The Watery Turn in Contemporary Chinese Art

Article excerpt

This essay examines an interest in water which is displayed by a variety of contemporary Chinese artists whose work is not necessarily otherwise identifiably linked in terms of style. While a great many non-Chinese contemporary artists have also explored water, the watery turn in Chinese art is a relatively distinct phenomenon, making use of aspects of the inherited cultural stock, in particular the ink-painting heritage (which might not at first have been thought to offer much that would concern consciously contemporary artists). It comes into being, as will be shown, in response to particular state ideologies and modernization policies and may be read as offering a critical and even subversive engagement with them. Whereas Chinese state discourse thematizes control of water, treating it as a dangerous adversary, many Chinese contemporary artists can be said to take the side of water and do so in ways which symbolically contest the dominant official ideology.

The interest of Chinese artists in water is widespread enough that one can reasonably talk of a discourse concerning water rather than a series of isolated artistic statements, but at present that discourse is still relatively unmediated by any significant textual comment from the artists themselves. Although the literature on individual artists has sometimes noted their interest in water, until now this phenomenon as a whole has strangely evaded detailed examination by critics or curators. ' The lack of explicitness in the discourse concerning water, which may in part be a parallel to the oblique or indirect nature of the individual artworks themselves (a protective strategy for art that refuses dominant values in a society that does not welcome open dissent), means that this study is not quite the same as a standard iconographical analysis in the Panofskian tradition. Rather than the elaboration and refinement of established systems, visual meanings are in the process of being specified for the first time by these artworks, and any attempt at codifying meaning or making it explicit may belong only to the reading of it offered here.

A further way in which this analysis of watery tendencies in contemporary Chinese art differs from a standard iconographical case study is that the concern for water is not simply at the level of subject matter, but also at the level of medium. This prevalence of water as a material for art-making becomes possible because of the popularity in China of installation and performance (or xingwei) art. Both these genres of art-making allow water to be used as a material in a way in which oil painting and stone carving do not. Without losing a sense of the specificity to this moment of a concern for water in Chinese art, is should also be noted, however, that the dominant and most culturally valorized art medium over the last thousand years of Chinese history has been a water-based one, namely ink painting (commonly referred to in Chinese as shuimo, literally "water ink"). In the rich history of ink painting, still widely used as a medium even today in China, water has also featured prominently as a subject, in the form of the clouds, rivers, and lakes, which dominate landscape or shonshui ("mountain water") art.

Although this is by no means always the case, a number of Chinese contemporary artists do refer to the ink-painting heritage in their work. References to earlier Chinese modernism are rare, but something is found to be of use in this premodern art. Its watery quality seems to be being pointed to and "exacerbated" by artists of our own time, in ways that are perhaps neither straightforward homage nor deconstruction and which have little counterpart in contemporary Western art. Such intensification to the point of rupture is seen, for instance, in Wenda Gu's Synthesized Words, number 3 in the series Tronquility Comes from Meditation (1984), one of the earliest works of the Chinese contemporary art movement. In this piece ink marks and the calligraphic forms they construct are combined with dilute and semiaccidental wash effects which read visually as eroding and partially erasing the written characters. …