Gao Shiming No Mountain Too High

2011-09-10 15:06

Gao Shiming

The error of contemporary landscape painting lies not only in the decline of painting as an art, but even more in the perishing of the landscape itself, and in the loss of what it means to experience it. The mission of landscape painting is to renew the spirit and courage of one’s fellow man and to extend anew the vitality of nature, absorbing the natural into its composition and expression. This mission, if carried out, is where the potential greatness of painting is found. It is also the underlying order at the heart of the entire Chinese painting tradition. Zhang Yanyuan, in “T’ang and Pre-T’ang Texts on Chinese Painting,” begins his work by shedding light on the purpose of painting: “to civilize and enlighten, support human relationships, improve the spirit of those who want, divine the subtle.” A thousand years down the road, Chinese painting has strayed far from these origins. Mao Yanshou, describing the paintings in the Emmanuel Temple, once wrote, “They illustrate the earth, giving birth to an order of nature.” Today, this is a job left to the National Geographic Channel. With sophisticated technology and huge capital, the latter has spawned an “objective” mode of visual perception. By way of observing and recording, it has made the world we live in determinate and exposed down to the tiniest hair. Investigation is the foundation of this process; it is a sort of visual ideology, rooted in empirical science, in the objectification of the world, in a technologizing posture. Today, the so-called “landscape” spirit refers to the world’s “landscape-ification.”

Rilke, in “Concerning Landscape,” speaks of the way in which “landscape art” has given rise to the slow “landscape-ification of the world.” He argues that landscape is “not a kind of impressionist painting; it is not an individual’s perspective on a few still lifes; it is the natural in the midst of being completed, it is the world in the midst of transformation. To people it must be the unfamiliar, a forest with no trace of tracks, an undiscovered island...we must see nature as an estranged thing, an isolated and ruthless thing, evolving entirely unto must be this way...In its sublime indifference, it must have an almost hostile overtone. Only after it is this strange to us can we then begin to approach its material elements with a new kind of interpretation.”

The natural world that landscape painters desire to portray is not like those landscapes of old, constituted as they were by varying strands of iconography; today, this would appear to be completely impossible to reproduce. Within the past century, the Chinese people’s view of nature has inevitably changed. It is a change that has to do with an issue central to China’s intellectual history. Chinese painting is modeled after nature; it heeds the principle “Model after nature, within it is the soul” However, the “nature” featured in this precept is entirely different from what we find in Bacon’s “On the Interpretation of Nature.” Nature is not limited to mountains and waters; nor is it a collection amounting to the whole of creation. Nature is the movement of the cosmos, the genesis of genesis; it is creation and change. Nature has “The Way” within it, and yet there is no way to define it. The process of modeling something after nature must therefore hinge on the whole of creation—the way it has come to be, and the way it continues to transform. Subsequently, the most important relationship that can exist between scholars and artists and the world that they face is not mimesis. Instead, it is inspiration. Inspiration is of the moment; it is the chance experience of keen interest and conviction, aroused by a living thing or a living scene. Inspiration is the basis of the relationship that one shares with the world—not the purely ontological world that empirical science wishes to observe, nor the entirely epistemological world that theorists would call a “cognitive object.” Rather, inspiration is the basis of the relationship between us and the absolute world, between us and nature. In moments of inspiration, the absolute world responds to feeling and immediately delivers, and all of creation holds us within it.

