When we are talking about “contemporary ink art”, what are we exactly referring to?

TEXT:Emily Zhou    DATE: 2020.11.5


“What outside the window is a forest-like skyscraper, and beyond Manhattan is the Statue of Liberty. In such a very western environment, we are discussing a very Eastern topic, namely, the development of Chinese ink painting in the new century. It makes me feel more about the change within the environment of the meeting and the problems faced by ink painting have also changed... Discussions on the prospect of ink painting have no choice but to be embedded in the larger background of international culture."

—Jia Fangzhou [1]

In December 2013, the exhibition “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” curated by Maxwell K. Hearn was presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the United States. It selected 35 contemporary Chinese artists who are active in China and overseas, which presented the observations and discussions on Chinese contemporary ink and wash art from a Western perspective and context with four sections. Namely, “The Written Word”, “New Landscapes”, “Abstraction” and “Beyond the Brush”. Critic Jia Fangzhou defined this exhibition as “wind comes from the West” because in his view, what this exhibition heralded was not that ink art, as understood by the Chinese people, has finally entered the international perspective. The “contemporary ink and wash” discussed in this exhibition focused on the notion of “contemporary” rather than “ink and wash”[2]. The concept of “ink and wash” was disassembled and reorganized in the non-paper expressions of many artists, such as extremely experimental installations and performances, and transformed into a space that can accept all artistic experiments and forms. From the perspective of the West, by doing so, it is an opportunity to connect notions of “ink and wash” with “contemporary”.


“Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” ©The Met,2013-2014 

In the process of the development of ink art, just as other types of artistic expression, it is inevitably influenced and intervened by Western contemporary art techniques and thoughts within an international perspective and discussions. However, when the “ink and wash”, which grew from the brush and ink of literati and is full of traditional aesthetics, is placed in the field of contemporary social development and cultural change, what does the frequently discussed “contemporary” connotation actually refer to?

Since the iterative upgrade of the ink and wash yearbook project in 2019, after nearly a year of deliberation and preparation, on September 24, 2020, the “Ink Sky: 2020 Chinese Ink Yearbook” was officially launched at An Art Museum in New Everbright Center Beijing. The exhibition presents more than 100 works by 44 representative ink artists in the contemporary ink painting field with four major sections, namely, Succession, Transition, Inspiration, and Fusion. In the local context, this yearbook exhibition tries to sort out the developmental status of Chinese ink painting creation and the overall scene of Chinese ink art. The inheritance, collision and fusion of "tradition" and "contemporary" can be observed in this exhibition. 

Exhibition View

Contemporary Ink Painting and Tradition

When people are keen to explore the definition of contemporary, they seem to consciously draw a clear boundary between the present and past. People living at this moment define their position in the context of history as “contemporary”, and the artistic language that appears in the past is regarded as “tradition”. Many times, the recognition of contemporary identity seems to be embodied as a clear separation and challenge to tradition. When Wu Hung discussed the ‘contemporaneity’(CN.当代性) of Chinese experimental art, he believes that “‘contemporaneity’ does not refer to all works created at this moment, but it must be understood as a ‘construct’ of art and theory with special intentions. The intention is for artists or theorists to declare the unique ‘historicity’ and ‘temporality’ of the work itself through this ‘construct’.” [3] When it comes to the field of ink art, the challenges to traditional techniques, media and content as well as related innovation is being continuously practiced by contemporary ink artists.

Exhibition View

Ding Guanjia, who was born on Chongming Island in China in the 1930s, has always emphasized creating from life in his work, thus sketching from nature and life is an essential part of his creation. However, the scene in the south of the Yangtze River makes it impossible for him to apply the traditional brush and ink method and composition format in literati paintings. The traditional ink and wash technique that has already established a fixed form cannot depict the gentleness and tranquility of the southern scenery. During Ding Guanjia’s art career, he has tried to explore ink techniques, picture composition and subject matters that are different from traditional ink paintings. The contemporary identity presented in his creation is actually inseparable from his own experience of life around him. As a result, expressions rooted in and detached from traditional brush and ink can be realized.

15 丁观加 渔歌 之三 68×68cm  纸本水墨 2004年.jpg

Ding Guanjia  Song of Fishing No.3  68×68cm  Ink and Color on Paper 2004

19 潘公凯 清香十里 纸本水墨 138×138cm 2018年.jpg

Pan Gongkai  Fragrance for Miles  Ink on Paper 138×138cm 20185 丘挺 太行幽谷图2 金笺水墨 50×35cm 2015年.jpg

Qiu Ting  Taihang Valley No.2   Ink on Gold Paper 50×35cm 2015

Among the younger generation of ink painting artists, Kang Chunhui's series of works directly use paper and mineral pigments, which makes her “Inkstone Mountain” series, "Story of Life" and other works appear a bit unique in the exhibition hall. In addition to some of the works with mineral pigments, Hang Chunhui’s mixed materials, Jiang Ji’an’s ready-made paintings, and Hao Shiming’s acrylic on stone, the exhibition presents ink art that has surpassed the traditional paper-based composition and brush techniques and extends to diversified media and experimental forms of presentation. 

