as a symbol of advancement and as something growing, though it is treated with none of the tenderness bestowed on Bonsai trees.
Of the other works in this exhibition, Ni Youyu’s robust woodcuts are also good. Less convincing is the ink/collage combination work by Chai Yiming. But divergent in strength though the pieces here may be, their collective picture is a promising one that suggests engaging new angles on old traditions, seen anew from the perspective of China and its artists amid a very different time and place.
-- Iona Whittaker, a writer living in Beijing.
(All images courtesy of OV Gallery and the artists.)