In the first essay ever to discuss landscape painting in China, Zong Bing clearly posed that painters “maintain The Way when reflecting upon the world, appreciate its objects with an open mind and a pure heart.” These words closely relate to the mystic saying that advises us to “come and go with the energy of this world.” The Zong Bing text goes further to say: “Sit and study the four famines; do not violate the integrity of God’s collection, face alone the desolate wild, and the blind, wooded Yun Lin forest. The sages reflect on dead dynasties, and ten thousand observations melt away their thoughts.” These words describe a process of art that comes out of “praising God”; they describe a process born out of the kind of mindset that only a landscape can inspire, out of the “rovings” (you) of the sages and the “joy” (le) of the senses. “You” and “le” exist on a separate plane of achievement, set completely apart from the kind of objectification that comes with observation and description. They do not demand what Shi Tao called “a draft made from the collection of a variety of existing things,” nor do they ask for the painstaking construction—from scratch—of an entirely new environment. Rather, they imply a kind of indescribable cooperation. In his discussion of Li Longmian’s “Mountain Villa” scroll, Su Dongpo said:

 “One inquired: Recluse Longmian’s work, “Mountain Villa,” is such that if those who saw his work were to later come upon the same mountain, they would have the faith to walk the path, to go the way themselves as if they had already seen this place in their dreams or in their past lives. He allows them to see the rocks and vegetation in the mountains, and not to ask but instead to know their names; to meet the nameless fishermen and to somehow recognize them. How could his memory be so strong, how did he not forget?

The Other replied: It is not so simple. A painter of the sun often is unsure of its shape, but could not forget the sun. One need not be nose-deep in drink to feel drunkenness, when walks in a dream, one need not be walking. The mysteries of nature in their entirety need not impose to be remembered. The recluse in the mountains did not remain as one thing, when he died his spirit mingled with ten thousand creatures, his knowledge went into the work of one hundred people. He possessed The Way and he had the craft. However if he possessed The Way but lacked the craft, he would be as a thing whose heart has a true form, though his hands may not have.”

As modernity progresses, whether from a visual or an ideological perspective, there occurs what scholars portray as the thorough disruption, even destruction, of the world of landscape. Landscape painting has long since lost the standard of creation advocated by Zong Bing and Su Dongpo. It has become a narrow theme, a trendy aesthetic, the commodification of ready-made history. And because of this, it has also lost any meaningful worldview. In this context, landscape has been cast into an intransitive state, sinking deeply into a crisis of its own existence and expression.

The landscapes of the ancients were often painted in order to serve as travel notes, as keepsakes for recollection. However, as Su Dongpo suggested, the power to recollect is not rooted in the ability to engage in rote memorization. Landscape paintings are a kind of “developed coincidence”; they welcome the contour of mountains and rivers into the picture, they allow the viewer the sensation of being personally on site. There is a “response to the feeling of God” shared between the soul of the observer and the heart of the landscape.

The joys and wanderings of the ancients are all present within the indescribable cooperation that takes place between the landscape and the painting scroll. Zong Bing’s so called “praise to God” comes from the state of mind induced by “rolling the picture to hide what lies ahead.” In the “History of the Song Dynasty,” Zong Bing is recorded lamenting, “I have long attended to sickness, I have struggled all over to see the names of the mountains, I ought to clear my view of The Way, and stop to rest, by traveling,” and therefore, “all those who travel the mortal world, all the homes on every map, call out to the people: ‘Act with joy, order the crowds to echo through all of the mountains.’” The words of Zong Bing convey that when painting, one must bring people’s spirits back to the mountains and to the forests, because that very place of “rest through travel” and “open appreciation” exists in the soul of someone who wanders about the landscape. In fact, Zong Bing linked his own experiences of traveling across the landscape and appreciating landscape paintings together, to form his iconicity of “God” and “The Way.” By experiencing the magnificence of scenery through ones own body, it is possible to attain the joy of traveling felt by the original creator; this is indeed the “traveling of the sages” (you) and “the joy of the senses” (le)—two characters that now combine to form “making merriment” (youle) as in “amusement park” (youleyuan). This experience is at the core of Chinese sightseeing culture. However, one thousand years later, after living through the Ming, the Qing, and the many transformations that have since occurred in modern times, youle—Chinese landscape painting’s original life source—has ceased to play its original role, and has gradually vanished.

