The Sky in the Landscape
For an idle dreamer or a man on a pheasant shoot, their silent gaze on the sky has a different meaning. For the latter, the sky is a field of action: shifting of clouds, ruffle of wind form part of the living organism in which his hunting mind seeks engagement. The waiting and gazing turns the vast emptiness of the sky into a breathing presence, and the man’s focused attention binds him to moments of opportunity within the emptiness. Contrary to commonly held views of the reclusive nature of Taoist meditation, it is in fact alert and engaging; likewise, Qiu Shihua’s art demands a hunter’s gaze rather than abstract introspective vision.
Qiu Shihua’s plain looking landscape paintings have much in common with an empty sky. They shift with the viewer’s changing moods, and they resonate with the viewer’s gaze as he attempts to fix them into recognizable scenery. And it is natural sceneries that these paintings are based upon; often simple fields and silent plains that merge with open sky. Land and sky do not fracture in a sharp divide, but mirror each other. Just like the pheasant shooter, the gaze is required to assess and capture new opportunities presented by each changing moment.
Qiu Shihua was trained at the Xi’an Art Academy in China and graduated in 1962. He has had a formal training in Western realist technique, which to this day is still reflected in his ability to capture scenery in accurate perspective and subtle chiaroscuro. During the Cultural Revolution years (1966-1976), Qiu was engaged, like everybody else, in propaganda art, but one experience was particularly beneficial to him in retrospect. This was his assignment to create huge cinema billboards, sometimes measuring 10 meters in width. This was not the priority of most artists, but being a marginal figure, Qiu made this humble job his career for a number of years. Through creating outdoor cinema advertisements, Qiu developed the skill of visualising large pictures up close. He would use broad swift brushwork to create patterns that appear abstract at the level of the picture surface and yet depict accurate figures from a distance.
In the late 1970s and the 1980s, Qiu concentrated on painting landscapes. Xi’an being on the edge of the Silk Road and the vast yellow loess soil plains, Qiu developed a palette for vast open spaces rich in tonal nuances. There is in these works a romantic grandeur in both the scope and the sentiment that reflects the artist’s background in Social Realist art. The significant change came at the end of the 1980s. In 1990 Qiu created a series of works which depicted nature in a dim, failing light. These scenes are murky in colour and fuzzy in details, and yet as the eyes get used to them, like one gradually adjusts to making out one’s way in the wood when dusk suddenly falls, the scenes yield rich details and an intricate play of light and form. If these paintings of 1990 and 1991 resemble a descent into the emotionally laden twilight of dusk, then his subsequent works, especially those from 1993 onwards, were like the breaking open into the first light of dawn. A devotee of Taoist meditation for many years, in 1991 Qiu also met a master who helped him break new grounds in meditation, opening new vistas in his artistic vision in the process.
The visual experience of Qiu’s art suggests a visionary dimension, or perhaps even a hint of the sublime. How is this achieved and why do the paintings have this mysterious quality? They are, after all, straightforward scenes of nature. And suppose we are able to understand the magical quality of the subtle scenes, what are we to do about some of his later works in which very little can be made out by the uninitiated, and which have to be taken on trust as mysterious visions of nature? By way of argument, what if Qiu simply points to a white canvas, and insists that it is another of his inspired works?
The artistic success of Qiu Shihua is to have crossed the gap separating representation, an illusion of reality, and an experience of reality. This he has achieved by bringing the sympathetic viewer to the limits of the symbolic construct of reality, to evoke the Otherness of the Real (here defined in Lacan’s sense of the Real as something alien and impregnable by the symbolic cultural construct of ‘reality’). The mysterious presence of nature is evoked by testing the limits of illusory representation, so that the viewer feels he is brought into contact with something more substantial than mere representation.
