Each Artist In Exhibition “Approached Tradition A Bit Differently”
Last week, Jing Daily spoke with Hao Sheng, the Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston about his recent exhibition, Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition. The exhibition featured a selection of Chinese and Chinese-American artists who were invited to create a new work inspired by a masterpiece from the MFA permanent collection. In our interview, Hao reflects on the process of mounting this exhibition, the “new MFA,” and his upcoming projects. For more information about the artists involved with Fresh Ink visit the MFA website or order a copy of the catalogue here.
Jing Daily (JD): What prompted you to do this exhibition? What was the thinking behind it?
Hao Sheng (HS): There were several reasons. One is the basic idea that artists look at early works as a starting point for new creations. This is something that is traditionally acknowledged in Chinese art. Secondly, the idea came from my own experience as a curator — I often show visitors paintings from our storage [facilities]. The group that I enjoy looking at art with the most is certainly artists. They usually come in with specific questions in mind and they look at paintings from a practitioner’s point of view. Even though I felt like I knew the works that I showed them very well, I always managed to see something new through the artist’s eyes. The question was, how do we translate that experience for our general public, and Fresh Ink was the answer. The artists in Fresh Ink became the interpreters of the classical works in our collection.
JD: Could you briefly outline the creative process that was structured for the artists? How involved were you in the artists’ work?
HS: All ten artists came to visit Boston. They took multiple trips, some for as long as six weeks. In each case, they basically combed through our permanent collection, and from that experience [each] chose a piece. That was only the beginning. Our interaction started with this viewing. Over time we discussed the proposal and what they would do in response. I visited the artists in their studios to check on the works in progress. There were multiple interactions from the very beginning, from their visit to the museum doing a residency, to my visits to their studios and many phone calls and meetings. The interactions were very rich. What is embedded in the exhibition is this sense of process.
JD: How did you choose the ten artists in the show?
HS: I was purposeful when I chose these 10 artists. I wanted to make sure that each of them in their previous work demonstrated deep engagement with art history. That they look at different types of art carefully and deeply. Also, I wanted to have a sense that I could predict that their strategies would be different. Not necessarily the format, but also how they respond to the earlier work. Each artist interacted with the original work in his own way – some with pure reverence, like Qiu Ting. Others came in with parodies, like Li Jin’s work. Compared with other artists who were engaged with the masterpiece itself, Xu Bing actually took a step back and asked some fundamental questions, like what is a Chinese brush painting? This multiplicity of strategies I tried to encourage through my choice of artists.
JD: There’s quite a multiplicity of voices represented in this show. Could you talk a bit about the range of production strategies on view here, and perhaps the range of perspectives they reflect?
HS: Even though we called it Fresh Ink and the title may give the impression that we are emphasizing ink painting, when you look at the artists you will find many different strategies. The diversity of their reactions came from their particular art making practice but also came from the different responses they had to the artwork. Liu Dan’s work is not just a two dimensional, ink painting on paper, but a complex installation of ten works of art surrounding the rock in the middle. Though it is ink painting on paper, it is actually very complex. When visitors came, they were struck at how diverse the show was even with two pieces that initially look very similar, such as Xu Bing’s print and Qiu Ting’s ink painting. [Once] visitors realized the different ways they were created, it came as a revelation.
The artists were thinking very carefully not only about the work of art but also how to engage the audience. I think this really comes through in their choice of material and the formats of their installations.
JD: Xu Bing went beyond seeking inspiration and actually borrowed excepts and passages from a textbook of instructions (Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting) on ink painting – a book that has been the manual for many of China’s best painters. Can you talk about this gesture of appropriation?
HS: The manual was meant to be used in such a way that it teaches you how to paint a tree, how to paint a rock individually according to an existing model. The idea is once you master these vocabularies you can describe the world by combining these motifs. Xu Bing took it very literally by copying the pages directly into a collage that was cut into woodblocks. Through this act of mechanical reproduction he was asking what is the aura of art in Chinese handscroll or an ink painting? You could say the print he produced is probably the most correct, but one could also say it is the furthest from the ideal because there is not a single brushwork. The aura that he is asking about came to be focused on the absence of brushwork. This is one interpretation in which he certainly has his own point of view as well.
