From revolution to evolution: Yang Jiechang’s contemporary Chinese ink art – Artshare video interview

How growing up during one of the most turbulent centuries in China’s history has influenced Yang Jiechang’s art practice.

In a five-minute-long video interview produced by Artshare and shot in Yang Jiechang’s Paris studio, the artist discusses his use of traditional Chinese art techniques in contemporary art and provides some advice for contemporary artists.

Yang Jiechang, 'Je ne veux pas travailler' (Tale of the 11th Day Series), 2012, ink and mineral colors on silk, mounted on canvas, 140 x 188 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

Yang Jiechang, ‘Je ne veux pas travailler’ (Tale of the 11th Day Series), 2012, ink and mineral colors on silk, mounted on canvas, 140 x 188 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

Yang was a child during the Cultural Revolution in China, a university student during the reform of the late 1970s and a professional artist during the repression of the late 1980s. In 1989, he moved to Europe. All these events have influenced and challenged Yang; they have contributed to making him, as stated by the critic Hou Hanru, “probably the most unpredictable and chaotic artist in his generation.”

Artshare.com Conversation Series: Yang Jiechang from artshare.com on Vimeo.

Yang Jiechang’s art roots

Born in Foshan, Guangdong province, in 1956, Yang started learning traditional art at the height of Cultural Revolution. “We were in the Grade 5 of our primary school, but then classes got suspended because of the Revolution,” he says. “At that time we figured we could go on the street to copy big character posters, and this required good calligraphy skills,” states in the Artshare interview.

Yang Jiechang, '100 Layers of Ink/1', 1993, ink on Xuan paper and gauze, framed, 108 x 110 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

Yang Jiechang, ’100 Layers of Ink/1′, 1993, ink on Xuan paper and gauze, framed, 108 x 110 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

Although he was still very young, Yang Jiechang understood that this system limited his learning. He decided to remedy the situation by studying one of the only traditional art forms that people were still allowed to practice: calligraphy. In 1969, Yang’s father, the leader of the army in the city in which they lived, sent him to classes taught by master calligrapher Lin Junxuan. From 1974 to 1978, Yang studied paper mounting, folk art, calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting at the Foshan Folk Art Institute, in Foshan, Canton. From 1978 to 1982, the artist studied traditional Chinese painting at the Guangdong Fine Arts Academy of Canton.

Reinventing Chinese ink

Yang Jiechang uses many different mediums, from painting and sculpture to installation and performance, all of which he considers interconnected. However, for the majority of his practice he has focused on calligraphy and ink painting. “I have always used ink brushes to create my art. I first picked up the ink brush at three, and it has been 54 years since. Therefore, I become very used to this medium,” he explains.

Yang Jiechang, 'Wie im Himmel so auf Erden' (Himmel), 2014, ink and acrylic on paper, mounted on canvas, 227 x 488 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

Yang Jiechang, ‘Wie im Himmel so auf Erden’ (Himmel), 2014, ink and acrylic on paper, mounted on canvas, 227 x 488 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

He chooses problematic subject matters and is constantly evolving the tradition: “Using ink brushes is very special but many fail to acknowledge that. They only see drawing with ink brushes as a Chinese tradition. Actually there is more to it,” he notes. This idea is echoed by curator and art historian Martina Koeppel-Yang in an essay on the artist, “In his oeuvre, Chinese tradition and contemporary art form a stirring coalition, and how to implant Chinese traditional painting, traditional Chinese aesthetics and thought into a contemporary context is one of his main concerns.”

The contemporary artist’s role

According to Yang, it takes “a century to determine whether one is a good artist.” As he notes in the Artshare video: “Whether it was in the past or today’s world, it is not easy to be an artist. Back then art was always created to serve other purposes. […] Now people have accepted contemporary art, it has got even more difficult because apart from challenging the norms, there is a problem of art language.” An artist should be challenging him or herself and working to improve society through their art practice, he says.

