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A Kinship of Artist and Scientist

Leonardo would not have recognized our contemporary opposition of art and science. In fact, our current uses of these words would puzzle him. In the unity of knowledge sought in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when Latin was still a living language, ars meant ‘technique or practice’, while scientia meant ‘knowledge or theory’, and Leonardo was certain no reliable model of nature could contain one without the other.— “Leonardo’s vision of flow visualization,” by M. Gharib, D. Kremers, M.M. Koochesfahani, and M. Kemp.

The internationally recognized abstract paintings of Ming Ren and the power of digital technology—specifically, Computational Fluid Dynamics, developed by Dr, Hansong Zhang—come together in Interactive Ink, an immersive experience that puts viewers inside projections of the hypnotically changing patterns in Ren’s paintings. Cameras and computers interpret the movements of viewer, in effect, enlisting them as participants and co-creators. The ancient Chinese concept of qi, or life force, or energy, is thus given tangible form, not with calligraphic brushwork, but electronically, with waves of glowing, pulsating pixels. The interplay between Ren’s contemporary abstraction updating the 1500-year Chinese landscape painting tradition, and Zhang’s interactive computer mutations creates collaborative artworks linking the sixth and twenty-first centuries artistically.

Two generations ago, the formalist theory promulgated by critic Clement Greenberg held that all progress in painting derived from talented individuals refining the medium and materials of the discipline—stripping away realism, narrative, etc. A generation ago, that dogmatic approach was rejected, replaced by its antithesis, the ‘postmodern’ worldview that art was not only universal and transcendent, but,. Since it embodied the values of elites, it was not to be revered, but, rather ‘unpacked’ and dissected; art audiences would be, in effect, cured of art by learning to examine it through the lens of contemporary sociopolitical thought.

Both the modernist and postmodernist creation myths were and are incomplete descriptions of the artistic impulse. At its best, art does manage to achieve universality and even timelessness, but through specificity and commitment: through engagement with tradition and one’s time, rather than detachment.  It is a dialogue between generations and cultures, across time and space. To reduce art to a program is inimical to the creative drive that defines the human species, embodied equally in Ren’s paintings and Zhang’s algorithms. Interactive Ink proves that art and science are complementary adventures of the intellect and the imagination, parallel lines that unexpectedly converge, producing rich results not achievable separately.

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The former Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the National Gallery of Art, Dr. Roger Mandle, wrote, in 2012:

Ming Ren’s work has deep roots in Chinese ink and brush painting. His earlier work more literally composes landscapes that reflect ancient Chinese forms and traditions from the seeming random pouring and washings of his pigments. In these more recent works, Ren achieves an almost geologic sensibility through the pouring of his paints, twisting of the wet Shuan papers and the chance movement and absorption of the colors in them. The painted surfaces seem almost like marble, gemstones, quartz and other hard surfaced materials…. Ren challenges [traditionalist] rigor by expanding the potential of the medium through his own careful experimentation.

Dr. Jay Xu, Director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, similarly praises the poetic experimentalism of Ren’s “controlled freedom”:

…we can detect at least three subjects that Ming Ren engages in his art: space (cosmology), time (linear continuum) and sound (music). His work seems able to express a sense of temporal immediacy, as if at a moment the starry light breaks through the opacity and paints the world with delight, energy and colors, as if the splashed and lines are melodic notes and xylophonic tunes gushing forth tone poems. In this way, Ming Ren’s paintings are both abstract and narrative, and marked with an interaction between shapes (space) and tonal appearance (time and sound).

Mandle, in an earlier essay, from 2006, linked Ren to the poetic literati paintings of the Song and Yuan dynasties, improvisations on poetry, calligraphy depicting the vastness and beauty, both transient and enduring, of nature:

Ming Ren’s painting goes beyond the uttered word or brushstroke to portray the poetic qualities of nature in an extraordinarily broad manner. Michael Sullivan [the art historian, formerly at Stanford] has written that Su Tung-p’o [the eleventh-century painter and scholar] and his colleagues were revolutionaries whose idea was “that the purpose of painting…was not to depict things…but to express the painter’s own feelings.” Ming Ren similarly creates fields of imagination in which his pigments migrate, separate and merge to create compositions whose randomness establishes organic parallels to observed nature. Ming Ren’s landscapes are assumed by the viewer rather than created as such, in a partnership between artist and his audience not unlike that of [painter] Su Tung-p’o and [poet] Mo-chieh. Ming Ren’s spare work entreats the viewer to speculate about the scale, point of view and direction of his paintings. He projects moods as visual ideas through his poured and splattered paint, and through his strict economies of medium and white space within the field of his painting.

