Chinese landscape painting: landscape as Void, landscape as truth

The following post is based on my article “The landscape of the Void: truth and magic in Chinese landscape painting.”1


When I first went back to school to study the meaning of landscapes (rather than construct them…) I was disappointed by my discoveries: landscapes are historical constructs created by social and cultural discourses, often as a result of biased agendas. So, I wondered, was I living a lie all along and there was nothing more to landscapes than stories made by people of power?!!! Fortunately, I discovered material vitalism, which allowed me to suspend the usual application of logic to understand the power of things and inexplicable phenomena. However, I was still dissatisfied, as I could not grasp fully my idea of the poignant landscape with these fragments of materialism. It was the shift from searching for landscapes as material to landscapes as the invisible that everything came together.

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Brave pines on the sharp Yellow Mountains, by Jannes Glas, Flickr  (CC BY 2.0).

In Chinese, a landscape can be referred to as fēng jǐng 風景 (wind scene). This is a paradox because it is a perceptual framework of the immaterial and invisible wind. A Chinese landscape painting is traditionally called shān shuǐ huà 山水畫 (mountain water picture). Somehow the invisible scenery becomes material features of mountains and water on paper. It was not a coincidence that Buddhists and Daoist temples were often built high up in mountains.2 The Chinese phrase rén jiān xiān jìng 人間仙境 (human between immortal border) describes a stunningly beautiful landscape that exists between the realm of humanity and fairies. Often these are misty mountainous scenes, places reminiscent of both heaven and earth. The mystery of the Chinese landscape paradox is somehow clarified by Heidegger’s Daoist-influenced fourfold cosmology of earth-sky and mortality-divinity.3 While the ambiguous Void sits at the centre of the fourfold, as I visualized the fourfold over a sky above and a ground below, a lightbulb moment emerged: the Void was the Chinese landscape, a landscape that exists in the realm between humanity and divinity!

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Image cropped from Ma Yuan, Dancing and Singing (Peasants Returning from Work), 1160-1225, Beijing Palace Museum (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

If the Void is the clearing and the unconcealing of truth, then landscape is also a form of truth. That is precisely the philosophy of Chinese landscape painting. Although there was a period in Sung Dynasty (960-1279) when many Northern Chinese painters attempted to draw in perfect details and perspectives, the phase was short-lived and landscape paintings returned to Daoist principles of essences.4 Unlike Western paintings that used perspectival techniques to capture a view from a single point in space and time, Chinese landscape paintings attempted to transcend place and time by capturing the essences of elements from experiences of nature.5 Depth was created by layering, suggestive of Heidegger’s forest clearing and unveiling, or bird’s eye views, corresponding to mountain vistas and more encompassing views of the world.

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Early Autumn, by Qian Xuan, 13th Century, Detroit Institute of Arts (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

John Ruskin’s love of Turner’s expressive landscapes and his claim for art as truth’s expression seems somewhat puzzling from a Cartesian perspective, but from a Daoist perspective, it makes a lot of sense.6 Turner’s truth was not a representative truth of physical replication, but an inquisitive and expressive truth of nature’s principles. While the Romantics yearned for authenticity, the fascination of human rationality (influenced by Kant) and individualism kept the sublime trapped between a dichotomy of internal human subjectivity and external Nature. The yin-yang of Daoism acknowledges this dichotomy and metaphorically throws it into the Void! The human figure, usually found as peasants in Western landscapes, took place as pensive scholars in Chinese landscapes. Ironically, although almost inconspicuous in paintings, the figure still emits off a kind of energy that illustrates a human-landscape relationship that is reciprocal. Japanese Meiji writer Masaoki Shiki’s narration of “people-as landscapes” in Unforgettable People describes this relationship perfectly.7

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J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
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Spot the scholar in Shen Zhou’s Towering of Mount Lu, 1467, National Library of China (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

A landscape exists between the sky (heaven) and the land, tiān de jiān 天地間, where things are both familiar and unfamiliar. The certainty and uncertainty of nature and life (mortality-divinity) crosses the physical landscape at the Void. This landscape can be practical and tangible but also magical and fairy-like, only because there is a belief of what was once impossible, incomprehensible, and invisible.


1. Van Thi Diep, “The landscape of the Void: truth and magic in lchinese landscape painting,” Journal of Visual Art Practice,17.1 (2017): 77-86.
2. Michael Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China, (Stanford: Standford University Press, 1979), 26.
3. Martin Heidegger, Poetry. Language, Thought, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1971).
4. Michael Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity: The Art of Landscape Painting in China, (Stanford: Standford University Press, 1979).
5. Ibid, 8.
6. Ibid, 4.
7. Kōjin Karatani, “The Discovery of Landscape,” in Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, trans. and ed. by Brett de Bary, (London: Duke University Press, 1993), 24.