For the most part, early theories of Chinese landscape painting emphasized the unity between the landscape and its representation. The mysterious landscape and the pleasurable painted scroll had to be in a structurally consistent, symbiotic relationship with one another, and the source of the painting’s essence naturally occurred as a result of reading the image’s mystery and appreciating its nature. Landscape painting was a certain kind of recollection. Painters could not directly document the scene; but did have to rely on memories in the process of their work. They had to record the trail of their memories, and give the memories themselves form, as opposed to their origins. Furthermore, upon taking in the painting, the viewer had to experience the memory in this way as well, traveling virtually through the picture in order to look back to the original experience of resting, touring, and enjoying the mountains. Painting is remembering, viewing a painting is also remembering; it is a visualization and realization of memory; or even more it provides a memory with its own realm of reality. The former brings nature into the painting, the latter returns the painting itself to nature.

Landscape painting was originally concerned with one form of content: it was all about method, and more than this, the purpose of painting itself. Later scholars paid increasingly focused attention to landscapes, traveling and engaging in thought about the experience of standing back to enjoy the work of the creator, and gradually entering into rigorous discussion over matters of taste and judgment of subject matter. In his works, Jing Hao strived for “the real landscape,” meticulously envisioning each brush stroke until he was satisfied with himself. In the ancients’ conception of painting, the painting scroll was the intermediary world between the landscape and the thoughts of the painter. In later conceptions of painting, the intermediary world between the landscape and the true experience of it became the purpose that painters were meant to pursue. And today, the ladies and gentlemen of the painting world simply do not have time for the kind of self discipline required for the creation of art; they readily resort to their writing skills and their knack for visual impact to praise themselves, and are far from The Way of landscape.

Compared with his contemporaries, Xu Longsen is more clearly aware of the landscape crisis. Indeed, it is not just a crisis of landscape paintings, but a crisis of the landscape itself. In order to confront this crisis, it is first necessary to flee the barriers of traditional landscape painting. Throughout modern Chinese history, the world of landscape painting has proposed a myriad of schemes in the face of this crisis. There were those that supported Chinese content with a Western application, there were those in favor of a compromise between Chinese and Western methods, there were those who clung to the past; looking back over one hundred years, it becomes evident that the landscape crisis has been and continues to be a veritable component part of China's modernity. This not only implies the loss of a traditional view of nature. It also implies our shattered conception of history. “The clouds come and go, the bright moon abuts the mountains and rivers.” Today, this once bright moon has moved far out of reach. What has appeared of landscape paintings in the 20th century is the destruction and disruption of lands amidst civilized conflict; it is a troubled time of representation and image. Xu Longsen wishes to restore order in the midst of diversion and chaos; in his huge landscapes, he has been able to return once more to the recollection of the original dark, vast deserts and thick winds that reigned in the beginning of the world.

Xu Longsen’s oversized landscapes are an eye-opening discovery against the historical backdrop of contemporary Chinese painting. This is not only due to the unprecedented vastness of his sheets, his outstanding skill with ink, or the degree of difficulty inherent in this huge display; even more importantly, within his monumental ink arrangements, the pattern, format, and connotation of his brushstrokes alone result in a fundamental change. Xu Longsen has revived the essential characteristics of Chinese painting—forceful and unrestrained, candid and broad-minded. Over the past five hundred years, these characteristics were gradually lost, because of the isolated scholarly culture of the Ming and Qing and the arrival of modern colleges. But in Xu Longsen’s creations, they have been retrieved once again. And yet, he does not stop at achieving Zong Bing’s itinerant state of “Sit and study the landscape;” he goes further, taking an active stance and responding to the contemporary public space. Contemporary painters no longer want to deal with the solitary hermit lost in the lansdscape; the “two true intentions” of the scholar’s den no longer exist. Rather, this is the age of the cacophonous public sphere. The art of landscape painting must currently confront the huge exhibition space that it shares with all other media. The further implication is that today, all artistic practices are being integrated into contemporary society’s public culture. Xu Longsen’s huge landscape creations as an artistic practice can be regarded as a proactive step taken into the noisy contemporary public space on behalf of all contemporary Chinese painting.

