During the recent pandemic, “trapped” in my apartment alone, I thought about the fragility of the societal order and the uncertainty of the future. As an art history student, I began to question how to narrate my culture’s art history and which historical frameworks might be used to understand and criticize the artists’ creations. The silver lining is that I suddenly found myself connecting with my ancestors’ paintings.

The literati painting of ancient China encodes implicitly the tendency for seclusion. For instance, Bada Shanren’s late work Landscape Album (1699) represents a reconciliation of his Ming imperial identity in dry brushstrokes and solitary illustrations. Bada’s tranquil and timeless nature reveals his religious belief in seeking the harmonious relationship between the self and the wilderness. By replacing the objective world with subjective expression, Bada reminds me that art, in the broadest sense, allows humans to find their equilibrium and freely define themselves on their own terms.

My recent identity crisis has led me to be deeply concerned about the self-affirmation of Chinese art’s modernity. Rethinking modernity means to reflect on the potential Western-centrism in our established view of art history. My proposition is to restore the historical process to modern Chinese art and its cultural construction, to free ourselves from the binary thinking of tradition and modernity, the periphery and the center, and to cultivate a narrative that reconceptualizes the past. Only a small part of Chinese art practice since 1900 can be incorporated into the narrative of modernism. Most of it falls into the category of “traditional.”

The contemporary artist Xu Bing’s work has rebooted my confidence. His Background Story: Landscape after Huang Gongwang (2019) incorporates traditional landscape painting within a more elaborately material artwork. The back of the artwork is composed of various waste, installed on the landscape. He juxtaposes illusion and reality, interior and exterior, ancient and modern. The artist applies a contemporary perspective to his approach to ancient Chinese art, extracting inspiration from his cultural inheritance and reconstructing it in a contemporary context.

The paths of art-historical interaction are similar to how epidemics spread. Viruses are part of the spread of human culture. Art history needs a new mode of thinking, which is multigenerational, cross-regional, and intersectional, tracing cross-cultural transmission of arts, technologies, and ideas.