JD: How are the artists working with and against tradition formally and conceptually?
HS: Each artist approached tradition a bit differently. In fact, it is quite exciting to notice the 10 different ways that they engaged with tradition. Take Qin Feng for example. He basically created a new ritual space for his bronze. Saying, what if the bronze could speak as a messenger from the past? He has put the bronze on a stage that he created himself. The audience was in the shape of books registering the different words that the bronze might have uttered. In a way, he is opening up a whole new field for us, saying the bronze shouldn’t be just interpreted by art historians and archeologists working in museums. The information we know about the bronze is very limited, but the audience shouldn’t stop there. They can project and receive information from the art object based on their own experience.
JD: As the MFA masterpiece that inspired his work, U.S.-born artist Arnold Chang (previously on Jing Daily) chose Jackson Pollock’s Number 10 (1949)–the only artist to choose a non-Chinese work to focus on. Yet his response was a landscape handscroll–a very Chinese art form. Could you talk about this a bit?
HS: It was a very intelligent choice. As Chang has said, he hopes that people will see more in Chinese brush painting by thinking about how they looking at Abstract Expressionism. If we think about it, when we look at a Jackson Pollock, no one questions whether it is abstract or if it is describing anything. When looking at a Pollock we instinctively learn how to peel it apart, to understand the different layers of paint. Secondly, we start to understand the process of its making through its surface. Finally, we become accustomed to the idea that the abstract gestures embedded in the paint are an extension of the personality of the artist. These three ideas are actually very useful and continuous with the way Chinese paintings are seen. That the brush painting’s surface is a record of its own making because ink is a non-erasive medium. You can see the first brush work all the way to the last, sometimes piling upon one another. Yes, the brush strokes are there to describe rocks and trees, but you can also see them as abstraction and understand them as gestures of the artists. So these continuous concepts become very useful for American audiences to build a deeper appreciation for Chinese painting.
JD: November 2010 marked the opening of Fresh Ink, as well as the opening of the New MFA. How does this exhibition fit in with the institution’s new vision?
HS: The exhibition took place in the MFA’s new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, in the new American wing. It was quite a deliberate gesture to show Fresh Ink there. We are emphasizing American art, but at the same time we have an encyclopedic collection and a deep and a fine collection of Chinese art. Also, we are announcing our interest in contemporary art, not just showing contemporary artists but engaging contemporary artists with our collection in the process of creating something new.
JD: As the exhibition did close last week, what kind of effect might a show like this have on these artists’ careers moving forward?
HS: I have noticed that many of the artists have followed the strategy they used in Fresh Ink. Yu Hong has adopted the format that she used in this exhibition, where she creates one-to-one dialogues with classical works, as a fixture in her art practice. She expanded her repertoire from one particular Chinese painting from our collection, Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk (early 12th century), to Dunhuang, a Buddhist cave site, to medieval murals from Mount Sinai in Egypt. Again, these classical works have become inspiration for her new pieces. Li Jin has chosen another work in our collection and will come back this summer to paint it following the same method he used with Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts (11th century).
The show has its ramifications, at least conceptually, to the next step of the artist’s work.
JD: Fresh Ink was in the works for five years. What’s next for you?
HS: As any curator, I propose exhibitions to the museum, but whether they are going forward or not is decided by the overall picture of the museum itself. I am interested in updating the permanent collection galleries, especially Buddhist sculpture and ceramics. I am also proposing a traveling exhibition from an outside institution on Chinese calligraphy.
Of course, I continue to pay attention to the artists from Fresh Ink and others. I recently came back from Hong Kong and Beijing and saw some really excellent works of art. It is really exciting seeing what’s being produced now.
Interview by Amara Antilla