If the processes of nature are represented in traditional Chinese paintings by line, texture and tone, Ren’s paintings achieve similar effect abstractly, through his mastery of Abstract Expressionist techniques like dripping, spattering and spraying. Hansong Zhang’s digital fluid dynamics, channeling viewers’ movements and melding them with Ren’s organic patterns in real time, take painting, a static art form which has always had to suggest movement through metaphor, into the realm of performance, making the viewers co-creators of the work. Zhang:

The observer’s gestures and movement are captured by sensors that monitor the space, and used as energy sources inside a virtual ink-and-water mixtures that exists only within the computer. Once energized by gestures, turbulence on the fields propagates and evolves, based on vector-field differential equations, the mathematical descriptions of why and how fluids move as gracefully as they do—that cause movements of ink particles in the fluid. In other words, the observers inject their own energy to participate in the creation and evolution of new ink patterns and motions…. The combination of artistic sensitivity to forms and scientific insight on mechanisms is particularly appropriate because ink in fluids has been such a classical and persistent subject matter for both artists and scientists.

The digital animation of Ren’s paintings might seem unnecessary since they are already skilled, compelling metaphors for metamorphosis and change. However, just as the literati painters of a thousand years ago rejected strict realism in favor of a more imaginative, subjective style, and western artists abandoned realism a century ago for similar reasons, the hybrid medium of ‘living’ paintings powered by viewer energy strikes contemporary viewers as compelling and fascinating —a window into Ren’s micro-macro worlds of mystery and transcendence. —DeWitt Cheng, art curator and critic


Ming Ren

Born in 1956 in Hangzhou, China and trained at the prestigious China Academy of Art, Ming Ren has been experimenting with and exploring abstract expressionism in his unique ink painting for the past two decades. Ren’s paintings have been extensively exhibited internationally at museums and galleries. They have been collected by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum in Beijing, the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, Artist Gallery, and the Silk Road Project (Yo-Yo Ma’s performance group), the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in China. In 2003, Ren received the Gold Medal Award at the Florence Biennial International Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Italy. Ren has been an educator and promoter of Chinese art in the US and China since 1988, when he was invited to be a guest professor at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In addition, Ren teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Central Academy of Fine Arts and Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in China for the past thirty years. Recently he was appointed as Director of International Graduate Program at China Academy of Art, the top art school in China.

Hansong Zhang

Hansong Zhang, Ph.D., is a scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur. He is currently Co-Founder and Vice President of Engineering at Wearality Corporation, a leading startup in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technology, based in Silicon Valley. Previously, Zhang’s consulting firm advised some of the largest technology companies in the U.S., including Google, Microsoft, Intel, and AMD. Zhang has also worked in technical leadership positions at Silicon Graphics, focusing on supercomputing technologies for the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations (NASA). In the late 1990s, Zhang designed and built software that powered Google Earth, as well as many flight training programs in the U.S. Zhang was VP of Technology at Roblox Corporation (roblox.com), producer of a children-oriented MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game that surpassed Disney as the favorite website for children.. Zhang received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studying under Turing Award winner Fred Brooks. He specializes in visual computing, a discipline that which combines computer graphics, computer vision, and computational photography. In his spare time, Zhang enjoys pursuing interests in art, philosophy, and nature.

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About Interactive Ink

This new art installation combines art and high technology to mark the first time in the art circle when the audience have a deeply meaningful interactive relationship with the work of an renowned artist Ming Ren. Dr. Hansong Zhang,  a scientist and engineer based in Silicon Valley, created latest visual computing technologies to make the interactivity and re-creation possible. (The interactivity and re-creation of art are only made possible by latest computing technologies from the Silicon Valley). Advanced technology helps break barriers between the artist and the audience, and bring a twenty-first century reincarnation to a classical art form. The (Our) breakthrough is a result of inventions by both the artist and the scientist involved in this project. In front of this new art, the visitor is no longer a viewer only but a participant in re-creating art.

The behavior of ink in fluids a fascinating subject for both artists and scientists. The gracefulness of ink flow, its diffusion and distribution, have been masterfully harnessed in the works of prominent artist Ming Ren. Such flow has also been extensively studied by scientists dating back to the 1800s. The studies form the foundations of fluid mechanics and in its modern form, Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD). The exponential increase in computing power that the world has experienced in the past 10 years, as predicted by Moore’s Law, has made it possible to conduct large-scale CFD simulations interactively, in real time. That is the technological driving force behind our Interactive Ink demonstration, in which Ming Ren’s ink paintings come alive to include the observer as an integral part of a creative experience. The observer’s gestures and movement are captured by sensors that monitor the space, and used as energy sources inside a virtual ink-and-water mixture that exists only inside the computer. Once energized by gestures, turbulence in the fluids propagates and evolves based on vector-field differential equations–the mathematical description of why and how fluids move as gracefully as they do–that cause movements of ink particles in the fluid. In other words, the observers inject their own energy to participate in the creation and evolution of new ink patterns and motion, based on original paintings by Ming (Mr.) Ren. Here, the combination of artistic sensitivity to forms and scientific insight on mechanisms is particularly appropriate because ink in fluids has been such a classical, and persistent, subject matter for both artists and scientists. It is only fitting, then, that we are able to bring both parties together with great pleasure and satisfaction.

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