THE CONCEPT OF TIME IN CHINESE LANDSCAPE PAINTING: 1978
"The Tao which can be expressed in words is not the eternal Tao; the name which can be uttered is not its eternal name."
If time is, as Plato asserted, the moving image of eternity, then the inability of that image to achieve closer has lead to two fundamentally different attitudes: One is to stop the flow in order to capture the image of eternity. This approach, however, results in an image frozen in time. It is the inevitable consequence of the analytic attitude, which seeks to separate the perceiver from the perceived. Though this posture serves as the foundation to the achievements of Western science, it stands in the way of a more sympathetic relationship between the perceiver and the perceived that is necessary in art. Because Chinese thought accepted the limitations of consciousness, it did not seek this separation. Since becoming was considered to be a part of being, they sought to create an art in harmony with becoming. For the Chinese, art was not a vehicle for depiction, but a vehicle of moods. This contrast between the East and the West highlights the classic problem of being and becoming. Western thought, embedded in Neo-Platonism, articulated the problem as a dialectic between realities and appearances. This dialectic lead, inevitably, to the desire to freeze ever-changing appearances to a permanent state of reality. For the Chinese, since being and becoming were not opposites, but interpenetrating polarities. The path to being was not through the rejection of becoming but through participation with its rhythmic unfolding. To become is to dance the dance of creation.
Western art, embedded in the tradition of observation and analysis is engaged in the art of imitation. But, since artists want to go beyond surface appearances, the structures of platonic forms must be embedded beneath the skin of appearance to give art the metaphysical bones of realities. This desire for the fusion of realities and appearances was what drove the development of perspective in Renaissance art. The Chinese, however, did not place such importance on descriptive imitation, conceptual analysis, or ideal truths. They valued, instead, participation over description, creation over analysis, and life over ideals. For the Chinese, the scholar artist did not analyze nature from the outside; he was a part of nature. He did not seek to technicize art, but to aestheticize it. For him, art was a means toward perfectibility through the synchronicity of action and creation.
The following is a poem by Shen Chou accompanying a painting in the style of Mi Fei:
"Our cries cannot reach old Mi
As if beyond misty mountains in countless ranges
I was born one hundred generations later.
In the dripping of my ink one sees the approach of autumn."
With the conjunction of the philosophy of creativity and the doctrine of means, Chinese culture avoided either extreme of stagnation or dislocation. This enabled individuals to find their place within the social setting of historical timeliness. This avoidance of extremes made possible a continuity of the past, present, and future. While deeply respecting the flux of time, it avoided the convulsive alienation of individuals from the tradition. Since spiritual consciousness requires not only harmony with the metaphysical setting but also with the historical setting; to realize one's timeliness, each individual must partake in the relationship between creativity and significance. To realize one's timeliness is thus to partake in the continuity with the flux of becoming.
The West also has a deep sense of historical timeliness. But since its timeliness is driven by the notion of progress, individuals are driven to make a discontinuous mark on the tablet of history. With emphasis placed on the difference, the West has developed a culture run through with alienation. Under this condition individuals are obligated to make their own place. Since uniqueness defines one’s identity, it was inevitable that the Western paradigm would lead individuals to exist in a constant state of identity crisis. Since the Chinese did not stress the uniqueness of an individual from the tradition, but his continuity within the tradition, its sense of timeliness is conjunctive, and stresses the fit over dissonance. As an example, during the Mongol occupation of China in the Yuan dynasty, the artist scholars withdrew from the Imperial court to live lives of hermit poets. Their withdrawal was not so much an expression of each artist's dissonance with the house of Khan, as it was an expression of their cultural continuity with the Sung. Each scholar saw the timeliness of his action because each saw his significance within Sung. They painted symbols not of resistance, but of unity with the tradition. Cho Meng-fu differed in his actions by remaining within the court of Kubla Khan, but he painted the same symbols. Though his actions differed, his spirit was also that of Sung. He sought, with his presence in the court, to civilize the barbarians so Sung culture would again reclaim China. The timeliness of both actions did indeed achieve historical significance. Within one hundred years, the Yuan dynasty was replaced by the native rule of Ming.
