The ancient Chinese got their ink from smoky oil lamps, brushing away deposited soot and mixing it into a paste that hardened into “stones”. This black was pure, indelible and did not fade, and they fell in love with it. By adjusting the ink’s dilution and the density of their brushstrokes, painters could create a multitude of shades, from deepest blue-black to palest dove grey. Black had always been the colour of mystery, night, the void. The better the artists got to know black ink, the more superficial, even gaudy, colour seemed. As the Daoist philosopher Laozi declared: “Colours cause the eye to go blind.” Black—utterly simple yet infinitely subtle—allowed one to see the truth.
Chinese artists no longer live in a simple, natural, orderly world. They get their blacks not just from ink stones but from printer cartridges, spray cans, propane torches, X-ray film, newsprint, polyester, computer bits and steel. And they use blacks to convey realities the classical masters never dreamed of: oil spills, air pollution, megacities, mass production and political machinations. The artists in this show don’t shun light or colour, but in using them they follow Laozi’s advice: “Know the white, but hold to the black.” Containing more than ever, the dark also conceals more than ever. And it matters more than ever that we see.
Among the highlights of this absorbing show:
- Grinding (detail pictured), Yang Mushi’s gorgeously polished, perfectly pointless anti-landscape
- Billennium Waves, an endless reflection on the ocean by Tang Nannan
- Sky 2, in which Lin Yan turns traditional ink and paper into a symbol of urban dystopia
- Cosmic Dance—Gravity, metal artist Nick Dong’s levitating ode to the unexplainable
- Feng Mengbo’s mesmerising calligraphic shoot-em-up video game, Not Too Late
- Searching II, a hidden-image tapestry by Wen-Ying Huang.
The Dark Matters runs until July 30. White Rabbit is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.