“Alternative Histories”: Bingyi’s language of ink

by Dr Luise Guest 露易丝
translated by Yuan Yuzhou 翻译,原雨舟,南京大学艺术学院研究生

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
—Li Bai, Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain *

The first time I met Bingyi (冰逸), in 2013, she sent her driver to pick me up because, she said, I would never be able to find my way to her home and studio in the heart of Beijing’s old hutong alleyways. The following year when I tried to find it again, threading my way down narrow passageways whose grey walls and red doors began to look more and more the same, I realised she was right. At that time, Bingyi was living and working at the heart of the city’s central axis, close to the Forbidden City, in what had once been a Yuan Dynasty temple. When I stepped over the stone threshold from the courtyard, it was with a sense of leaving Beijing’s dust and grime, and its constant noise, far behind. Finches fluttered in tall birdcages and the porch was filled with Ficus trees, orchids and ferns growing in tall pots. Inside, all was serene; tea was poured at a long table and assistants unrolled enormous ink scrolls across the floor as Bingyi explained her curious journey towards a practice today that crosses multiple disciplines. Ranging from intimate fan paintings to monumental site-specific works in which ink is sprayed and splashed with tools engineered by Bingyi herself, she juxtaposes China’s long cultural and artistic history with a very contemporary twenty-first century sense of the perils of the Anthropocene. 

A true polymath, Bingyi is described by Ink Studio Gallery in Beijing as an “artist, architectural designer, curator, cultural critic, and social activist.” Her practice encompasses land and environmental art, site-specific architectural installation, musical and literary composition, ink painting, performance art, and filmmaking. She has published a treatise on the history and significance of shan shui painting and involved an entire community in her trilogy of films exploring the loss of Beijing’s hutong neighbourhoods. She cites recurring themes in her work as ecology, ruins, rebirth, and poetic imagination. 

Occupying a space that is both inside and outside China’s contemporary artworld, Bingyi very deliberately separates herself from an increasingly commercialised art scene in Beijing. She is immersed in Chinese history, philosophy and classical literature, and works at the cutting edge of an expanded field in which painting intersects with sculpture, architecture, fashion, film, new media, dance, and music to create immersive site-specific spectacles and intimate works of the most delicate and nuanced kind. 

On that initial studio visit we discussed her first ink painting, a work commissioned by art historian Wu Hung for the curved foyer of the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago. At the time Cascade (2010) was the largest ink painting ever made. Bingyi searched for a year to find a site suitable for both practical and poetically symbolic reasons, eventually deciding on a basketball court-sized space in the restored ancient village of Xiuli, in southern Anhui Province. Anhui is famous for its xuan paper artisans, and here Bingyi found experts who could make the large quantities of strong paper in enormous sheets that she needed. Working at night, with the paper illuminated by car headlights, Bingyi and her small team of assistants poured, dripped, and brushed ink onto the paper. Bingyi makes subtle, sometimes hidden, references in her work to classical Chinese literature, art, architecture or philosophy: Cascade is no exception, referencing a Buddhist temple in Beijing’s Summer Palace. Zhihuihai (The Sea of Wisdom) has similar proportions to the Chicago site. The work also refers to the Chinese five elements in nature – wood, fire, earth, metal and water, as well as to human and animal DNA. 

 Installed in the museum, Cascade resembles an inverted waterfall rushing upwards towards the distant ceiling. This idea of inversion recurs in Bingyi’s works – she once described her site-specific land art ink installations to me as “like Walter de Maria, inverted”.[1] It suggests the oscillating reciprocity of yin and yang – opposing cosmological forces that exist in a precarious balance and are capable of transformation, one becoming the other. Once in the museum the painting was further activated by an operatic performance with music, choreography and costumes designed by the artist.