The scope of Xu Longsen’s huge works is not the only element that sets them apart from their relatives. There are some even more fundamental differences. The imposing setup itself requires the exhibition organizer to tread on thin ice; it requires commitment to a vision and careful planning, and the tactical skill of a line-up of private soldiers. Painting these works takes a still body and an engaged mind, as well as the courage and energy to cut right to the heart of problems and solve them while there is still momentum. At the same time, for a size like this, it takes more than devotion and interest to support these works; one has to be steadfast and disciplined. The Way of painting is The Way of change. We do not live and create in a vacuum, but rather in the public space of present-day society. This reality has already profoundly changed our experiences and our ways of thinking. Xu Longsen firmly believes that this age of cacophony is an enormous challenge, yes, but also an opportunity presented by history to landscape painters. If library culture encouraged scholars to believe in the notion that “the mountain need not be high; as long as there are mortals there are souls; the water need not be deep, as long as there is the dragon the presence of these souls are felt”; then what the art of calligraphy must seek as it enters into this age is the grandiose conviction, “No mountain too steep, no ocean too deep.” Getting there requires learning the earth’s mountains and rivers through heartfelt experience; it requires the ability to deeply connect with the significance of landscape and to deeply assess Chinese landscape culture at large.

Along with the obvious element of “size” in Xu Longsen’s works, there is his “soft” and there is his “light” (dan). His monumental landscapes abound with subtle and meticulous brush strokes, filled with the breath of antiquity, elegant and pure—all of it combining to form a strange sort of unity, virtually still and majestic. Each time he paints, he is able to vent meaning out of the spirit of emptiness, memorializing it in a state that is at once light—almost translucent—and at once illuminated and penetrating. The key to achieving this state rests particularly in exerting oneself over the notion of “light.” Dan, the character for “light,” has prominent origins in the history of painting. Mi Fu called Dong Beiyuan “bland and naive”—the word “bland” comprising the character dan—and Dong Qichuang said that the style of large scale painting was “everyday light ink and light smoke”; both brought up “light.” The opposite of “dan” is not only thick, or heavy; but also artful, or crass. Dan is not just a visual descriptor, it is a philosophical concept. Free of hypocrisy or wayward intention, it is truth, freedom, simplicity, and delicate balance. Only after these dimensions are taken into account can one understand the true essence of “light” in this context. The notion of “soundlessness and tastelessness” refers to the imperceptible, yet far-reaching stillness of  a landscape painting. This concept can also be found in the chapter forty of the Daodejing, which, in expounding upon the hidden, implicit nature of The Way, states, “The greatest sound is the one that cannot be heard...the greatest form is the one that is formless.”

The Way is both implicit and explicit. The implicit is contained within nature, and the explicit is employed by nature. The Way is alive in the nameless, the soundless, the colorless, the featureless; and in turn, every sound, name, color, and feature is the realization of what is not. The Way is of all things, it is present in the hidden and in the apparent, it is sought by the heart of what exists and what does not; while the hidden presents itself as nothing, and the apparent presents itself as something, the hidden can be real, and the apparent can be unreal. Real or unreal, there, or not there, actual or virtual, they are all interconnected and interdependent. In “Wen Fu,” it is written that “the teaching begins with nothing in the attempt to search for something, the mouth must be silent to make a sound,” the common sayings for this— “the virtual comes before the actual,” “the nonexistent comes before the existent,” “the simple comes before the complex”—have already been forgotten. According to these words, a jam-packed crowd will find reality to be a dense place, and a simple and scattered group will find a diluted, weak place in its imagination. Good artists break through reality with the imaginary, and break down the imaginary with reality. Putting aside the binary of “true or false,” one sees that objects can be both existent and nonexistent, appearances can be both hidden and exposed. The interstice between true and false, or there and not there, is a where magical change can occur. The chemistry of magic knows no “emptiness” or “lacking.” Magical transformation exists truly and clearly in the liminal state between having and not having. And as far as landscape is concerned, magic presents itself in “light.” The whole of the cosmos—every thing and every appearance—lightly transforms in landscape between the hidden and the apparent. Painting reveals its purpose through The Way of this transformation.