The Real is here meant by that hidden core of the universe that cannot yet be fully integrated into the symbolic universe. It is not just the great chaos beyond human comprehension, but the support necessary to render our symbolic universe credible, so that the ‘reality’ of our symbolic universe is charged with an unexplainable power; therefore the occasional intrusion of the Real into reality (such as unaccountable natural catastrophes) prompts the search of meaning through occult signs (such as the use of imperial astrologers in China) or scientific speculations. The Real in the present essay refers specifically to the experience of the sublime in art, the Tao and ‘sheng’ (transcendent) that are pursued by traditional Chinese painters. A landscape and a painting of it differ in that the reality in the former is given and is prior to our articulation of it, and this pre-given is on account of the support of the Real. The true power of nature is therefore outside the rules of our symbolic universe, it has the potential of being ‘senseless’ and beyond meaning. The mysteriousness and merit of Qiu’s art lies in his ability to evoke this Otherness.
The encounter of the Real (or Tao) derails normal experience, and cannot be arrived at through pictorial narration. We need to be engaged from the other side of the picture screen, so to speak. Qiu Shihua’s paintings require from the start a letting go, a relaxed quietude, before images and rhythmic quality of the work start to appear. Even though his pictures are realistic representations, they do not appear so to the inexperienced eye. By pushing the contrast in form and in colour to a minimum, Qiu has changed the act of viewing from an active solicitation to that of alert waiting. The gaze implied in this process is therefore to be understood in a ‘negative’ sense: it is ‘not’ centred upon a monument, and it is ‘not’ to be meant to be a god-like all-seeing eye as in a Renaissance panopticon. Rather, this gaze is diffused and non-comprehensive. If the ‘masculine’ god-like panopticon gaze resembles that of a perverted voyeur, overpowering but detached and unseen at the same time, Qiu’s gaze is ‘feminine’ and engaged. This gaze is seduced by the undefined quality of the pictorial surface to notice the ‘absence’ implied in the landscape. This is a reverse gaze at the viewer perhaps, so that the sublime is experienced as a realm beyond and as an ‘absence’ rather than as a monument.
In depicting the appearing of nature, and its disappearing, Qiu guides the viewer in negotiating the undefined realm of reality and its supporting Otherness. In the creative process of his work, the artist also proceeds in a manner similar to the alert viewer. By habit he spends a good part of his day in meditative exercise and the mind is in a state of quietude. When he paints he spends a long time looking from a distance, and waiting. As images suggest themselves in the canvas, he starts to paint. Yet when he is up close to the canvas he does not see the details; so instead of painting in patches, he always goes over the entire canvas from end to end each time he walks up to it. He manages even very large canvases this way, an ability the artist attributes partly to his early training in painting billboards. He may go over the canvas in more layers or less, but the paint is always applied sparsely and he is not in the habit of using a variety of brushes. The difficulties of ‘seeing’ and painting up close are compounded when the pictures get to be extremely faint, approaching a white surface. In these works it is all the more necessary for the artist not to paint in patches because undue concentration in any part would make it stand out incongruously.
The difficulty of the fainter works is more an issue for the viewer than the artist. As images become less clear and the viewer is asked to focus largely on the ‘spiritual rhythm’ and overall aura of the painting, how much of it does he need to take on faith? Qiu Shihua may ultimately point to a blank canvas and with integrity insists it is a finished work; then is this work to be appreciated in the same manner as the others, or should it be read as a ‘conceptual’, or a Duchampian Dada work? On this issue we can refer again to Lacan’s insights concerning the nature of reality and the support given it by the Real.