VIEWER EXPERIENTIAL TIME
The hand scroll, developed from narrative depiction of mythological and religious subject matter, was transformed by the Sung, Yuan, and Ming artist to masterful interpenetration of art and life. This posture differs from that of the West, which sought to separate the World of Art from the World of Life. In the West, since art was a duplicate reality, it must seek a hyper reality, which is superior to life. This hyper reality was achieved through the super-imposition of Neo-platonic forms beneath the skin of appearance. With the advances in technical rationalism, Neo-Platonism hardened into Cartesianism, to produce the modern underpinning of a mathematical realism. This mathematical realism is, for the West, the rational structure, which stabilizes the changes of becoming into the idealization of Being.
This form of metaphysical structuralism is very much present still in the late Modernist works of Frank Stella. Primary structures place his work in direct alignment with the early Modernism of Descartes. The changes between early and late Modernism is simply one of appearances. The bones of the structural underpinning remained. However, since the Chinese never developed a philosophy of mind, art remained one, which arises from experience. Painting was not regarded by the Chinese as an absolute image viewed through a mathematical window. The hand scroll was particularly keen in demonstrating this perspective. Through participation, there is the constant interaction between art and life. The ritual unrolling of the scroll, permitted interchange not only between the participants, but more importantly the existential past, present, and future was woven into the narrative past, present, and future, to achieve the intermingling of art and life. Its flexible formatting contextualizes experience as aspectual, and the narrative unfolding of time encourages the concept of change, inviting a parallel openness to the flux of life. This interpenetration of the existential, narrative, and symbolic levels of realities results in a harmonic resonance with time. Above all, it is a hands-on art, which stresses the individual’s participation with art in life. The cycle of art in tandem with the cycle of life sets up a synchrony to aestheticized experience, thus heightening the awareness of passage.
SPECIAL DEPICTION OF TIME:
"Space is born from void
Existence from non-existence
Time from timelessness."
The entitative nature of Western thought, leads naturally to the development of an art of space. For if objects are real, than space must be eminent. In such a setting, time is the stage in which things interacted. Described in a Newtonian reference, Object "0 " moves through Time: Tl, T2, T3, T4, T5, T6, T7, . . . Tn. This view of time, however, suffers from misplace concreteness. In painting, the result traps art in an absolute moment, frozen for eternity, dead to the flux of life. This is so even in the Modernist time frame, arising from the breakdown of Newtonianism. In Futurism, though many moments are present, they are merely heaped atop of each other, each moment still frozen in absoluteness.
Since Chinese thought was aspectual, the situation was reversed. Space was the stage in which time unfolded. Space was not viewed from an absolute Abertain window. Space was flexible, unfolding time into which the viewer entered. Quo Hsi explained the four types of landscape spaces: Those which can be contemplated (much like the Albertian window), those in which one can travel, those in which one may ramble, and those in which one may dwell. This hierarchy was intended to indicate that the greater the participation the more anesthetized the space. This space was not the result of mathematical segmentation; it unfolded from experience in which each moment was linked to the next through the flexible articulation of human experience. Cezanne understood this space because he understood that each moment shifted with changes in perception. This experiential space was the for-runner of Cubism. In its flexibility one’s consciousness participates the in unfolding of interiority into exteriority. This is a space, which encouraged the commingling of experience with the world. This is a space, which interpenetrated spirit with substance.
The entatitive nature of Western art not only concretized absolute space, but in so doing, manifested the realness of matter. For the Chinese, not only was space flexible, but mass dematerialized. This dematerialization made possible the penetration of mass by void and time by timelessness. Consequently mass became spirited, permitting art to host the spirit. In spirit, one may, indeed, travel, ramble, and dwell in a space emptied of mass and articulated by human experience. In that European thought believed in the concreteness of matter, it had developed an art of absolute and contiguous space. This was a space without gaps, which asserted the thinglyness of things. Chinese thought believed in the spirit, thus its art expressed the dematerialization of mass. And since it was not directed at the articulation of absolute space, Chinese painting was not concern with the continuity of space. Its concern was focused on the continuity of rhythms. This concern for rhythms was the expression of their belief in the flux of life. As a result, Chinese painting became interested in rhythmic surface tensions. By the Northern Sung, the neutral void had become a spirited void. This transformation not only enable void to penetrate mass, but the void itself became full, setting up the polyrhythmic articulation of solids to solids, solids to voids, and voids to voids. This polyrhythmicity coupled with a bird's eye view, linked temporality to a trans-temporal synchrony. Through art the viewer can thus experience the harmony of the cosmic oneness. This was a masterful situating of Man within the oneness and timelessness of Being. This spirited void has its Western counterpart in Cubism. However, since Cubism was not so much an expression of the spirited void as it was an expression of a solidified space. Its interpenetration of mass and void achieved opposite result. Whereas the Chinese dematerialized mass to fill mass with spirit, Cuba-Modernism stockpiled the void, to fill nothingness with stuff, thus the relationship between Being and Nothingness were exactly the opposite.
