Friday, February 07, 2014

Sea of Ink

Bada Shanren, Fish and rocks, 1696

In Meer der Tusche (2005), Swiss writer Richard Weihe tells in 51 short chapters the life story of the great seventeenth century Chinese painter Bada Shanren.  Sea of Ink, an English translation by James Bulloch, is available from Peirene Press, a recently established 'boutique publishing house' that runs literary salons in north London.  In the Peirene Experience clip below you can see Weihe talking about one particular incident in the childhood of Zhu Da (Bada Shanren, 'man on the mountain of the eight compass points', was one of the many names he assumed in later life).  Zhu's father, also an artist, 'made him step barefoot into a bowl full of ink and then walk along the length of a roll of paper.  To begin with, Zhu's footprints were wet and black; with each step they became lighter until they were barely visible any more.'  This reminded me of the Bada Shanren scroll I mentioned here last year, and naturally too of Richard Long.  Next to Zhu's footprints his father wrote these words: 'A small segment of the long path of my son Zhu Da.  And further down: A path comes into existence by being walked on.'

Sea of Ink is punctuated with vivid descriptions of the artist creating his work, the paintings emerging as a short sequence of inspired brushstrokes.  We read about the composition of Fish and Rocks (above) for example, whilst Bada Shanren is living alone on the shore of a lake.  It is a work that the Met website describes as 'profoundly unsettling. Were it not for seven tiny fish that swim beneath the two rock forms, transforming the blank paper into a body of water, the image would be unrecognisable. Six of the fish are shown in profile, but the seventh appears as if seen from above, leaving the viewer disoriented; the absence of a horizon line adds to the unsettling effect.'  In Sea of Ink, Bada hangs this finished work from his ceiling beams and watches as a gust of wind catches it, so that the fish seem to be floating in the air.

A few years later Bada was returning in the rain to his fisherman's hut when he senses his life fading away.  Wiehle imagines him looking at the view that will become Landscape with hut (1699): 'Was it the trees dripping in the mist which made the world appear like that, or was it the tears in his eyes?  No sooner was he back in his abode than he took a large piece of paper and wiped it with the wet sleeve of his robe.  He hurriedly poured water into the rubbing stone and prepared the ink...'  First, he described his hut in seven vertical and diagonal strokes.  Then he took a new brush with cropped bristles and transformed the damp paper into a landscape of half seen hills.  The small solitary house had the appearance of having turned its back to the world.  'Fine streams of ink ran down the mountain; indeed the entire mountain seemed to flow away as if it were nothing more than a large wound of the world.'


Mike C. said...

I'm afraid the barefoot walk along the roll of paper reminds me irresistibly of the 1970s TV series "Kung Fu"...

Apologies for lowering the tone, but it is interesting how these tropes migrate between cultures and "texts".


Plinius said...

No, feel free to lower the tone, although I'm afraid I'm a bit too young to remember this programme. I did worry reading 'Sea of Ink' that a lot of it felt rather familiar. It is poetic, but you don't get actual characters or a sense of the real texture of life at the time. It occasionally feels more like the idea of China you would read about in, say, Kafka or Calvino.

Mike C. said...

China, and ancient Chinese texts, seem a perfect canvas for the free play of western fantasies -- the ultimate in "orientalism", I suppose.

I was reading a review of the 2011 re-issue of the "classic" photo-illustrated Tao Te Ching (another 1970s thing) by Gia-Fu Feng, Jane English, and Toinette Lippe. It seems no one, including contemporary Chinese, has much of a clue what many of the characters signified.

I hadn't realised how much the poetry of Tu Fu, Li Po and those other much-translated T'ang poets is actually a grid of characters -- very Hamish Fulton, very 1970s!