When the work is separated from the basic elements of “ink color”, “Xuan Paper”, and “water” that constitute ink art and the traditional Chinese aesthetic spirit, can it still be entitled as “ink art”? The question was proposed by many viewers during their visit to the exhibition, which leads to a continuous discussion regarding the relationship between contemporary ink art and tradition.

11 康春慧 砚山 之二 52×18cm×4 纸本设色 2018年.jpgKang Chunhui  Inkstone Mountain No.2   52×18cm×4  Color on Paper 2018

12 杭春晖 蓝色马赛克 综合媒材纸本 65×60cm 2016年.png

Hang Chunhui  Blue Mosaic  Mixed Materials on Paper 65×60cm 201631 姜吉安 春秋繁露之二 现成品绘画(茶) 89×53cm 2018年.png

Jiang Ji'an  Chunqiu Fanlu No.2  Ready-made Painting(Tea)  89×53cm 2018郝世明 出石202001 42x36x22cm,石上丙烯,雕刻,2020.jpg

Hao Shiming  Out of Stone 202001  42×36×22cm  Acrylic on stone, Carving  2020

Contemporary Ink Art and The Urban City

When it comes to the development and status of contemporary ink painting in this century, another keyword that cannot be separated from it is “city”. Critic Yin Shuangxi once discussed the trend and development of ink art in the 21st century in the context of the “urbanization” of the accelerated development of Chinese society [4]. From the villages and courtyards in the suburbs to the metropolitan cities with skyscrapers, the themes and content expressed in ink art are changing subtly in the process of urbanization.

In recent years, with the rise of the notion “Urban Ink Painting”(CN.”都市水墨”), exhibitions with this theme have appeared in various parts of the country. In the paintings of many artists who are defined as creating “urban ink” works, the reinforced concrete, bustling city lights, and urban scenery in the city are depicted, which records a world that is very different from natural landscapes. It echoes the rapid development of urban civilization in China. In a sense, it is considered to be more contemporary than the earlier “abstract ink and wash”, because “it adapts to the new situation faced by China after the market-oriented reform in the 1990s. The motivation of artists involved is no longer anti-traditional, but borrows a method of painting or medium that reflects national identity to express people’s living conditions and spiritual pursuits.”[5]

However, the topic of “urban city” should give people far more thoughts than the cold steel and concrete buildings and the bustling light night scenes that were born with the development of the city. For more people who have experienced the waves of urbanization, the significant impact brought forth by the concept of “city” may not be the changes in the surrounding material environment, but the alienation of the emotions and relationships of the people within it.

At the exhibition site, Liu Qinghe’s “Xi Ren” is placed in a quiet corner. The size of the work allows viewers to clearly see the expressions of the characters portrayed in the painting. The three female images are placed in the same space and their faces are dyed with different colors, as if they are narrating different story experiences. Even at the very close spatial distance, the self-protective posture, the strange and alienated relationship between the characters are penetrating the picture with the smudge of ink, passing them on to the audience who stops and views. As Liu Qinghe mentioned in the seminar on the opening day of the exhibition, the experience of the “urban life” lies more in the relationship between people than in concrete buildings. For a long time, this sense of true feeling and thinking about contemporary life has been wandering through Liu Qinghe’s artistic language with a clear but isolated expression.

1 刘庆和 袭人 纸本水墨  150×298cm  2019 年.jpgLiu Qinghe  Xi Ren  Ink and Color on Paper  150×298cm  2019 29(1) 方力钧  疫情日记 63、64、77  纸本水墨  43.5×38cm  2020年.png

Fang Lijun  Diary of COVID-19 No.63, No.64, No.77  Ink on Paper  43.5×38cm  2020

When ink appeals to the complex emotions of the present, the speeding urban rhythm, the turbulent social scene, and the alienated interpersonal relationship, the care of each individual's heart and emotion becomes even more precious. In Zhang Yanzi's “Hormones” series, the word, which is interpreted as “impetus” in Greek, is reminiscent of some vague, nervous excitement and joy. Like many abstract and obscure emotions and states, it is invisible when it exists in the human body, and can only be described by fantasy to depict some fuzzy colors with blurred margins. And as it gradually fades from striving to the end point, it stays active in the mind as it is bound up with self-emotions and feedback to the surroundings. Thus, the abstract “hormones” would eventually have a physical sustenance and expression. In a sense, the entangled and spreading nature of ink art seems to be appropriately accurate in expressing the indescribable emotions in the deep hearts of people in contemporary society.