It was at this first meeting that Bingyi described herself as a member of a “postmodern literati”. Over the years since, and our subsequent conversations, I became more and more interested in this self-identification with the scholarly élite of imperial China, the wenren, who were not inclined to welcome women into their “elegant gatherings” (yaji).[2] Women were not eligible to sit for the Imperial Examinations from which the ranks of the scholar bureaucrats were drawn, and the place of women in Confucian orthodoxy was confined to the interior, private world of the family. Women were known as “inside people” (neiren) in contrast to the role of men in the external world.[3] So, Bingyi’s self-insertion into a modern-day version of enclaves and cultural practices from which women were almost entirely excluded reveals a paradoxical mixture of nostalgia with a subversive (if unstated) feminist challenge to this masculinist history. But her work is irrevocably tied to Chinese history, as both a homage and an (undeclared) critique. Art historian Wu Hung suggested that artists such as Bingyi were engaged in a conversation with history, they were ‘distilling materiality’ and ‘translating visuality’; constructing a new genre of experimental ink (shiyan shuimo) or conceptual ink (guannian shuimo) that combined regionalism with contemporaneity.[4]

Bingyi’s monumental ink installations, and her smaller, more intimate ink paintings on xuan paper, create a dialogue with histories of ink painting in China. In our most recent conversation, coinciding with Asia Art Week in New York,[5]Bingyi told me about her new work, in which she riffs on Song and Yuan Dynasty painting and plays cleverly with the viewer’s sense of perception. At first seemingly beautiful examples of traditional ink painting, on closer inspection these works reveal a discomfiting push and pull between shan shui landscapes and a contemporary language of abstraction and pure form. Apparently expressive, spontaneous, sweeping marks of brush and ink suggest the recognisable: there are hints at the familiar idiom of Chinese landscape painting with its mist-wreathed mountain peaks, tumbling waterfalls, groves of bamboo and pine. Bingyi spent two years in the landscape of the Taihang Mountains on the Yellow River, a landscape famously painted by Song Dynasty masters Fan Kuan and Guo Xi. From a distance, Bingyi says, “it’s all serendipity, beautiful and peaceful, but when you come close, it’s chaos and entropy. It looks like a Song Dynasty painting but close up you might think, ‘what the hell is this, it looks like a woman’s body, trembling?’”.[6]

Bingyi now lives and works between Beijing and Los Angeles, which somehow seems an unlikely habitat for an artist who prefers to spend much of her time in the mountains. In this she is not unlike the literati scholars who sought solace from the intrigues and backstabbing of the imperial court by wandering in the mountains, painting and writing poetry. Thought to be the home of the Immortals. the significance of mountains cannot be overestimated in Chinese philosophy, painting and poetry. Bingyi says she spends half her life in the mountains, half in the temple: “yiban zai shan li, yiban zai simiao li”. While perhaps not literally true, she has completed numerous arduous journeys and immersed herself in remote wilderness areas in order to make site-specific land art ink paintings, ever since that first commission for Chicago. In nature, she experiences the sensation of being an insignificant part of the ecosystem:  “I could feel I was no different than a mosquito, I was no different than a toad. That’s eternity – you are so minimal, you are nothing. And that is the sublime.”[7] 

Bingyi, Eight Views of Bewilderment, 2021, ink on paper, 34×34cm (each album), image courtesy the artist+

It is not the European Romantic sublime that interests Bingyi, however, but a specifically Chinese notion informed by Buddhist and Daoist philosophy, and by her reading of Zhuangzi, Laozi and Chinese classical literature. But Bingyi is also interested in science and focused on how to avert the environmental catastrophe that threatens to overwhelm us. From geology and meteorology to cosmology, physics and arcane mathematics, she brings a wealth of esoteric knowledge and a passionate interest in the possibilities of painstaking scholarly inquiry to her work. Her frequent references to entropy in works such as Wanwu: Metamorphosis (2013) reveal her alarm at the impact of human beings on our planet and its fragile ecosystems. 

Wanwu: Metamorphosis was produced in situ at Mount Longhu in Jiangxi Province, a location chosen because it is considered one of the birthplaces of Daoism and the site of many important Daoist temples. The installation comprises six scrolls, each 2200 centimetres long, painted on handmade xuan paper. The title references the Buddhist/Daoist concept of the “ten thousand things”, meaning everything under heaven – everything in the universe that can be named. 

Bingyi’s decision to paint on location, on mountain roads, village basketball courts and in dry riverbeds and waterfalls means that her work is shaped by weather, biology and chemistry as much as by the aesthetic decisions she makes while applying ink to paper. She manages the interactions of ink and water with humidity, rain, the effects of wind, falling leaves, flying insects and sun and heat as well as changes in the ink’s viscosity. All these encounters between ink and the natural world are left as traces on the paper. Occasionally she has set fire to paintings and scattered their ashes over new works, so they are absorbed into the wet ink, which is poured, thrown, sprayed, dripped and splashed as well as brushed with various implements. The paper is stained, soaked, buckled. Pools and ripples of ink shade into subtle tones revealing the artist’s gestural movements.

