The Weight of Lightness: The Boundless Potential of Ink Art

Ink, the principle medium in Asian visual art and the hallmark of Asian cultural identity, has remained an active source of inspiration in contemporary art practice. Since the mid-twentieth century, many Asian artists have examined the content, practices, and concepts of traditional ink art—most commonly represented by calligraphy and landscape painting—to develop new expressions and techniques suitable for their time and personal experiences. Throughout this process, they often incorporated artistic tendencies and materials from outside of their own cultures. At the same time, artists from outside Asia also looked to traditional ink art for their experimentations. In short, ink art, a discipline with its own system of training, technique, vocabulary, philosophy, and circulation has entered into transnational dialogues. These cross-disciplinary and intercultural connections have kept ink art constantly evolving and are central to M+’s strategy for collecting and exhibiting ink art.

The Weight of Lightness: Ink Art at M+, the museum’s first presentation of ink art from the collection, highlights the diverse explorations that have taken place over the past sixty years. It defines ink art not only through its materials, but also as an aesthetic that inspires a wide range of applications and interpretations. The Weight of Lightness illustrates the tension at the core of ink art—between the material and the spiritual. This relationship permeates the thematic sections of the exhibition, organised based on the heritage and conventions that have shaped the philosophies and trajectories of ink art.

The exhibition begins with Wurzel aus (1961), Korean-American artist Nam June Paik’s provocative and playful homage to the ink tradition, which encapsulates his philosophy of art in his early career. Using a permanent marker to hurriedly draw on a hanging scroll a radical sign (a sign which indicates the square root of a number), Paik points to the endless possibilities of art through a koan-like expression. His openness to making references across cultures and disciplines fittingly reflects the ideas behind The Weight of Lightness.

The first section, ‘Scripts, Symbols, Strokes’, looks at the artistic impulse to communicate through writing, drawing, and mark-making. It begins with an examination of ink art’s relationship with the written script, Tong Yang-Tze’s large scale calligraphy Spirited, like a far-journeying steed; Floating, like a duck on water (2002). The work shows her loyalty to the Chinese written word while pushing it towards abstraction. Her virtuosic, expressive strokes are contrasted by a string of delicate points and lines in Untitled (1960), an enigmatic work by Li Yuan-chia that makes no reference to any written characters, instead forming a poetic language of its own. In the 1950s and 1960s, Morita Shiryū and Hidai Nankoku revolutionised calligraphy in postwar Japan by obscuring the form of characters and moving away from a reliance on pictographic reference. Decades later, Xu Bing’s invented Chinese characters in Book from the Sky (1989) subvert the raison d’être of the written language by maintaining the components and form of the script yet denying its possibility to make meaning.

The other thread in this section considers calligraphic points and lines as fundamental modes of expression and proposes a common ground between artists from the East and the West. Chuang Che and Leung Kui Ting, key participants in the modern painting movements of 1960s Taipei and Hong Kong, respectively, explored the utility of lines in the compositional structures of their abstract paintings. Their interest in materiality and texture was shared by Lee Ufan and Park Seo-Bo, working in Tokyo and Seoul respectively, two leading members of Dansaekhwa, a Korean modern painting movement of the 1960s and 1970s. By referencing their training and knowledge in ink painting and at the same time challenging it, these four artists brought the perspective of ink into the discourse of postwar abstract painting. The tactile quality of Lee and Park’s strokes can be compared to two watercolours from the mid-1960s by Indian artist Krishna Reddy, another important contributor to postwar abstraction. The calligraphic lines and blots in the drawings act as records of the artist’s hand movements. They also strike an affinity with young American artist Nick Mauss’ assortment of solid and ethereal strokes and washes of glazes on a ceramic surface in Untitled (2012) that recall the effects of watercolours. The explorative nature of these drawings is in dialogue with Chinese artist Qiu Deshu’s Seal (1982), a work that lets vermilion seal patterns overwhelm the picture, and with Lebanese-American artist Etel Adnan’s jubilant brushstrokes in Point Reyes n°2 California (1989), which encapsulates her response to the Northern Californian landscape. These marks of a strong personal and tactile nature highlight the immediacy of conveying artistic intention through line-drawing and mark-making across cultures and continents.

