Melik Kaylan previews the Met’s upcoming show of Chinese Contemporary art, “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China:”
“There’s so much excitement and hype around contemporary art, the western variety, so we wanted to show that it’s happening in Asia too, that it’s happening even in the most traditional of forms—that Asia has a cultural present as well as a past,” says Maxwell Hearn, the curator and head of the Asian Art department. “And where can one say that more arrestingly than in the historical galleries?”
The shock of the unexpected is, emphatically, part of the message. Imagine you’re a regular, unsuspecting Met-goer dropping by for a soothing dose of Ming vases and Literati scrolls depicting mountains. Instead, you find your favorite objects displaced by a cacophony of contemporary works, often highly avant-garde and challenging. Or, conversely, you are lured in by the promise of traditional Chinese aesthetics extended into the present: modern versions of placid misty landscapes, rock-faces, and calligraphic studies, but you’re ambushed by polychrome cityscapes, photorealist images, photos of tattoo art and body painting, and unreadable calligraphy. Perhaps, you come in to see some of Ai Wei Wei’s works, and you’re mystified when you encounter ceramics by him that seem gratuitously included.
The curators have set out to show that art in China, even the most purely homegrown Chinese genre of ink-art, is merging with global influences and creating astonishing, vibrant hybrids that both illuminate the native tradition and expand the collective consciousness. At its profoundest, the show awakens us to what is happening to national cultural aesthetics everywhere, including our own, as motifs and symbols and visual paradigms wash back and forth across divides.