In this Q&A, we caught up with Chinese artist/art dealer Lydia Duanmu to pick her brain on an ancient Chinese painting technique applied on modern terms.
What is present day China’s contemporary art language like?
In terms of modern day Chinese art, I think the mostrepresentative “language” could be considered contemporary ink painting. Ink painting is a national treasure of ours. For thousands of years, it’s been a unique expression of the philosophical system of the Chinese and tells us something about our spiritual detachment. It really does allow many of today’s Chinese artists to apply traditional techniques when depicting modern life. Not only does contemporary ink painting integrate the artistic characteristics of ink painting – natural, organic, tranquil,and tender – it also freely expresses the variety of emotions, lifestyles, and political issues China’s general public experience in today’s society.
This mode of expression, just like other art mediums extends beyond tradition and cultural diversity. The difference is that Chinese contemporary ink painting adopts the concept of Zen – an ancient and noble way of life – to incisively and vividly express prevalent topics of this era.
What technique does such an artist choose to express themselves?
Contemporary ink painters apply many more interesting techniques and materials such as adding red wine, tea, and gold powder into the ink they use. You might say they attach the spirit of the times to the paintings.
That said, the medium of ink itself uses the techniques of traditionalink painting. The use of these materials is really intriguing- paper as a medium in particular. While many Western collectors have concerns about the preservation of paintings on paper, there are many well-preserved pieces on paper dating back to hundreds or thousands of years ago, and the invention of paper is indeed one of China’s most important contributions to civilization.
The most basic components of paper are organic materials like plants, rice pulp, and minerals. With some special post-processing, the paper takes on a yellowish hue. It also becomes light and thin, yet ductile. Since there are different kinds of production processes, the variety of our paper is abundant. Organic materials like straw, rice stems, silk are widely available to us. This kind of grassroots production process brings people closer to nature, the energy of the universe and the wisdom of mankind. The paper itself is already a work of art, and it is able to impart a special sentiment – the admiration of ancient civilization and a wonderful emotion of joy and tranquility from the bottom of people’s hearts.
In terms of ink painting, it is a “conversation” between water and ink. For oil painting, the deployment of the colors abides by certain formulas and proportions. However, ink painting focuses more on the movements that water brings to the ink – an unpredictable activity across the paper’s surface. Ink as a material is more permeable and fluid than all other kinds of painting materials. When a drop of ink is spread on paper, the work of the artist is over, as ink begins its own exploration. The outcomes of the conversation between water, ink and paper are often surprising. So, in a sense, Chinese ink painting is its own realm of Zen.
What are the impacts of Chinese Ink art on the international art market?
Chinese Ink has been more recently been a topic of glottal arts interest because of it’s unique characteristics and the fact that it’s at an early stage of development in the international contemporary arts market. It’s a great time for collectors and art aficionados to become involved with this specific type of art. Recently, Chinese Ink art has been hugely successful at Sotheby’s and other New York art auctions. More and more prestigious European and American galleries and museums have acquired these types of paintings and put on exhibits. We’re looking at a promising future.
You’re originally from China, but you live in New York. What are the main differences between these two art scenes?
I got my master’s degree from China’s Cental Academy of Fine Arts in Chinese murals. Those years of study let me realize the charm of inkpainting, and made me proud of this cultural treasure of China’s. In the past few decades, I’ve traveled to many countries around the world with this sentiment. New York is only an intermediate stop for me. However, I am deeply fascinated by New York and it’s diverse arts scene. I think it’s probably the hardest place for people to develop dementia because there’s time for people to slip into a daze!
The whole city has a great power that constantly pushes people to move forward involuntarily, and the rhythm is even faster than that of Beijing. I feel that in New York, the language of the entire art world is very straightforward, with little room for nonsense. The artistic atmosphere is made up of a great spectrum of emotions, and of course, behind these great emotions, there exists tremendous anxiety.
Personally, I sort of feel like the flowing Chinese ink itself – my soul travels through different cultures and leaves a trail of footprints – Beijing, Paris, London, New York, Vancouver, even an earthy Thai village or a small Sicilian town. From these journeys, I learned an important rule of thumb for choosing which Chinese artist to promote- that whether rich or poor, fashionable or dull, young or old, mankind can never escape that one common wish for love and peace.