What makes reality possible is the understanding that it has something more than appearance, and is not manufactured artificially but somehow existing and found in the world. An emperor in an opera and the real one differ in that the actor only has the appearance. In Chinese power politics, the right to rule by a usurper always had to appeal to the ‘mandate of heaven’ (meaning the destiny of history, the blessing of fate and heaven), to assert his predestined right. Napoleon may claim that he had to learn to act like a king from a famous actor, but he was the real king and no acting could replace him. In other words, reality as a symbolic construct needs also to point to its Otherness, its supporting ‘mandate of heaven’. In the case of Qiu Shihua the ‘found’ nature of his art is based on history, on the fact that he has arrived at this stage through progressive development. The challenge to ‘see’ is on the viewer as he is to take on faith that those work are ‘for real’ based on the ‘reality’ of his accumulative achievements. Should Qiu one day decide to point to a blank canvas, claiming it as a part of his oeuvre, he is entitled to do so by ‘mandate of history’. The viewer would be expected to approach this work as he would his previous landscapes. The same argument goes for the gesture of a conceptual artist, who also needs to establish that he has the right to appeal to genius. Duchamp’s ‘found object’ is therefore a brilliant insight on the status of the artwork as the ‘real article’. He would fix an arbitrary moment for this object to be found, and yet the artist was not allowed to choose which object was to become an ‘artwork’. The ‘found object’ as art was pre-given, assisted by the artist’s right to choose the specific moment which arbitrariness was also determined by unfathomable fate.
Even though Qiu Shihua’s works are in oil and painted in a spatial perspective associated with European art, the fitting context is still within the discourse of nature in Chinese traditional painting. The great paradigm of Chinese landscape art are from the Sung and Yuan dynasties (10th to 13th century), to which all later landscape art refer. The beauty, magic and majesty of nature explored in these works epitomise what Chinese culture sees as the wonders of nature. In the context of this essay, we may say that for Chinese this world of landscape was the ‘reality’ of nature. This reality is of course a selected view, determined by the purpose ‘nature’ and the art of nature serve in Chinese culture. We cannot imagine, for example, dark Amazonian jungles being taken up in Chinese landscape painting. That menacing aspect of nature, suggesting something sinister, is not only considered unsuitable for art, it hardly figures in the Chinese traditional discourse on nature. China’s ‘reality’ of nature has been framed by Taoist thought from an early period, and the art of landscape has much to do with the role nature plays in spiritual cultivation.
One of the most important doctrines of Taoism is its respect for life and all life forms. The love of life is manifest in its respect for the physical bodily being, so that Taoist research in the science of health has become a central part of Chinese medicine. The respect for life forms also results importantly in the pursuit of transcendence in this life. Taoism is one of the few religions which seeks paradise in this temporal world, and also seeks transcendence for both body and soul. Therefore the goal of Taoist practice is to join the ranks of the immortals. The word for immortal is written with two radicals, ‘man’ and ‘mountain’, and the earliest dictionary meanings state an immortal to mean “to move and live in the mountains” in one (Shi Ming, 1st Century BC), and “man in mountain” in another (Xuo Wen Jie Zhi, 2nd Century). It is in mountains that the immortals reside. It is also in mountains that the Taoist alchemist prepares his pills, and the blessed seeks refuge from wars and other atrocities. The Taoist mountain, therefore, is not just any mountain, but one with special qualities. It is said that only in the ‘right/good’ (zheng) mountain that one finds the zheng gods and spirits good for humanity; otherwise the ‘evil/errant’ (xie) mountains will have xie spirits detrimental to man’s well being. Listings of important mountains are found in Chinese records from two millenium ago and since the Tang dynasty (7th century) the list of accredited Taoist mountains has grown increasingly lengthy. To those mountains Taoists (and Buddhists to follow) flocked, scholars seeking solace from nature took retreat, and disaffected officials sought hermitage. It is clear from this background that the ‘nature’ treasured by the Chinese has specific properties. It is a nature that is fit for an immortal, or at the very least it is a realm of retreat suitable for the spiritually inclined.
Another tradition of mountain worship affecting landscape art stemmed from imperial rituals performed at important mountains. Each of these had rites specific to it, and the earliest geography book of Book of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing, before 2nd Century BC) outlines the contents of the offerings prescribed. This imperial patronage later merged with the vision of Taoist mountain paradise to create the so-called ‘gold and emerald mountains and waters’ painting tradition, which uses bright mineral colours and typically depicts a magical mountain retreat that is luxurious and palatial. Pre-dating the Sung dynasty, ‘gold and emerald’ landscapes are quite different from the Sung naturalistic vision. These paintings are stylised and fantastic, and nature is turned into a mountain paradise in which one can imagine an imperial entourage with an attendant priesthood. The landscape in this tradition becomes somewhat a stage for timeless myth. It is interesting to compare with landscape in the West where it often forms the background for historical or mythological action. Not being the focus of paintings, the European landscape serves as a stage; the more realistically evocative it is, the better it serves the purpose of framing the action on stage. In the case of China’s early ‘gold and emerald’ landscape, even though the idea of a stage is relevant, it is not a stage for action but is more like a realm sustaining the conditions for immortality. Human activities are subsumed into the idealised world to become stage props for the canvas of nature.
