Thursday, May 31, 2012

Like clouds accompanying the rising summer sun

Here's an idea for an art installation.  You pass into a room between the trunks of two pine trees that show signs of having been cut into with a large axe and smaller one.  In front of you is a pond covered with lotus plants, lit so that the veins in their leaves stand out.  Placed on low plinths around the room are a torn net, hemp stalks, frayed rope, oxen fur and a lump of alum.  Vitrines contain horses teeth, thorns, split beans and broken bands.  And on the three walls facing you, video projections show silent footage of an eddying whirlpool, falling rain and roiling clouds. This installation would (as some readers will have recognised) be inspired by the various types of shaping lines (ts'un) used in traditional Chinese landscape painting.  For example, expand the image of Fan Kuan's Travellers among Mountains and Streams below and you can see his use of the 'rain dot stroke', which one source characterises as 'many perpendicular, forceful, short lines executed under a quick brush. Collectively, they look like the marks left by a heavy rain on a mud wall. This type of stroke is suitable for depicting the pocked appearance of the eroded loess plateaus of northern China.'  There are various lists of these brush strokes and the one I've reproduced below is in Fritz van Briessen's The Way of the Brush: Painting Techniques of China and Japan.

 Fan Kuan, Travellers among Mountains and Streams, c.1000
Luan ma ts’un – like tangled hemp stalks
     (also called luan ch’ai ts’un, like tangled bundles of brushwood)
Ho yeh ts’un – like the veins of lotus leaves
Chieh so ts’un – like unravelled hemp rope
P’i ma ts’un – like spread out hemp fibres
Ma p’i ts’un – like a tangled ball of hemp fibres
Luan yün ts’un – like rolling billows of cloud
Niu mao ts’un – like cow hair
P’o wang ts’un - like a torn net
Fan t’ou ts’un – like lumps of alum
Tan wo ts’un – like eddies of a whirlpool
Kuei mien ts’un – like the wrinkles on a demon’s face
Hsiao fu p’i ts’un – like the cuts made by a small axe
Ta fu p’i ts’un – like the cuts made by a big axe
Che-tai-ts’un – like broken bands
Ma ya ts’un – like horses teeth
Tou pan ts’un – like two halves of a bean
Yü tien ts’un – like raindrops
Tz’u li ts’un – like thorns
Mi tien ts’un – like the dots used by Mi Fei
In that imaginary installation I drew upon (rather than drawing with) all of these ts'un, except two which don't correspond directly to things we might encounter out in the landscape - the wrinkles on a demon's face and the brush stroke named after a specific artist, Mi Fei. The others all suggest ways in which the motion of the hand is akin to a natural process and seem to situate the artist in direct connection with animals, plants, rocks or water whilst in the very act of shaping a landscape painting.  I like the fact that these links are indirect and metaphorical - mountains, for example, can be constructed from clouds (with a luan yün ts’un, the brush is 'moved in an orbit, like clouds accompanying the rising summer sun.')  Placed in a gallery all objects prompt metaphorical readings: it would be hard to view a torn net or a pile of thorns as nothing more than signifiers of themselves, or reminders of how particular brush strokes have been termed. So it is with a painting like Travellers among Mountains and Streams, a Taoist vision of nature rather than a strictly topographical one: a symbolic journey through high mountains, their rocky sides mottled like the aftermath of a rain shower. 

The codification of style in painting manuals like The Mustard-seed Garden and the way landscapes could be built up from simple forms has prompted modern computer programmers to simulate the small axe cut, the hemp-fibre stroke and so on.  A paper by Way and Shih, for example, describes work on the synthesis of rock textures in Chinese landscape painting, aiming to provide tools for digital artists and allow the automatic rendering of Chinese-style landscapes.  Their mathematical models have no connection to physical objects or natural processes; but then it is also possible to imagine Fan Kuan dabbing his brush onto the silk scroll oblivious to the rain drops falling outside.  Can this gap between art and the world be closed?  In his New River Watercolours, John Cage took stones from a river and drew round them to create marks not unlike roiling cloud strokes: "with the involvement of the rock, the line is not so much me as it is the rock." And Brice Marden (as I was saying a couple of weeks ago) uses sticks in his calligraphic drawing to produce natural variations in the line.  These objects restrict the artist to a type of gesture whilst releasing the expressive potential of the brush stroke.  Cage said that as he traced the stones, "a slight turning of the brush on my part makes a big difference in the line. So, it's hard to explain, but I'm moving toward a freedom of gesture while at the same time using gesture."

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