‘Desire for Landscape’, the exhibition’s second section, points to the enduring appeal of landscape painting in contemporary artmaking by sampling a range of artistic imaginations that have spawned from this traditional genre. Liu Kuo-sung, Wucius Wong, and Qiu Shihua deliberately chose landscape painting, the pinnacle art form of Chinese literati culture, to express their personal and cultural identity in Cold War Taiwan, colonial Hong Kong, and post-Cultural Revolution mainland China. They each explore a variety of materials, techniques, and compositional strategies, informed by Western abstraction, to convey the awe-inspiring feeling prevalent in traditional landscape painting without reliance on well-worn methods. Yang Jiechang and Peng Wei both use landscape painting—executed in almost orthodox ways—to deliver alternative narratives. Yang’s ominous clouds, hovering over a scene of persecution unfolding in the landscape, mark his critique of the painful history of the Cultural Revolution; Peng’s landscape, inscribed with Lord Byron’s love letter to Countess Teresa, provides a romantic bent, challenging the typical restraint found in traditional landscape painting. Liang Quan’s interpretation of Hidden Fish in a Clear Stream by Song dynasty painter Li Tang (1066–1150) is inspired by the geometrically rendered landscapes of American painter Richard Diebenkorn (1922–93) and repurposes the traditional Chinese paper mounting technique. The layering effect in Liang’s collage is echoed in the juxtaposition of notations and colours in Spanish artist José María Sicilia’s The Instant (2013), a meditation on the relationship between nature and life inspired by his study of bird songs. These contemporary works show how through the notions of depicting, recording, and borrowing from landscape (painting), artists are contemplating the meanings of human life in the context of history, tradition, and the forces of nature.

Plants literally offer artists a down-to-earth perspective when thinking about the natural environment. Shan Fan and Koon Wai Bong each took a motif from traditional painting—bamboo and pine—and added their own interpretations beyond the typical metaphors. In Shan’s Painting the Moment (Malerei des Augenblicks) (No. 1–12) (2007–13), bamboo, symbolising integrity in Chinese literati culture, is presented as broken, intertwined, and arranged in unconventional ways. In Dancing in Shadows (2014), Koon brings to life a well-known verse by Song poet Su Shi (1037–1101). Koon’s pine trees, enveloped in impenetrable splashed ink, allude to the abstraction heralded by the early Qing master Shi Tao (1642–1707) and by the twentieth-century master Chang Dai-chien (1899–1983). In Fair and Clear II (2006) by Yuan Jai, bundles of fabric and swirls of ribbon, which usually play supporting roles in Chinese figurative painting, are adapted into her pink peonies, a traditional symbol of prosperity in Chinese visual culture. Tseng Yuho uses collages of fabrics like gauze and tapa cloth—readily available in Hawaii where she lived—in Song of the Roots (1962) to mimic the sinuous form and fibrous texture of roots. With detailed depictions of the ingredients of a Chinese medicinal prescription, Heavenly King’s Heart-tonifying Pills, for symptoms of stress and imbalances caused by the hectic contemporary lifestyle, Zhang Yanzi makes plants even more personal in Tianwang Buxin Dan (2014–15). This album of paintings conveys a hope and desire for restoring vitality and comfort through organic sources.

For ink artists, rocks and stones, basic pictorial components in Chinese landscape painting and common features in cultivated Chinese and Japanese gardens, lead to nuanced artistic understandings of the interaction between culture and nature. Using rocks as motif, Kan Tai-keung and Hung Fai both take on emulation and repetition, a rite of passage for painters, as their subject. Kan borrows geometric structures from design theories to turn a classical mountain pattern into a ‘readymade’ in Cliffs Beyond (1977), while Hung plays with the asymmetrical power found in pedagogy and filial obedience by inviting his father and respected ink painter Hung Hoi to paint together in The Six Principles of Chinese PaintingTransmission IV (2015). Both artists visualise—and arguably neutralise—an uneven power dynamic that often prohibits innovation. Li Huayi takes inspiration from Northern Song landscape masterpieces and from the compositional strategy of mid-twentieth-century American abstract painting to create his fantastical scenery in Pine Crest (2011), where pine trees precariously perch on steep, majestic cliffs. The intensity, movement, and drama in Li’s painting is counterbalanced by the tranquillity in the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto—particularly in the close-ups of the texture of stone arrangements in the Villa—captured in the photography of Ishimoto Yasuhiro in the 1950s. The intersection of the natural and the man-made—and the conflicts that come with it—is aptly rendered in Qiu Anxiong’s videos Jiang Nan Poem and In the Sky (both 2005). The former is a poetic meditation on nature and time, and the latter reflects upon the disruption and consequences caused by the rapid growth of human societies. This perennial fascination with landscape painting, and by extension, nature, manifested through multiple points of reference—from the art historical, literary, philosophical, material, to the sonic, design, and medicinal cultures—not only illustrates the significance of landscape painting in contemporary art but also reminds us of the innate universal impulse to contemplate our relationship with nature.