A similarly ambitious project in 2018 took place at Mount Emei, the highest peak of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains, in Sichuan Province. Bingyi moved her studio to the mountain and conducted research into its geology and weather patterns before selecting the course of a dry waterfall as her site. An enormous length of white canvas was unrolled down the cascade, tumbling over rocks and boulders. Bingyi and her assistants poured ink mixed with alcohol vertically down the length of the canvas: a fine balance between pure chance and deliberate and careful judgements based on the artist’s knowledge of the environmental conditions and the chemistry of ink. The work, exhibited as three vast hanging scrolls, is like a contemporary response to Ma Yuan’s famous studies of water from the Southern Song Dynasty.[8]

Bingyi, Wanwu: Metamorphosis, 2013 (installation view) ink, xuan paper, 2200 x 280 cm x 6 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Ink Studio Beijing
Bingyi, Wanwu: Metamorphosis, 2013 (installation view) ink, xuan paper, 2200 x 280 cm x 6 pieces. Image courtesy the artist and Ink Studio Beijing

As a self-taught artist Bingyi is unusual in China today. The avant-garde artists of the first, post-Cultural Revolution generation such as Xu Bing, Yang Jiechang or Gu Wenda emerged from newly re-opened art academies with training in ink painting and calligraphy – or printmaking in the case of Xu Bing. Bingyi’s path was different. Having left China after high school for an American college education, she studied firstly at Mount Holyoke and then at Yale for graduate school , achieving her doctorate, a study of Han Dynasty art history and archaeology, from that prestigious institution. Perhaps this explains, in part, her identification with the literati – those highly-educated, cosmopolitan scholar bureaucrats of ancient China –writing poetry in their beautiful gardens or painting in the mountains as an escape from the secular, political world into nature and the spiritual.

This year, following two years of a global pandemic that saw previously well-travelled, transnational artists confined to their studios and of necessity reinventing themselves in isolation, Bingyi has completed an astonishing list of recent work. She exhibited the Taihang suite of paintings in New York; created a documentary about life in China during the year 2020; worked on her film trilogy, an allegory of contemporary China entitled “Ruins”,[9]and planned major installations to be shown in the United States. A prolific artist who works across disciplines at breakneck speed, she has also  invented a “fake” Chinese dynasty and its imperial documentation, architecture and artworks. The Lotus Dynasty is an imaginary successor to the Yuan Dynasty with an entire history that grew from the artist’s imagination. Drawing on her previous life as a scholar of the Han Dynasty, Bingyi has created archaeological records, imperial seals, and many more details of the entirely hypothetical Lotus imperial court – an alternative Chinese history. 

Bingyi’s work is more about the materiality – the sheer, visceral, liquid viscosity – of ink than it is about the subject matter of mountains and water. Wei Xing suggests that the subject of her paintings is ink and water, for it:

[…] carries no obvious evidence of brushwork, no traces of cunfa (the Chinese term for methods of painting line and texture, which has dominated the discourse of Chinese painting since the Song dynasty), and that Bingyi has no interest in building distance or space in the picture plane. The artist uses ink as a substance in tandem with chemical reactions in accordance to the movement of earth, wind, and moisture, but not as a practice that connects every mark to the history of Chinese painting.[10]

Bingyi, Taihang Rhapsody: Sound of the Empty Valley, 2021. Image courtesy the artist

And yet, like the imperial scholar painter in his study, Bingyi applies a highly refined, and often coded, visual language to express her deepest responses to events and issues of the contemporary world. She once told me, “It’s like I am composing a riddle. I am convinced that in a thousand years, people will dive into my paintings, and they will want to know what kind of a literary maze I was constructing.” And, in our most recent conversation she said, “To me, painting is the purest form of love. And creativity is love.”

