Ink-wash artist Wu Yiming: Every experimental practice leads to a lonely path

Shanghai-born Wu Yiming was one of the pioneers in changing conventional thinking about ink-wash and pushing its boundaries.
Ti Gong

Wu Yiming

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For most people, traditional ink-wash paintings are stereotypical scenes of mountains, lakes, flowers and birds.

Shanghai-born Wu Yiming was one of the pioneers in changing conventional thinking about ink-wash and pushing its boundaries.

Unlike his peers, Wu didn’t change the traditional arrangement of the tableau of ink-wash paintings that has been followed for centuries, but broke the rules of the painting techniques taught by academic schools and drew inspiration from Western painting such as realism, abstractionism and expressionism.

In his eyes, ink-wash on rice paper is only a medium to convey what he wants to express. Apart from ink and wash he uses water color and acrylic paint together in layers.

His depiction of Chinese maids and officials aroused controversy because they have no facial features, which was very rare. Such controversy led to some people expelling him from ink-wash painting circles.

“I knew there must be some negative voices at the beginning, because they were not the familiar images that were pleasing to the eyes,” he said. 

“But I didn’t care, because at least I was not repeating. And it reflects my new thoughts and ideas at the present era.”

Ti Gong

“Space with Building” (1997), ink & color on paper

Q: As one of the pioneers of experimental ink-wash paintings, did you feel you would be following a lonely path? Did you ever hesitate?

A: Every experimental practice leads to a lonely path, sometimes for someone’s entire life. Van Gogh, for example, whose achievements were only recognized after his death. But today we are surrounded by an explosion of information, and I think that a genius like Van Gogh could never be neglected. The risk in experiment lies in poor results, but sometimes you never know whether it might bring you to another “brighter world.”

Q: What was your life like from 1995 to 2000?

A: I was a teacher during that period, and I rented a studio in the Shanghai suburbs. At that time, there were some people who shared the same ideals and would create their artworks in a farmer’s house they could rent cheaply.

Q: At that time, contemporary art was not in the mainstream. How did you get your art known?

A: Yes, only a few friends in the art community knew that I was doing experimental ink-wash paintings. It was not until 1997 when I met Lorenz (Helbling) at ShanghART that I began to display my artworks at the Portman Hotel. At that time, there was no professional contemporary art gallery in the city, let alone any trade in the paintings. 

Q: Can you describe the contemporary art scene then in three words?

A: Risky, ideal and pure.

Q: If you could turn the clock back two decades, what would you tell yourself? 

A: It is not enough to have passion. You might learn more things with an open attitude.

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