Mature landscapes from the 10th to 13th century radically changed the nature of this art form. The focus on capturing in its full richness the ‘reality’ of this selected ‘nature’ produced a landscape that is realistically depicted, complete with several schema of perspectival techniques and a wealth of skills for portraying details. All the while the focus is on the spiritual quality of nature. The awe-inspiring and magically tranquil qualities of Sung paintings are famous. One may say in reference to Qiu Shihua’s art that here too the attention to the articulation of representational image is subjugated to the purpose of allowing the Otherness of nature to seep through the seams of reality’s symbolic construct.
Again in comparison with many European landscapes, which is attentive to realistic representation in order to set the staged action in a specific place and time, Chinese landscapes are eager to stress their timelessness. They intend to represent a realm that is outside human time, outside history. As a realm suitable for the perfection of human life, they are ‘mountains and waters’ (shan shui, the Chinese term for landscape) bearing only the good spirit (zheng) and not the evil (xie).
Chinese interest in ‘good’ landscapes also brought about the science of geomancy, the study of ‘winds and waters’ (feng shui), which aim is to detect the most beneficial way of positioning human life in the natural world of ‘mountains and waters’. The power of evoking the lurching presence of the Real waned in the later dynasties and gave way to a landscape art that is highly sophisticated but self conscious of its own tradition. The effort in capturing the splendours of reality changed to a conscientious study of the stylistic vocabulary of landscape painting. Nature truly became a construct of symbols by the time of the great theoretician and artist Dong Qichang in the 16th century. The art of painting and the science of geomancy often merged to form a symbolic universe that became an ideal realm for human life. The works by the famous 17th century painter Wang Yuanqi are a good mature example of this development.
What happened to the evocation of the Real, the sublime, in these later dynasties? The structure based on a good ‘winds and waters’ principle perhaps did not make sufficiently interesting narrative content, neither did a skilful reworking of familiar stylistic elements. Aesthetic ‘reading’ of landscapes gradually evolved to focusing on the painterly brushwork, the writing hand. Connoisseurs would discuss the quality and ‘flavour’ of the brushwork and ink tones, approaching the artwork as a variant form of calligraphy, and expound the spiritual quality of the painting as though this was solely embodied in the traces of the brush. All the while only slight attention would be paid to the pictorial structure of the work. It is as though connoisseruship aims at a sideway glance at the constitutive level of the picture, in order to avoid engaging directly with its narrative content. Yet precisely because the story-line is not being looked at in a frontal manner, the ‘rhythm’ and spirit of the landscape may then manifest itself as the Other, the non-present sublime. As an absence that can only be detected through a non-focused alertness, the sublime disappears when one attempts to engage it, and gaze upon it, directly.
The focus on brushwork highlights the presence of the written sign, which in its relation to the calligraphic word has developed yet another level of connoisseurship in Chinese art history. In the context of painting, the weakening of pictorial image in the interest of emphasising the sign seems to point to another irreducible ‘presence’ in the ‘reality’ of the Chinese world, which is the material presence of the written written sign that refuses to be eradicated as either the signifier or the signified.
There is no brushwork to speak of in Qiu Shihua’s paintings, although at various levels his art revives one’s memory of early Chinese masters. Few before him have gone to the degree of engagement with emptiness as he has, yet he has succeeded as no other in bringing the sky into the landscape. Remembering that the word sky is also heaven in Chinese, the sky in the landscape is very heaven.