36 章燕紫 荷尔蒙之二 纸上水墨设色122×124cm 2019年.jpgZhang Yanzi  Hormones No.2   Color and Ink on Paper 122×124cm 2019

2 徐累 石上浪 绢本水墨 99×156cm 2019年.jpg

Xu Lei  Wave the Stone   Color and Ink on Silk  99×156cm 2019

In the exhibition “Ink Sky”, in addition to the general discussion of “contemporaneity”, “tradition”, “urban city”, and “emotion”, etc., it also opens more topics in terms of ink art at present and in the future. For instance, confronting the revitalization of tradition and the inheritance of painting techniques that are mentioned frequently nowadays, how should artists carefully handle the balance between the traditional spirit and contemporary culture in the paintings, so as not to fall into the quagmire of merely a “decorating tradition”? Another example is that with the development of technology, artificial intelligence may be involved in more fields. When brush and ink meet and collide with new media and advanced technology, what will happen to the traditional aesthetic spirit and the emotional temperature that belongs to the creator? 

30 徐冰 英文方块字书法:罗马墙蓝调 纸本水墨 69×275cm 2007年.png

Xu Bing  Square Word Caligraphy: Roman Wall Blues  Ink on Paper  69×275cm  2007

17 王璜生,日课·杂词191022,纸本水墨设色,2019.png

Wang Huangsheng  Lesson·Miscellaneous Words 20191022  Color and Ink on Paper  20197 徐华翎 香No.1   绢本水色 60×83cm 2019年.jpg

Xu Hualing  Fragrance 2019 No.1   Color and Ink on Silk  60×83cm  2019

Today, through the juxtaposition of traditional literati painting, innovative ink and wash techniques, and works that express contemporary culture and spirit, “Ink Sky” is not so much intended to sort out the development context of contemporary ink art, but offers a better view as an open platform to study the possibilities of “contemporary ink art”. Compared with the exhibition “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” organized in a Western context, the “root” and “inheritance” of ink art are pointed out more directly here. Meanwhile, “Ink Sky”  also opens up the discussion on many issues rooted in the development of ink art based on the local field of vision.

However, as the term “contemporary” is not simply understood as locating at this moment, the connotation of “contemporary ink art” also provides a broad space for interpretation. When we are talking about contemporary ink painting, what are we precisely referring to? Through the presentation and discussion of “Ink Sky: 2020 Chinese Ink Yearbook”, it is still worth thinking about to what extent the experimental space that ink art can embrace. The only thing that can be accurately mentioned is that “contemporary ink art” discusses a change, process, relationship, and emotion that occur in the present. It goes deeper into life and “people” beyond the calm and fixed brushwork form. With the unique texture of ink art, it studies and conveys a state and feeling about the contemporary social landscape.

21 谷文达 遗失的王朝i系列 之贰 96×297cm.jpg

Gu Wenda  The Lost Dynasty I Series No.2   96×297cm Ink on Paper 200527 李津 春 纸本水墨 180×98cm 2019年.jpg

Li Jin  Spring  Ink on paper 180×98cm 2019

Text by Emily Weimeng Zhou

Edited by Sue

Image Courtesy of the Organizer.


[1]- [2] Jia Fangzhou, “Wind Comes From the West”, ART Magazine, 2014.

[3] Wu Hung, “The contemporaneity of Chinese Contemporary Experimental Art”, ART Magazine, 2003.

* In the original Chinese text, the author used the term “contemproneity” instead of “contemporaneity” to correspond with “当代性”.

[4] Yin Shuangxi, “From Modern to Contemporary: Chinese Contemporary Ink Art from the Perspective of Global Culture”, Literature & Art Studies, 2014.

[5] Cited from Wu Wei, “Urban Ink Art” Also Does Not Have “Contemproneity”. The author concluded critic Lu Hong’s view regarding Urban Ink Art.


Accessed on 28th September, 2020.


Guests’ Speeches in “Ink Sky: 2020 Chinese Ink Yearbook” Seminar, 2020.

Exhibition Text of “Ink Sky: 2020 Chinese Ink Yearbook”, 2020.

About the exhibition


Ink Sky: Chinese Ink Yearbook Exhibition 2020

Duration: 2020.9.24-2021.1.24

Venue: An Art Museum, New Everbright Center

Guidance units:

Central Academy of Fine Arts

The Publicity Department of Beijing Municipal Party Committee


Beijing Tongzhou District Party Committee

Beijing Tongzhou District People's Government


The Organizing Committee of "Chinese Ink Yearbook"

The Publicity Department of Beijing Tongzhou District Party Committee

An Art Museum at New Everbright Center


 National Institute of Art and Cultural Policy, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing

Exhibition contractors:

Beijing Zhongli Celve Culture and Art Co., Ltd.

Beijing Art City Oriental Cultural Management Co., Ltd.