Repositioning contemporary Chinese-ink medium art, 1978-2018: Zheng Chongbin – migration, internationalisation, digitisation
Art that utilises soot-based ink, namely the centuries-old pictorial medium that originated in China, has conventionally been viewed in the Western North American and European art world as deeply Asian, having little or no applicability to the Western art discourse. Significantly, this culturally stereotyped viewpoint began to be constructively challenged in the run up and after the turn of the twenty-first century by institutions, whether museums or private commercial galleries, that started paying more attention to the genre of contemporary Chinese-ink art, as well as by artists, who constantly find new means to reinvigorate this historically traditional art form. Although a lot of research has been undertaken on the positioning of art by Chinese-born artists on the Western art scene, it mainly considers oil painting, particularly in styles of Cynical Realism and Political Pop, or installation and performance art, largely omitting a dedicated focus on specifically ink art. This thesis aims to contribute a more specialised discussion on the latter from the perspective of its correlation with and reception by the wider international art world, starting in the post-Mao period at the turn of the 1980s and continuing up until the present day. Particularly, this thesis illuminates five milestones encountered by numerous contemporary ink artists on their way to help ink art entre a more meaningful and less compartmentalising dialogue with international art and its audiences. The first milestone relates to the rediscovery of Western art in 1980s post-Mao China, which was accompanied by the previously unprecedented presence of foreigners at various Chinese academies, with whom ink artists eagerly interacted. The second and third milestones are linked with the widespread phenomenon of migration from China at the turn of the 1990s, whereby ink artists initially encountered cultural shock, questioning the applicability of ink art to local Western audiences, and then started to forge new approaches to this culturally particular art genre, demonstrating how it could meaningfully apply to art scenes of their new places of residence. The final two milestones touch upon the very recent international boom of Chinese-ink medium-based art, specifically paintings or painting-based installations as well as digital works. Crucially and quite exceptionally, all these five milestones were directly experienced by Zheng Chongbin (born 1961) – a globally recognised American artist, based in San Francisco, who was born and raised in Shanghai and then lived in Hangzhou, studying and working at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts until 1988, when he had a life-changing trip to California. Therefore, the thesis elucidates the question of contemporary ink art’s correlation with and reception by the wider international art world through the lens of a concrete case-study example of Zheng’s artistic career. In this respect, the thesis also aims to contribute a comprehensive monograph on this internationally acclaimed contemporary ink artist, whose artistic development pertinently illustrates an important part of the journey that contemporary ink art has thus far undertaken to challenge culturally compartmentalising responses to it by non-Asian viewers. Ultimately, the thesis’s overarching goal is to demonstrate that soot-based ink, despite its embedded cultural specificity, can be the broadly applicable medium and concept, regardless of the viewer’s background.