Yang Jiechang, 'Wie im Himmel so auf Erden' (Erde), 2014, ink and acrylic on paper, mounted on canvas, 227 x 488 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

Yang Jiechang, ‘Wie im Himmel so auf Erden’ (Erde), 2014, ink and acrylic on paper, mounted on canvas, 227 x 488 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

To achieve this goal, he or she should first be honest and focus on inner rather than outside drives and influences:

Nowadays, everyone focuses on short term results, such as auction records in the last few years […] According to my experience, it is about cultivating your artistic expression, then eventually realising it on your works […] You shouldn’t put up an exhibition casually. More important, you shouldn’t create works just to meet market demands.

As demonstrated by the exhibition “Ink Art: Past and Present in Contemporary China“, which finished at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on 6 April 2014 (and numerous other exhibitions and auctions of contemporary Chinese ink held around the world in recent years), contemporary ink painting is garnering increasing attention both in the China region and internationally.

Yang Jiechang, 'Crying Landscapes - No Plane Hit the Pentagon', 2003, tryptich: ink and color on paper, 300 x 500 cm. In "Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China" at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA).

Yang Jiechang, ‘Crying Landscapes – No Plane Hit the Pentagon’, 2003, tryptich: ink and color on paper, 300 x 500 cm. In “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA).

“As Chinese artists have become fully conversant with global art trends, some have demonstrated a desire to explore and reinvigorate the cultural memories and heritage that continues to define China and its people,” Maxwell K. Hearn, curator of “Ink Art: Past and Present in Contemporary China”, writes in the introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition.

So through his commitment to a traditional yet evolving medium, Yang Jiechang’s belief that an artist should help to improve the society may be becoming reality.

More on Yang Jiechang

From 1984 to 1986, Yang Jiechang studied Taoism with Master Huangtao at Mount Luofu and Zen Buddhism at Guangxiao Temple, both located in Canton. In 1989, Yang’s large monochrome ink paintings were included in the Paris exhibition “Magicians of the Earth”. This exhibition included one hundred artists from around the world in an effort to “facilitate a change starts de-centering notions of an artistic center(s) within the Western tradition of art practice.”

Yang Jiechang, 'Stranger than Paradise' (detail), 2010-2011, ink and mineral colors on silk mounted on canvas, each panel 285 x 145 cm. In "The World Belongs to You" at Palazzo Grassi (Venice, Italy).

Yang Jiechang, ‘Stranger than Paradise’ (detail), 2010-2011, ink and mineral colours on silk mounted on canvas, each panel 285 x 145 cm. In “The World Belongs to You” at Palazzo Grassi (Venice, Italy).

He moved to France the same year, after the Tiananmen Square protests. He has participated in international exchange programmes: in 2003, he completed a residency at the Kunstwerke in Berlin and in 2005 and 2008 he was a visiting artist and a visiting professor, respectively, at Stanford University.

His works have been included in numerous important exhibitions and art events including:

  • “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2013-14)
  • “The World Belongs to You” (Palazzo Grassi, Fondation Francois Pinault, Venice, 2011)
  • Liverpool Biennial (2009)
  • Istanbul Biennial (2007)
  • 50th Venice Biennial (2003)
  • “Pause” (Gwangju Biennial, Korea, 2002)
  • “Silent Energy” (MoMA, Oxford, 1993)
  • Shanghai Biennial (1998, 2012)
  • Shenzhen International Ink Biennial (1989, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006)
  • “China/Avant-garde” (National Art Gallery, Beijing, 1989)
  • “Magicians of the Earth” (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1989)
Yang Jiechang, 'Arc de Triomphe (weiss), 1914-2014', 2014, ink and acrylic on canvas, mounted on canvas, 152 x 191 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

Yang Jiechang, ‘Arc de Triomphe (weiss), 1914-2014′, 2014, ink and acrylic on canvas, mounted on canvas, 152 x 191 cm. ARNDT Gallery (Berlin, Germany). Image courtesy the artist and ARNDT Berlin.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Viola Morisi

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, contemporary ink, video interviews with artists

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