Xu Longsen’s landscape practice is his own sort of primeval world; although within this world he casts light upon the landscapes of his predecessors, his works are completely different from the livable, tour-able world that traditional landscape paintings strived for. Instead, they present a hazy, puzzling scene anchored in quiet and loneliness, one that rejects people from entering. Perhaps Xu Longsen’s ambition is to overturn the Confucian notion that “The wise take to the water, the benevolent take to the mountains.” Perhaps he hopes to deal with to the idea of an “indifferent world, no single creature is different from the rest. “The earth is just a furnace, creation is labor; the sun and moon are charcoal, the whole of creation is copper,” spring flowers and fall fruit are thriving life; autumn harvest and winter storage, withered and rotten death.

“What is too ancient has law; what is too simple will not spread, what is simple, once it spreads, does so because a law is already established.” According to Shi Tao, “a method,” establishes “a painting,” and “the established law of a painting is the mark of the whole of creation.” Whereas Wang Bi, in the Daodejing’s “The Way of Natural Law” explains: “People do not violate the earth, they need only complete safety, and they will uphold its laws. The earth does not violate the sky, it needs only to be completely full, and it will uphold the laws of heaven. Heaven does not violate The Way, it needs to be completely covered, and the laws of The Way will be upheld The Way does not violate nature, it only needs obey its own nature, the laws of nature will be upheld. The natural laws are the laws of square when there is a square, the laws of circle when there is a circle, and in nature cannot be broken. Creatures of nature do not need a name for it to believe, and no name can measure up to it.”

This is “The Way of Natural Law.” The Dao sees nature as law, but how can “nature” be “law”? In this case, “law” goes beyond the western conception of the decree of “Natural Law,” the categories of the legal system, and even the significance of “justice.” “Law” in this case is just law as nature understands it. Nature is, on the one hand, connected to the genesis of the earth, and the cycle of genesis that takes place on it; on the other hand, it is connected to the nature of all material things; it is also, simply, the nature of nature: without knowing it, it still is.

When “law” means “legal principle,” the meaning of “justice” is challenged; because legal principles and justice are considerations made by human morality; what Laozi spoke of, in contrast, was the morality of Heaven. “For The Way of heaven, the harms are in surplus, and the healing not enough;” this is justice. “For The Way of people, the suffering should be in short and the gifts should be in surplus;” this is selfishness. Laozi’s “Way of heaven” has even deeper connotations: an “indifferent world, no single creature is different from the rest;” the natural element to the “law” of Heaven’s Way is impersonal, disinterested, and emotionless. “Natural Law” is in fact the spirit of Chinese landscape painting. Landscape paintings strive to adhere to the idea that “Model after nature, within it is the soul,” and this “nature” is not the mountains, nor is it the water; it is creation and change. This “soul” is not the mind; it is the heart of the earth. This is truly the “merciless law” of Chinese landscape painting. From the Ming and Qing onwards, painters have imprisoned themselves in studies, remaining connected to the laws of the ancients; the laws at the heart of nature have long since become few and far between in the works of these artists. This is not only the illness of painters, it is also a regretful state for thinkers.

All of the world’s creation operates under the “laws” of nature, and these laws reach beyond “the joy of the wise and benevolent;” they are the everlasting cycle of creation and decay. As Wu Jun of the Southern Dynasties wrote: “A hawk flues against the sky, it flies to the peak to rest its heart; the official peeps into the valley, and forgets to return.” When we look at the theory of landscapes today, can we see them as anything other than a vehicle for liberation, a source of artistic nourishment?