Curator inks link to ancient past and present

Rachel Lu
To stage an exhibition takes a lot of talent as well as patience. For curator Tang Liqing, it is much like a "grinding experience" using a new ink stick.
Rachel Lu
Curator inks link to ancient past and present
Tan Weiyun / SHINE

The making of ink sticks at a workshop of Shexian Laohukaiwen Ink Factory in Anhui Province

To stage an exhibition takes a lot of talent as well as patience. For Tang Liqing, curator of the Huizhou Ink Stick exhibition at the Xuhui Art Museum, it is much like a “grinding experience” using a new ink stick.

The saying “Not the person who grinds the ink, but the ink that grinds the person,” is thus written on the back wall of the museum as an introductory sentence.

The exhibit is part of curator Tang Liqing’s personal reflection on the idiom she wrote on the museum wall and its relation to craft, art and culture.

“History is insignificant if it does not resonate with the present,” said the 34-year-old. “Now we must stop to think, does our motivation for progress come from a vision for the future? Or does it come from the profound history that preceded us?”

Immersed within ink sticks, the audience must search for the answer themselves. And the initial journey begins with the art lover’s visceral experience of visiting the museum.

Tang revealed the exhibition is an interaction with artifacts, and an emotional and spiritual bridge between the past and present.

Curator inks link to ancient past and present
Ti Gong

Curator Tang Liqing

“First and foremost, our audience should have a raised awareness that they are in a space of respect, and have a humble attitude to think deeply,” Tang said.

The Chinese audience appears numbed to its own traditional culture, but Tang hopes to change that.

“There is immense beauty in our ancestry and we want our audience to feel that,” she said.

With these notions in mind, the curator carefully considered every lighting, font, and placement of artifacts.

The visitor is then led through an arduous process of ink stick making. An animation is displayed on the wall to demonstrate the long, monotonous steps as recorded by historical documents. Beginning with burning pine wood and animal oil, to adding precious herbs, the process takes years.

After watching a film, many visitors gasped at the difficulty behind each ink stick. However, Tang wanted the audience to realize that, although this complicated craft has now dwindled to near extinction, its spirit for perfection in ink is why recorded ink writing lasted so long.

“Our ancestors were very particular about ink for a reason; so many years later, we can open these documents and still vividly read what they had written,” Tang said.

Curator inks link to ancient past and present
Courtesy of Xuhui Art Museum

Museum staff imitate the filtering process illustrated in an ancient book (right) about ink-making in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Arguably, the display’s highlight is 40 historical ink sticks made from original molds that date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The series of ink sticks made at the Shanghai Ink Factory in 1986 were designed by Qing Dynasty artists, based on 40 favorite scenic spots in the Forbidden City, the Royal Garden complex and the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.

The imperial residence and studies of Qing emperors were incorporated into miniature paintings on ink sticks.

For example, there are some carved drawings inside the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan Garden. And since these spaces were forbidden to commoners, was it possible a craftsman sneaked in to get a few glimpses of the palace?

Tang found this story hard to believe because not even the emperor’s most trusted guards were allowed inside. How was it possible for a lowly craftsman to sneak in?

Tang believes there is a simple explanation.

“The emperors would give designs to a craftsman to make, like a particular order,” Tang said.

As for the craftsman’s tale, Tang shrugged it off as a ruse and a form of advertisement to create a backstory for a craftsman to sell his ink sticks.

“We see this around us every day, don’t we?” Tang said.

The exhibition has also borrowed a drawing by artist Huang Binhong (1865-1955).

Tang was adamant to procure an original drawing because of its stunning ink marks to present the expressive qualities and malleable nature of ink.

Huang was an artist who lived in China prior to it opening up to the global market. He insisted he must master Chinese art before admiring his Western counterparts’ skills and advancements.

The exhibition also reveals a global interest in Chinese ink sticks, showing ones that were requested by Japanese and English aristocrats.

“We are tracing back from the craft of ink sticks to its market and then to ancient literates and artists. From my research I felt its connection to me, and I carry that to the audience,” Tang said after visiting Anhui, home to Huizhou ink sticks.

The history piqued Tang’s interest, and its relevance to the present altered her pursuit for the future.

“Our motivation comes from behind us. Why don’t we look at the origin and see our unique inheritance? As we expand globally, let’s first search within ourselves,” said Tang.

The exhibition represented a process of constant cultural refinement, hence, the ink that grinds the person.

Exhibition info

Date: Through September 22, 9am-5pm
Venue: Xuhui Art Museum
Address: 1413 Huaihai Rd M.

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