Like her invention of the Lotus Dynasty and all its artistic, architectural and archaeological records, Bingyi is constructing an alternative history of ink throughout her practice – a literati history in which women artists were present after all. “I know that no time can limit me,” she says. “I know that time is an illusion.” In a world of conflict and division Bingyi asks, “How do we make painting relevant today? And how do we make it relevant to shan shui? I think this is an urgent question.”[11]

About the artist:

Born in 1975 in Beijing, Bingyi’s training as an art historian informs her painting practice. Her doctoral dissertation at Yale was based on her study of the Han Dynasty, and her deep knowledge of Chinese art and literature underpins every aspect of her practice. Bingyi’s paintings and installations have been shown in the United States, Korea, Spain, Belgium, Canada as well as in group and solo exhibitions in Greater China.  Her work is held in public and private collections in China, the USA, Spain and Australia. Bingyi currently lives and works between Beijing and Los Angeles. Artist’s website: http://www.bingyi.info/

About the author: 

Luise Guest is an independent writer, academic and curator based in Sydney. Her writing about Chinese contemporary art has been published in print and online journals including the Journal of Chinese Contemporary Art, the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, Yishu Journal, Australasian Art Monthly, Artist Profile, Randian, the 4A Papers and CoBo Social. Her book, “Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China” was published by Piper Press (Sydney) in 2016. Her doctoral research examined women artists working with ink through lenses of gender and Chineseness. Bingyi was the focus of a Case Study in her dissertation. Author’s website: www.luiseguest.com.au

* Li Bai (701–762 CE), “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” translated by Sam Hamill from Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Copyright © 2000 by Sam Hamill.

[1] Excerpted from a previous conversation between Bingyi and the author that took place in Beijing in 2013, during the research for a book published in 2016, “Half the Sky: Conversations with Women Artists in China” (Sydney: Piper Press)

[2] In pre-modern Chinese literati culture, intellectual and artistic pursuits were shared activities of a scholarly cultured class of bureaucrats. The ‘wenren’ gathered for yaji or “elegant gatherings” in their walled gardens to read and write poetry and to appreciate ink paintings and calligraphy. In recent years the concept has been revived. Qiu Zhijie, speaking of his curation of the China Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, suggested that he was thinking of a utopian form of ‘interactive’ and intergenerational literati gathering. He said “…yaji is the most appropriate vehicle for the creation, appreciation and understanding of Chinese art … in this ancient vision of utopia, artists do not work in solitude: rather, their creations are always … an act of creation in a communal context’ (Danzker, 2017). Whether the “elegant gathering” takes place in the traditional Chinese garden, in a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, or even online, the basis of art production is embedded within social relationships and interactions, and a focus upon a continuing tradition. 

[3] The Qing Dynasty anarcho-feminist writer and activist He-Yin Zhen, translated into English and annotated in 2013 by Liu, Karl and Ko, argued that language itself revealed how women were confined and subordinated in imperial China. In her radical 1907 treatise “On the Revenge of Women” He-Yin lay the blame at the feet of classical scholarship: “Han Confucian scholars stated flatly, “Women have no business in the outer sphere.’”

[4] Wu Hung 2012. “Negotiating with tradition in contemporary Chinese art: Three”, Hong Kong: M+ [Online] https:www.mplusmatters.hk/inkart/paper_topic10.php?l=en 

[5] Bingyi was in New York in March 2022 for an exhibition of her work, “Bingyi: Land of Immortals” sponsored by Ink Studio Beijing at Joan B Mirviss LTD during Asia Week 

[6] Bingyi in conversation with the author, March 2022

[7] Bingyi, in conversation with the author, October 2013

[8] See information about Song Dynasty painter Ma Yuan’s studies of water from the National Palace Museum https://en.dpm.org.cn/collections/collections/2011-03-31/425.html

[9] See a trailer for Bingyi’s film “Ruins” on the Ink Studio website: https://www.inkstudio.com.cn/video/37/

[10] Wei, Xing. 2011. “The Metamorphosis of Water – Bingyi’s Cascade”. Yishu Vol 10 (4) pp. 67–70.

[11] Bingyi, in a video produced by Ink Studio Gallery for Emei Waterfall (2014). The video is available at https://www.inkstudio.com.cn/video/36-bingyi-emei-waterfall/ and includes drone footage of this site-specific form of land art intersecting with ink painting.

Ran Dian 燃点

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