Art Labor 2.0, Shanghai, China
Beijing-based artist Ren Zhitian has been working with ink since the early 1990s. In recent years, these kinds of painted works – executed using techniques connected to traditional Chinese ink painting, shuǐmòhuà – have been receiving increasing interest. Following the saturated oils of movements such as Cynical Realism, ink offers both relief and a closer connection to national identity. Titled ‘ānyú wúliáo’ (Elegant and Empty), these ten works are the second edition in what will form a suite of 100 pieces upon its completion.
Ren sourced machine-embroidered silk, and followed the surface relief using ink made from fuel ash residue collected by a willing team from garages across Beijing. The issue of carbon emissions is certainly present here, but it is perhaps the most two-dimensional aspect of the work. The fluidity of the ink can’t be entirely contained; the untreated silk carries the delicate strokes through its grain, and the original design is blurred. Brush marks and ink weight add a second pattern, utilizing the flexibility of ink in its application, and further demonstrating the artist’s long-standing affinity with his medium.
The effect is certainly pleasing, but Ren is resolute when saying that his brush, dipped in ink, results in something that merely ‘appears to the eye like shuǐmò’, explaining that ‘the works just present a form, a composition, that supports a concept […] I wanted by means of something that looks very much like a painting, to oppose painting’. His prior works, entitled ‘hànzì tóngkǒng’ (‘Script and View’, 2008), appear for example to take much from the Southern School of shuǐmò and its dexterity with monochrome ink tones. He inverts this tradition, dipping his brush in solvent to etch his strokes into a prepared inkjet surface.
It seems however that a deep connection, perhaps even a kind of sentimentality, towards China’s artistic heritage, especially silk, comes to the forefront. ‘To invent weaving technology capable of something so delicate and exquisite, they really sought to express beauty; this moves me greatly,’ says Ren. ‘When painting with these patterns, I am continually able to experience something pure and happy, something originating from a pre-industrial age.’
In this show, the fantastical scale and significant presence of domestic manufacturing seems to rise over and above the issue of carbon emissions. Ren continues by saying that in parallel with silk, ‘the car is equally important. Through the usefulness of this object we can live our daily lives in a more civilized and refined way.’ Something similar could be said of the contribution made by China’s exports. The process enacted in these pieces brought the artist closer to the spirit and the innovation of his predecessors. However, he implies that the feeling delivered by our widespread adoption of today’s innovations is convenience in excess, resulting in wúliáo, or, merely nothing.