April 21-23, 2017
Joseph Regenstein Library & Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago

The symposium Writing and Picturing in Post-1945 Asian Art is presented by the Center for the Art of East Asia and Center for East Asian Studies, both at the University of Chicago, and PoNJA-GenKon.

Organizers’ Statement

Writing (書) and picturing (画) are two fundamental human activities. In East Asia, the two have traditionally been entwined with ink and brush playing central roles. In other areas of the world, their relationship was different. In the West, writing and picturing were considered separate, while in the faith of Islam, picturing was banned as sacrilegious, giving writing a supreme status.

In postwar art, however, these traditional modes of writing and picturing began to transform, in part inspired, facilitated, and accelerated by an increasing degree of transnational exchanges. The first significant wave of such transformation was seen in the 1950s and 1960s when gestural abstraction occasioned the first moment of international contemporaneity in the wider areas that went beyond the established modernist centers of Euro-America. Most significantly, in Japan, the notion of avant-garde calligraphy was formulated by Bokujin-kai (Ink People Society) that made an active effort to expand its practice globally as it saw its counterparts in Euro-American action painters. In Asia, parallel innovations in calligraphy can be found in Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example.

The second wave has been observed in the recent decades as contemporary art becomes the norm of new global art practices. The most visible in this phenomenon are Chinese ink art and calligraphic abstraction devised by South Asian and Middle Eastern artists emerging from their Islamic traditions. Not only have they attracted museological attention, as demonstrated by Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2010–11) and Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013–14); they have received commercial interests in the art market, as exemplified by the fall 2014 sales that Christie’s in New York assembled works under the title Chinese Contemporary Ink.

In view of this recent development, the symposium Writing and Picturing proposes to survey the state of scholarship and discuss the future directions in both museological and art-historical studies. The symposium organizers aspire to bridge the established studies of modernist art history and the newly evolving contemporary art history while casting a wider geographical net beyond East Asia.

The symposium title refers to the East Asian coupling of writing and picturing (calligraphy and painting), while its subtitle indicates our intention to reexamine the cross-medial practices including their materials and tools, which have been thoroughly redefined and expanded from the ancient pair of “ink” and “brush.” Today, ink can be spray paint, digital pixels, video imagery, or even performative gestures, while brush to apply them encompasses spray cans, computer software, the camera, the artist’s body, or any other tools deployed by contemporary artists.

By providing a platform for presentations of new researches on various practices that merge writing and picturing in postwar and contemporary art, the organizers aim to create a watershed moment for culturally dynamic rethinking of those fundamental human acts.