The spirited void in Chinese painting had two especially sublime manifestations in the paintings of Hsia Kui, and Ma Yuan. In the soaring void of Hsia Kuai, his paintings were able to entice the spirit to sore through pure space, punctuated by almost nothing. By using mass as a springboard, Ma Yuan was able to hurl the spirit into limitlessness. There is no true counterpart to this in Western painting, though its parallel can be found in the open chords of the music of Gustav Mahler. Perhaps that is one reason way the Songs of the Earth is able to find a harmony between these two traditions. This limitless void allowed spirits to sore and be absorbed by the oneness of the timeless Being. The late works of Mark Rothko moved in this direction, however, his void was hedonistically laced with a residual love of substance. Perhaps the late works of Ad Reinhardt comes closet to this expression in the West if it were not for its overwhelming pessimism.
REFERENTIAL CONCENTRIC HARMONY:
"The sun at noon is the sun declining
The creature born is the creature dying."
In his book, The Spirit of Man in Asian Art, Lawrence Binyon had the following passage:
"Not far from Peking, between curves of the solitary hills, lie the tombs of the Ming dynasty. The Western visitor, told of the imperial tombs, will surely expect some great and imposing structure, pillared and proudly ornamented, a structure meant to dominate its surrounding as the dead emperors in life had dominated their subjects. But as he makes his way onward he finds to his surprise no trace of human handiwork; only as he penetrates further into the spacious valley a sense of nature’s vast peace deepens upon him; and when, making the approach to the tombs, a single arch or gateway appears. It is not that which impresses him, but the silent amphitheater of hills gradually becoming significant, as if part of an august design, and he realizes that it is the hills themselves in their solitude and grandeur that have been persuaded to enfold this valley of the dead and become their “ everlasting mansion. “ By submission rather than compulsion, the unknown architect had conceived a sepulcher more enduring and sublime than any man has ever built."
In the West, Man's relationship to nature had always been an uncomfortable one. Distrustful of nature, Man sought either: to control by means of analysis through such disciplines as science and technology, or to transcend to higher realities, through such disciplines as religion or philosophy. For the Chinese, since Man and nature partook in the same spirit, there was a deep kinship with, as well as a reverence for nature. This is a pious configuration of Man's place in the cosmos.
The assertive geocentricism of the West sets up a dialectic between the self and the non-self. Even with 19th century landscape painting, which presumed to hold nature in reverence, was really a self serving expression directed at the human condition rather than the embracing of the oneness with the world soul. Since man was the center of the universe and the measure of all things, his image became the foundation of this technicizing culture. The projection of his image onto nature is even more pronounce as reflected in the contemporary landscapes of earthwork artist such as Christo, and Michael Heizer. Those works, while professing to call attention to the nature is, in fact, a reflection of Man's technical reach.
For the Chinese, the self was not pitted in opposition to nature, but absorb by nature. This absorption is the expression of the conjunction of the individual with the cosmos, the union of the aspectual with Being. This is a timeless absorption the multitudinous cycles, which permitted the aspect to partake in the Being. Most Chinese landscape paintings contain the following cycles: human experiential cycles, localized natural cycles, daily passage cycles, seasonal turning cycles, human generation cycles, and cosmic landscape cycles. Not only do these cycles coexists on the plane of Being, they are tuned to break down disjunctive identities, to create a harmony in the time field. This harmony with the field of Being is an expression of the unity with the oneness of the Tao. It is an expression of Man's presence with the timeless Being through participating in the many faces of temporality. It is a unity that relishes the differences of becoming.
CHORDAL MOOD HARMONY:
"The moon reflects itself in ten thousand streams."
Two attitudes in Western painting acted to stifle the development of an art of moods. Since the assertive egocentrism of the Western Mind has the tendency not only to place man at the center of the universe, there was the inclination to depict action at the moment of heighten emotions. This is because the decisive moment, from the ego's perspective, was the most real, and thus most appropriate as the image of eternity. Unfortunately this moment of heighten emotions was the most disjunctive and isolated from the field of emotions. Consequently the decisive moment was in actuality the theatrical moment. Intent in capturing the eternal Being, it did the exact opposite. By isolating the moment, instead of expressing the eternal Being, it captured the eternal hysteria.