The last section of the exhibition, ‘Beyond Material’, turns to matters beyond the physical and the earthly world. Abstraction, supported by the expressive potential of ink, becomes an intuitive method to explore complex emotions, spiritual aspirations, and temporal concerns and meditations. The artists mobilise their skilfulness in commanding the brush and manipulating ink to achieve a plethora of effects on paper. Li Huasheng’s hand-drawn ink grids in 9902 (1999) serve as transcriptions of his mind and testaments to his determination to abandon representation. Qiu Deshu’s indecipherable seal marks among impenetrable ink washes in Red Mark Jumping between Black and White (1981) were used as a healing mechanism after a decade of painting propaganda. Irene Chou’s defiant swirl of red rising from a turbulent sea of black in Movement II (c. 1985)—in an entirely different way from Qiu’s—demonstrates how she channels her desires and subjectivity through ink and abstraction, especially significant during a time when the field of modern ink painting was dominated by her male counterparts.

The philosophical pursuits of literati painting remain a strong focus of exploration in contemporary artmaking; many artists consider it the foundational basis of Asian art and visual culture. An idea frequently returned to is the process of transformation embodied in the Taoist tenet of ‘Stillness in Movement, Movement in Stillness’. It has fuelled Frog King Kwok’s performative as well as paper works from the 1970s, such as his burnt paper collages with ink depicting a butterfly, a creature that defines its life through metamorphosis. Kwok’s interest in the transitional stages of material beings is echoed by Zheng Chongbin’s Another State of Man (1988), a series of paintings (here showing only two) where he blends the materials of East and West—ink and acrylic—to explore the in-between states of the figurative and the abstract. Kwon Young-woo, a Dansaekhwa artist trained as an ink painter, conducted an inquiry about medium throughout his career exclusively through Korean paper—the loyal companion of ink. Untitled (c. 1982), a work with repeated vertical tears of paper, hovers between painting and sculpture—yet another ambiguous state. It brings to the forefront the illusion of space and questions whether abstract ink painting requires ink at all.

This interest in the potential of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy—ideas that have shaped the East Asian worldview—as well as exploring abstraction to reach a revelatory state of mind is further illustrated in this exhibition through the works of several pioneers of Asian abstraction, including: Hsiao Chin’s early painting Huen-Tuen (1962), which depicts a controlled state of chaos at the beginning of the universe, and Qi 311 (1981), a later work communicating his mental flow of energy; Wucius Wong’s Thoughts Across the Lands (1970), where feelings of homesickness are rendered into a symmetrical composition; Fong Chung-Ray’s collage

1417 (2014), which integrates texts from the Diamond Sutra and illustrates his meditative process; and Lui Shou-kwan’s towering painting, Zen (1970), which strikes an epiphanic flash above a layered, saturated darkness.

In contrast to these expressive paintings, some artists employ more reductive means to capture introspective moments, inviting their viewers to settle into a different contemplative pace. Richard Lin—who embraced a minimalist strategy for his painting after his immersion in London’s conceptual art milieu in the 1960s—executed the near-white canvases of Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter (1972­–74) with a careful precision that captures the subtle changes of the seasons. They demonstrate the possibility of conveying Taoist philosophy through an extremely efficient allocation of material. Hsu Yu-Jen’s equally subdued painting Sea Flowing Unstopping…Forms Floating Sinking… (2006) transforms an ever-changing seascape into sparsely sprinkled dashes of lines, accompanied by his poem, which laments the futility of human actions against the tide of time. The fleeting moment is preciously preserved and reconstructed in Ni Youyu’s installation, Galaxy (2010–11). The constellation of ‘stars’ made up of flattened coins, carrying meticulously painted landscapes and objects, simulates the sensory experience of floating through suspended space and time—which is yu and zhou, or ‘the universe’, in Chinese—and allows us to savour sights and scenes that define the transience of human existence. The work, the finale of the exhibition and located in the heart of the exhibition space, illuminates the core concept behind The Weight of Lightness: that the inherent tension rooted in the aesthetic of ink—between the material and the spiritual, the physical and the intangible—can be articulated through a range of poetic, metaphorical, and sensorial interpretations. Whether it is an intuitive line or a purposefully written character; musings about mountains and rocks, flowers and trees, and everything in between; or representations of the internal hopes and fears towards matters in this world and beyond, ink art—endowed with the weight of traditions yet invigorated by the lightness of its material and the experimental vision of artists—possesses boundless potential.


Lesley Ma
Curator, Ink Art, M+

* All works in this exhibition are in the M+ Collection.
* In accordance with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean practice, artist and composer names are written surname first. Exceptions are made for individuals who have adopted the Western order of surname last or have been known professionally for their Western names (such as Nam June Paik, Irene Chou, Toshio Hosokawa, Lei Liang and Yeung-ping Chen).