Chinese Collectors Are Flocking to Contemporary Ink Art

  • Huang Zhiyang, Zoon-Beijing Bio: Spring No.1, 2013. Presentation at Ink Asia 2016 sponsored by INK studio, Beijing.

For more than two thousand years, ink has been a dominant medium in Chinese painting and calligraphy. It is also a medium widely used in art practices in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, India, Japan, Korea, and beyond. But today’s ink art is no longer confined to works on paper or subject matter indecipherable outside Asia—and collectors are taking notice.

Galleries and auction houses in Asia have been actively cultivating an audience for contemporary ink art in recent years. Sotheby’s Hong Kong has staged five dedicated sales in this category since 2013, while rival Christie’s launched a Chinese contemporary ink sale in November 2014. Ink Asia, a young boutique fair in Hong Kong dedicated to the medium, was launched last year and this past week hosted 50 exhibitors, including some top players from the region such as Pearl Lam Galleries, Hanart TZ Gallery, and Alisan Fine Arts.

“Contemporary ink art isn’t just about ink on paper but also works with a conceptual base,” explained Katherine Don, head of the contemporary ink art department at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, of developments in the medium. “These works are profoundly related to contemporary art and buyers from Asia and beyond are refreshed to see artworks that are truly unique to Asia.”

Take, for example, Taiwanese artist Tseng Ting-Yu’s work Dear (2016), which was on view with Taichung’s Da Xiang Art Space at Ink Asia. The video installation depicts a gun made of ink stick being pointed at the temple of a nearby man. Instead of bullets, pitch-black ink shoots from the gun, drips along the contour of the man’s solemn face, and down his bare shoulders. Two ink guns were on display on both sides of the video screen. Gallery director Chung Ching-Hsin said that Tseng’s work is representative of contemporary ink art’s increased focus on concept rather than craftsmanship. “It’s about subverting the traditional form of ink art,” she said.

Season Liao, a partner of Guangzhou-based Fei Gallery, said that these contemporary forms of “ink art make this medium easier for audiences who are used to Western aesthetics.” At Ink Asia, the gallery was hosting a solo presentation of young Chinese artist Lin Yusi, whose conceptual fable paintings embodied the traditional gongbi technique.

Recent auction sales have demonstrated strong market potential for contemporary ink art. In 2014, the inaugural Christie’s sale of Chinese contemporary ink fetched HK$60 million ($7.7 million). According to the house, this year’s decline to HK$46 million ($5.9 million) across both the spring and autumn sales was attributable to the current macroeconomic environment. Sotheby’s, on the other hand, saw a significant increase in annual total for the category, from HK$25 million ($3.2 million) in 2013 to this year’s HK$73 million ($9.4 million).

Don said that for Sotheby’s, growth in sales was brought on by a widening of the collector base for ink works around the globe. “There is an increasing number of collectors from not only China but internationally, with many of them being Asian diaspora,” she said.

Established names such as Lui Shou-KwanLiu Kuo-Sung, and Liu Dan are among the most sought-after names, and prices for their works have also seen a significant increase. Works by Lui, a key figure of the New Ink movement that took place in Hong Kong, were frequently sold for under HK$100,000 ($13,000) up until recently. But in the past few years, pieces have routinely soared above estimate, with Victoria harbour after rain (1965) selling for HK$4.3 million ($545,997) on an estimate of HK$400,000 – HK$600,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2013 and Sketch of Hong Kong - Aberdeen (1963) selling for HK$3.4 million ($438,127) on a HK$300,000 – 400,000 estimate at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2014.

Prices for Liu Kuo-Sung’s work have risen even higher. His ink work Scenery of Hong Kong (1987) fetched HK$16.8 million ($2.2 million), above its high estimate of HK$8 million, at a Christie’s Hong Kong sale in 2014, a world record for the Chinese master. The artist’s Blue Moon Landscape (1969, 1990) was the top lot at the Sotheby’s autumn contemporary ink sale this year, fetching an in-estimate HK$4.9 million ($625,641).

Galleries suggest that beyond these significant strides for the category’s market, there is more to be done to expand ink art’s reach outside of Asia. Da Xiang Art Space’s Chung said the 2013 ink art exhibition at the Met in New York helped bringing in a wealth of international collectors. But she, like Christie’s, cited macro forces at play in dampening overall reception. “Prices could have gone up further, but the economy hasn’t been doing well these past two years. And hence prices remain stagnant for these conceptual ink artworks,” she said.

“The future of contemporary ink art lies in whether we can find a place where Western and Eastern philosophies can meet,” said Henrietta Tsui of Hong Kong-based Galerie Ora-Ora, which showed artists including Huang Dan from China and Hung Keung from Hong Kong at Ink Asia. “With its long lineage in not just China but many parts of the world, ink is a universal visual language.”

Some dealers, like Beijing-based Ink Studio founding director Craig Yee, point to ink’s close relationship to the natural world as an important conceptual juncture for international collectors and curators. But, he further noted, that there remains a need to educate global audiences if they are to truly appreciate this unique art form.

Yee said that currently there are not enough curators who have the confidence to articulate the story of ink in the context of history and philosophy. However, there is room for significant change on the horizon. The M+ visual culture museum will prominently feature contemporary ink art when it opens in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District in 2019. This is a first but important step in radically changing the way ink art is appreciated.


—Vivienne Chow

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