Chinese Ink Painting takes captivating new directions in the hands of two masters

The Square by Song Yonghong

The Square by Song Yonghong

As this year’s exceptionally gloomy rainy season made Hong Kong feel like a leaky sauna, an exhibition at the Fringe Club called “Joyful Ink” was a ray of sunshine for those suffering from damp combined with Baselmania, the latter being a condition brought on by the rampant commercialism and random curatorial policies of Art Basel HK. Summer Cao reports.

Curated by Lucie Chang Fine Art, the 12-day exhibition featured work by Song Yonghong and Li Jin, both veteran Chinese artists who were born as China emerged from decades of war and anarchy. They were raised in an environment of annihilation during the Cultural Revolution, introduced to foreign culture in the 1980s and then cruelly forbidden from exercising what they thought was a new freedom of expression.

Despite the many vicissitudes Song and Li have experienced they have now arrived at a junction in life that’s close to the Daoist goal of freedom with happiness, at least in terms of expressing themselves through art, as the title of “Joyful Ink” suggests.

The title also acknowledges one of the major goals of the exhibition, which aims to confront the stereotype that Chinese ink painting is a form of “haute art”, in which scholars and literati focus only on majestic scenery, the grand aspirations of life, the fine characteristics of a gentleman and sadness over one’s unsuccessful political career.



“Chinese ink art is almost inseparable from ‘literati painting’, which reveals the vitality of ink and symbolizes the literati spirit,” says the exhibition’s curator Lucie Chang. “Ink can actually offer variations of colour, and imbued with the artist’s unique sense of humour can be used to express the artist’s views, in a satirical, thoughtful manner.”

Song, the younger of the two artists, was born in 1966 in Hebei Province and is steeped in the world of realism. The first few glimpses of his work seem to contradict the concept of “Joyful Ink” because most of them have a melancholy overtone.

His The Square features the space in front of the Tian’anmen Square, a place that is closely supervised by the central government, which is keen to keep any sign of protest at bay. In the painting, the atmosphere is quiet and unsettling, with not a single soul present. The large blotches of watercolour that depict the sky and asphalt road seem to suck air from the painting, rendering the viewer breathless. CCTV cameras protruding in all directions from a lamppost make the formidable-looking police car in the foreground look menacing.

“This shows how I feel in front of the Tian’anmen Square,” says Song during the preview of the exhibition on May 13th. “A city square is usually a place for congregation. It should be very lively and packed with people. In this painting, I deliberately took all the people away. You can see it is a bright day, but the air is stagnant, showing it is a public place that is under strict control and surveillance.”

Apart from the fact that his landscape paintings share the style and dimensions of Chinese scroll paintings, the thread linking his work to “joyful ink” becomes more apparent as Song explains his creative process.



“Through my paintings, I want to show how I feel in certain living spaces, just like writers who use words to express their real feelings,” Song says. “My work has a tint of absurdity, for the real scene is different. I have to interpret it my own way, and emphasise my feelings. The most important thing for an artist is not what you draw, but whether the artist can show his or her own feelings through what is drawn.”

It’s apparent that Song’s “joy” mainly derives from being able to express himself truthfully and without constraints. Song is relentless in addressing social issues, as shown in The Square as well as in pieces such as Xiaoshahe Village that touches on the inhuman living environment that sometimes exists at the border areas between cities and their surrounding countryside.

“Residents of these border areas are always being pushed away because the city doesn’t have any space for them,” Song says. “But most of the time, they are the people who built the city. But after a city is built, they are exiled, and become pariahs. I have excluded the people from my paintings because they are excessive. The environment reveals what is going on. Were any people added in, the painting would become a story rather than revealing a condition. But in this case, you can almost feel that people are there – this is enough.”

Through his paintings, one can see the rubbish that had been left behind when the city was expanding and rural homes were being torn down. Based on real scenes from the capital’s suburbs, Song’s work is an outcry at what he sees as the irresponsibility of the government.

Song’s joy in the creative process is sometimes mixed with caution when he makes woodcarvings, where he senses the intensity of his work could cause him to lose control.

“My two hands have a tight grip upon my heart, which is constantly controlled by my hands,” says Song. “My heart contracts as my hands tighten their grip, and inspirations fall through my fingers – this is the kind of emotion I have. Every cut is done with my breath held. That’s maybe why the work conveys more intensity.”

Song’s woodcarvings feature minute cuts that resemble strokes from a Van Gogh painting, with each of them wobbling and creating a picture in motion, revealing the power of his emotions.

It’s easier to find Li Jin’s works joyful, to the point of absurdity. They feature men in traditional Chinese clothing and women in low cut dresses, bikinis or bathing suits. The Tianjin-born artist portrays scenes in which wealthy Chinese flash their new money and strive to look fashionable and modern. Despite being satirical and hyperbolic, these paintings look remarkably real and are able to inspire different interpretations.

Unable to attend the preview, Li was well represented by his work. Song has been Li’s good friend for more than 20 years and said, “His work touches human nature.” Being one of the pioneers of Experimental Chinese Ink Painting Movement, and heavily influenced by western philosophy, Li has undergone many breakthroughs in recent years, according to Song.

“Since the mid-90s, Li’s style has been influenced by scenes from daily life,” Song explains as he points to Li’s work. “His work has become more lively and infectious, and more closely attached to grass root experiences. His work is connected to his real life, and his life has become the subject of his work. And this perfect balance between his life and his work continuously provides him inspiration.”

By combining Song and Li’s work together, this creatively curated exhibition takes viewers to two opposite points on the spectrum of modern ink painting. It’s a testimony to Chang’s approach that her choice of artists for the exhibition provided a perfect dialogue between two of China’s most underrated talents. Those who were lucky enough to attend found the exhibition’s space to be one in which the humidity of the air and Art Basel’s swaggering grandeur could be replaced by something far more cool and charming.