Ink Tank

Lee Ambrozy on the opening of “Ink Art” at the Met

Left: Artist Cai Guo-Aiang with Vivienne Tam. Right: Outside the Metropolitan Museum. (Except where noted, all photos: Lee Ambrozy)

ONE MET. MANY WORLDS. The Met’s slogan is emblazoned across Fifth Avenue over banners that cover its facade and the now under-construction Koch Plaza. The phrase heralds the museum’s globalist vision, but in Chinese characters it reads slightly different, roughly translating to: Visit the Met. See Multiculturalism. Last week, invoking the grand narrative of “Chinese tradition,” the arbiters of the world’s cultural heritage launched a provocative foray—the Met’s first major exhibition dedicated to contemporary Chinese works—with “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China.”

The title itself is a tad disingenuous, and prompted some humorous musings. (Does the exhibition comprise tattoos, we wondered? Māori symbols?) The show, which features seventy-some works by thirty-five artists, is surrounded by one of the most important collections of classical Chinese ink painting outside of China, so expectations were understandably high. Inside the empty beaux-arts Great Hall, women in festive qipaos walked up the grand staircase at the speeds their slender dresses would allow; at the top of the stairs, ushers in more pragmatic blue blazers pointed the way to the Asian Art galleries. More than six hundred people had been invited to the opening, and the throngs poured into the galleries.

Left: Long March Space’s Lu Jie with China Guardian International Auctions senior specialist of contemporary art Zhang Xiaoming. Right: Metropolitan Museum of Art Chinese painting department curator Joseph Scheier-Dolberg  .

Staring at the ceiling to take in colossal ink paintings by Yang Jiechang and Qiu Zhijie, I nearly collided with Claudia Albertini, director of Platform China’s space in Hong Kong. Together we paused to admire the works’ awkward juxtaposition, uncomfortably close to each other and playing off the monumental Buddhist sculpture. In the next hall, Han dynasty funerary urns shared space with Ai Weiwei’s Coca Cola Urn and Map of China, around which a small crowd of Fifth Avenue locals had gathered, breathlessly remarking on the fine craftsmanship.

Rushing by in a down jacket, artist Sun Xun paused for a hello. Recently profiled in the New York Times, he seemed unfazed by the opening’s glamour. Sun is finishing a three-month residency in the city, and to celebrate, Xin Wang, a member of the “Ink Art” curatorial team, had organized a party––cooking crab and getting drunk while doing it––at Sun’s studio the night prior. “She had me here this morning at 10:30,” he lamented.

At the entrance to the painting galleries, the show’s curator Maxwell K. Hearn received a steady stream of locals with admirable diplomatic demeanor. Collectors like Qiao Zhibin, along with dealers from Asia were making detours home from Miami. Jane Debevoise, chair of the board at the Asia Art Archives, was gushing about a stunning installation of Wu Shanzhuan’s Red Humor International, she herself being an ink-painting maven and collector.

Left: Miriam Basilio, associate professor of art history and museum studies at NYU. Right: Associate publisher of Jing Daily Philana Woo with artist Wang Jianwei and UCCA curator Paula Tsai.

In the next room, exhibiting artist Qiu Anxiong stood next to a vitrine containing Chinese handscrolls. What did he think of the whole scene? He was easy-breezy: The show was historicizing, of course, but he didn’t expect such an institution to be cutting-edge. Inside the adjacent container, Duan Jianyu’s ink paintings on flattened cardboard boxes caught my eye, their corrugated lines and cola can rings still visible. Cardboard or garbage-based media sharing a consecrated vitrine space with masterpieces of classical Chinese paintings—the comparison collapsed time in an intriguing way.

For specialists, much of what is on display has been seen before, although some works had a freshness that appealed to New York’s most critical viewers. Jonathan Hay, a Chinese art historian with an excellent connoisseurial eye, looked approvingly at a photo “handscroll” by Xing Danwen. Columbia University’s John Rajchman mused on the sorts of curatorial challenges the Met must have dealt with in a show where artists could talk back.

The major lender to this exhibition, Uli Sigg, circulated with the upper-crust VIPs, but in the series of tiny crowded galleries, I could hardly see the forest or the trees. The Sigg Collection has been shaping a European understanding of “Chinese contemporary art” for nearly a decade, and this show is heavily indebted to that vision. Ai Weiwei was present in almost every gallery, and in the next room I came upon his “Provisional Landscapes,” photographs printed on giant rolls of photo paper and hung to imitate vertical scrolls. “It’s a Shanghai Tang kind of moment,” said Philana Woo, associate publisher of the New York–based Jing Daily.

Left: White Cube Hong Kong’s Laura Zhou and artist Qiu Anxiong. Right: Artist Yang Jiecang with curators Britta Erickson and Christopher Phillips.

From a vantage point in front of Wang Dongling’s gestural brushwork (“Looks like a Robert Motherwell!” “Abstract Expressionism!”), the transnational nature of the “Chinese” art scene was apparent in one glance around the room. Yang Yongliang, Shi Guorui, and Wang Qingsong were in from Shanghai and Beijing, but increasingly the “Chinese art world” hails from New York: Cai Guo-Qiang, Zhang Jianjun, and Gu Wenda, to name a few. Many other artists, including Xu Bing and Liu Dan, spent formative years here. New York–based critic Barbara Pollack, who has been writing about Chinese artists for more than a decade, excitedly chatted about her jaunt to Beijing next month. Laura Zhou from White Cube Hong Kong was in New York interviewing one of her Brooklyn-based American artists, and as we strolled without stopping through this iteration of Xu Bing’s canonical Book from the Sky—thousands of pages of unreadable woodblock-printed texts, and perhaps the most frequently cited work of recent Chinese art history—Beijing-based dealer Waling Boers asked, “How many copies of that thing are there?”

After a long tour of the Egyptian galleries, we arrived at the reception unfolding around the Temple of Dendur. Most of the professionals congregated here. Thomas Berghuis, who recently relocated to the Guggenheim to take up a permanent curatorial position, chatted with New York–Beijing dealers Christophe Mao and Lu Jie. Wang Jianwei, in town preparing for his solo exhibition at that institution next year, surely saw the night as forecasting the reception of Chinese artists in this town.

But not everyone was so sanguine about the anodyne lineage of Chinese cultural orthodoxy presented here. Paris-based independent scholar Francesca dal Lago, who was instrumental in first bringing Chinese artists to Venice in 1993, unapologetically vented her dismay at the show’s forced curatorial framework: “Come on, how ‘inky’ is Ai Weiwei?” Likewise, Beijing-based performance artist Yan Xing was unconvinced that the “Past as Present” narrative evoked anything contemporary about his world, and suggested “Past as Imaginary” as an exhibition subtitle instead. Of course, not all the provocations that Chinese art is capable of are suitable for public display in such an institution. This stealth exhibition hints that a door has been opened, and this in itself is a triumph.

Left: Pekin Fine Arts' Meg Maggio (left). Right: Artist Yan Xing with UCLA professor of Chinese archaeology Lothar von Falkenhausen.

Left: Artist Zhang Jianjun. (Photo: Lee Ambrozy) Right: Collector Fred Gordon with Alexandra Munroe, Asian Art curator at the Guggenheim Museum.

Left: Melanie Low, director of Red Cactus Productions with Wang Xin from the Ink Art curatorial team. Right: Laura Zhou and Waling Boers.

Left: Christian Murck with art historian Alfreda Murck. Right: ICP curator Christopher Phillips (left).