The Chinese took exception with this approach. Realizing from the onset the limitations of rationality, they did not prize an art of description, but an evocative art of moods. It was often said; that the ordinary craftsman possesses the craft of depiction, but only the exceptional artist can capture the chi-yun or spirit. For them, a painting was not so much an image of the world as it was a voiceless poem? Like an echo in the void, color in form, the moon's reflection in water, description comes to an end, but meaning is inexhaustible. Art must, therefore, embrace inexhaustibility. The scholar artist sought to internalize nature by steering away from the decisive moment, because strong emotions obliterated the yet quieter harmonics of gentler emotions. Instead they chose the tranquil moment, of emotions recollected in tranquility. The tranquil moment diverted attention from the self, opening the way for the spirit to mingle with the Tao. This brings to mind the classic image of the poet Cho Mu-hsi asleep in a boat, drifting in a lotus patch. It is not an image of absence, but an image of enlighten, so that “ His dreams might mingle with those of the lotuses”
"The feeling in my heart cannot be stilled.
I lodge them in the crisscrossing of some bamboo branches"
From a poem by Wu Chen.
These words written by Wu Chen in the Sung dynasty indicated that there was already an aesthetic of expressionism by the eleventh century. Since the Tao was spirit, it was much significant to capture its spirit even through bad technique than to render the look of dead things. Creation must have the breath of life, the chi-yun. The painter, Kuo Jo-hsu said:
"A picture which is permeated by Chi yun is consider a precious thing by the whole world, but if this quality is lacking, neither skill nor thought can prevent it from becoming an artisan’s work. Although it is called a picture, it is not a painting."
Since the essence of art was the spirit, that spiritedness must penetrate the body of craft to give life to creation. It is through this interpenetration of spirit with substance where humanity finds its kinship with nature. It is he Western technical tradition that it is out of touch with the spirit. Still life in Western art is an appropriate reflection of Man's alienation from nature, consequence he must probes the nature of dead things. “Still Life” in French means “Dead Nature’’, thus, ironically, still life confesses its focus on the dead. Chinese brush painting is concern not with dead things, but with the living spirit. This concern is not only directed at the spirit of the artist, but embraces the spirit of all things. It must be so if there is to be an intermingling of souls. As a result of its concern for the Chi, brush painting placed its emphasis not with the descriptive look of bodies, but with the energism of the spirit. For art to have vitality, analysis must give way to rhythmic creativity. The Yuan dynasty painter, Ni Tsan said:
"What I call painting is no more than free brush work done sketchily; it does not aim at objective likeness, but is done merely for my own amusement."
This precursor of a spirited automatism can be illustrated in the conflict between academic and automatic surrealism. Academic Surrealism rendered the psychic mood. The rendering placed the viewer outside of the feeling, disconnecting the painting from its source. To remedy this contradiction Automatic Surrealism sought to translate the psychic flux into a gestural dance, in order to be inside the inside. If painting shared the same source with all creativity, why is it not possible to tap directly into the source rather than indirectly through symbolic reference? This is possible if consciousness permitted the Chi to flow in and out, allowing the brush to dance with the source of creativity as naturally as branches reaches toward the sun. In this dance, art transcends objectmatter, to touch directly the source of creativity.
This leads to the story of the meeting between the artist/teacher, Hans Hoffman, and his student Jackson Pollock.
Hoffman, a German embedded in the analytical tradition, told Pollock:
"No, no, Jackson, you must analyze nature."
to which Pollock replied:
"I am nature manifest."
Aside from the Western egocentricism, this spirited reply indicated Pollock understood that nature was inside. He needs only to tune himself to its spirit to partake in the cosmic dance of souls. Dance, he did. In his dance, Pollock showed a remarkable kinship with the Chinese artist extending as far back as 800 years ago. He and they understood that, on the most fundamental level, the cosmic spirit cannot be analyzed; it can only be danced with. Through dance, Man is able to locate his place through rhythmic harmony with the Tao. Art is the dance floor in which one dances the technique of rhythmic creativity.
Western thought has been concern with knowing the divine. But since the Chinese knew that the divine is not knowable, they chose to be with it. They had chosen to be with it on the dance floor, dancing the dance of creation. This then is the difference between analysis and participation. This then is the difference between knowledge and empathy.
Phillip P. Chan. August 1978
For NEH Seminar in Chinese Landscape Painting with Dr. Tsu-Tsing Lee