In 2008, I curated “Form, Idea, Essence and Rhythm: Contemporary East Asian Ink Painting” for Taipei Fine Arts Museum, during which I proposed that contemporary ink art is faced with a “post-historical condition.” Since the 1990s, there has been a keener pursuit of localization in Taiwan and increasingly radical political confrontation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In addition, the once-dominant Chinese cultural tradition has gradually been pulled away from the center, even becoming a target of reform in the educational world of Taiwan.
In the midst of advocacy for localization following the marginalization of the paradigm, the Chinese tradition seems like something in the distant past to the younger-generation artists in Taiwan born after 1990, with few exceptions who spontaneously and wholeheartedly take the initiative to study the history of ink art. In the face of a new reality in Taiwan, the young stop recognizing themselves as a part of the Chinese history, and consider their identity no longer defined by the tradition.
Is there any possibility and potential for ink art in contemporary Taiwan to thrive, after breaking away from its Chinese past, be it history, culture or art? And how far can it go? This is an intriguing question. With globalization in full swing by the beginning of the new century, the imaging technology has been developing at a breakneck pace, while the Internet is rapidly changing our ways of living, consuming, and perceiving the world. The younger generation has long forsaken the traditional mode of writing. Since clicking on the keyboard has replaced writing, ink brush is not a necessity anymore but a tool solely for art. Thus, the end of brushwork is deemed inevitable. This trend opens new vistas for the young artists.
Nowadays, it would be useless and ineffective to evaluate the ink paintings presented by the new generation based on the criteria of brushwork, long cherished by the literati elite in the traditional sense. Even if it is somehow demonstrated in their works, it does not necessarily mean that the artists have managed to infuse it with new meaning, nor the spirit of the times. As the brush and ink have come to an end, the ink brush has ceased to be the irreplaceable, indispensable means of artistic creation. The artist is encouraged to push the boundaries of traditional brush and ink, and experiment on different methods of employing the paper or silk. Western or modern industrial materials have even been adopted, e.g., oil or acrylic paint as pigment. All these ingenious approaches had been considered and put into practice by a great number of modernist artists. This has laid a solid foundation for the ink artists of the new generation to make daring attempts at more diverse media.
Born in the new century, known for its post-historical state, the young Taiwanese ink artists are no longer bound by the tradition or art history, much less the divisions between various schools. Without the need to find identity in history or continue the dialogue with tradition, they redirect their attention to issues much closer to their physical being. Both muttering and daily triviality have become common themes. Sometimes, they also try to convey their thoughts on the events or phenomena in the society.
Despite the shared themes of everyday life, the young artists often display a mixture of reality, daydreams and fantasies. Some artists opt for a more visually logical, thus more easily comprehensible, formal approach by utilizing the motifs and schemata of traditional paintings. An obsession to cater to traditional norms, however, would end up appearing too conservative, leaving the impression of a lack of innovative audacity. When adopting the traditional style, quite a few of them seem to deliberately create a surreal feel across time and space.
After the turn of the century, especially around the recent decade, the imaging technology and Internet have been developing at a phenomenal pace. The young artists are enlightened by the digital era, marked by a fusion of reality and virtuality, and strangely wondrous, fabricated visual montages, which constitute the contemporary everydayness. As the miscellany of consumption-oriented fashions and subcultures sink into oblivion in the blink of an eye, the younger generation is immersed in such a visual culture that has unconsciously inspired their artistic creations. A hybrid panoply of materials spanning time and space culminate in novel visual compositions, lending them a refreshing sense of whimsy and fun.
In the last century, the Japanese and American comics and animations had kept so many boys and girls company through their bittersweet youth. As the new century has witnessed the birth of the digital virtual media, the robust new technology has transformed the comic and animation pieces from two- to three-dimensional, making them dynamic, high-definition, global, and all the more impactful. They continue accompanying the youngsters on their way to maturity and enlightenment. The visual experiences of viewing comics and animations will be internalized and inscribed on the memory, forming an integral part of the being of the young artists.
Throughout the long history of ink art, the system of brushwork established for over a thousand years has imposed severe limitations on the painters, trapping them in a dogmatic labyrinth. While the modern artists find themselves unable to break the ancient spell despite lifelong efforts, let alone the younger generation who are immersed in a totally different historical context and lifestyle with unprecedentedly miscellaneous creative resources. Since the post-historical phenomenon has now turned into a contemporary reality, the tradition will reach an end someday, sooner or later. There is a whole new world awaiting the young artists with the breakdown of the old mechanism of brush and ink.
In this new world, they are relatively free to maneuver and try all possibilities with a kaleidoscopic plethora of tools, media, forms, and concepts. Under the seemingly boundless canopy of the sky, they appear to be all-powerful without any shackle. Will a mesmerizing, uncultivated wilderness like this lead to another maze of endless bewilderment? Can the new generation navigate this labyrinthine odyssey through difficulties without getting lost, and create an artistic homeland at long last? It is an ideal to be exalted, but they need to move mountains to make new ideas come true. As the young might strive to break ties with the history and tradition, I do not see it necessary to forget about the past. The paradigms the predecessors have set cannot be erased. Someday in the future, the young can still benefit from referring to the artistic experiences and aesthetic achievements of old.
Amid the Taiwanese art world of ink painting in the new century, orthodoxy seems outdated and demarcation of schools has broken down; both the tradition and history fade away. Under these circumstances, are there opportunities lying ahead for ink art to grow? Only the new generation can make it happen. Let’s see.
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