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Heidegger by quotes (part 3): The origin of the work of art

The hermeneutic circle in finding the meaning of art.1

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Vincent Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886.

As necessarily as the artist is the origin of the work in a different way than the work is the origin of the artist, so it is equally certain that, in a still different way, art is the origin of both artist and work. But can art be an origin at all? Where and how does art occur? Art – this is nothing more than a word to which nothing real any longer corresponds. (pg. 17)

What is art, really?

What art is should be inferable from the work. What the work of is we can come to know only from the nature of art. Anyone can easily see that we are moving in a circle. Ordinary understanding demands that this circle be avoided because it violates logic…we are compelled to follow the circle…to enter upon this path is the strength of thought, to continue on it is the feast of thought, assuming that thinking is a craft. (pg. 18)

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Can we ever get to the answer? Conventional logic wants straightforward answers; therefore, the circle is avoided. (How about asking, what is a chicken, what is an egg?) How can we get to the answer without the work of asking the questions and thinking of the truth behind the questions?

All works have this thingly character…There is something stony in a work of architecture, wooden in a carving, colored in a painting, spoken in a linguistic work, sonorous in a musical composition. The thingly element is so irremovably present in the art work that we are compelled rather to say conversely that the architectural work is in stone, the carving is in wood, the painting in color, the linguistic work in speech, the musical composition in sound…But what is this self-evidently thingly element in the work of art? (pg. 19)

If there is a thingly-ness to created work, what is the thingy-ness of art?

Obviously a thing is not merely an aggregate of traits, nor an accumulation of properties by which that aggregate arises. A thing, as everyone thinks he knows, is that around which the properties have assembled. We speak in this connection of a core of things. (pg. 22)

A thing is more than traits or properties. It is a connection or an assemblage. But of what?

That which gives things their constancy and pith but is also at the same time the source of their particular mode of sensuous pressure – colored, resonant, hard, massive – is the matter in things. In this analysis of the thing as matter (hule), form (morphe) is already coposited. (pg. 26)

Things appeal to the senses and have form.

The work, therefore, is not the reproduction of some particular entity that happens to be present at any given time; it is, on the contrary, the reproduction of the things’ general essence. But then where and how is this general essence, so that art works are able to agree with it? (pg. 36)

Work creates things. In fact, work reproduces a thing’s essence. How does the work in art reproduce the essence of art?

What truth is happening in the work? Can truth happen at all and thus be historical? Yet truth, people say, is something timeless and supertemporal. (pg. 37)

Art is not the reproduction of an object, but a truth is put into the work. What then is truth?

What matters is a first opening of our vision to the fact that what is workly in the work, equipmental in equipment, and thingly in the thing comes closer to us only when we think the Being of beings. (pg. 38)

We can only understand the essence of work (workly-ness), the essence of equipment (equipmental-ness), the essence to a thing (thingly-ness), when we consider the essence of being (Being).

The art work opens up in its own way the Being of beings. This opening up, i.e., this deconcealing, i.e., the truth of beings, happens in the work. In the art work, the truth of what is has set itself to work. Art is truth setting itself to work. (pg. 38)

Art sets up a truth (of Being, i.e. the essence of being or existence) through work.

In the midst of beings as a whole an open place occurs. There is a clearing, a lighting. Thought of in reference to what is, to beings, this clearing is in a greater degree than are beings. This open enter is therefore surrounded by what is; rather, the lighting centre itself encircles all that is, like the Nothing which we scarcely know. (pg. 51)

Truth is deconcealing, or finding ourselves in a clearing.

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Heading towards the forest clearing (Image source: Animal Jam Clans Wiki)

 

 

Truth, as the clearing and concealing of what is, happens in being composed, as a poet composes a poem. All art, as the letting happen of the advent of the truth of what is, is, as such, essentially poetry. The nature of art, on which both the art work and the artist depend, is the setting-itself-into-work of truth. (pg. 70)

Art is the deconcealing of truth (of Being/of being in the world) through work. That in essence is poetry.

The foregoing reflections are concerned with the riddle of art, the riddle that art itself is. They are far from claiming to solve the riddle. The task is to see the riddle. (pg. 77)

Here we have seen Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle on the origin of the work of art. The hermeneutic circle is not about solving the riddle, but rather seeing the riddle and asking the questions.

Perhaps solving problems isn’t all about getting answers; perhaps it’s about seeing the truth to the problem and asking the right questions???


1. Martin Heidegger, Poetry. Language, Thought, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1971).

Heidegger by quotes (part 2): Dwelling and things…

From Poetry, Language, Thought1:

Now to be sure the old word buan not only tells us that buaen, to build, is really to dwell; it also gives us a clue as to how we think about the dwelling it signifies. When we speak of dwelling we usually think of an activity that man performs alongside many other activities. We work here and dwell here. We do not merely dwell – that would be virtual inactivity – we practice a profession, we do business, we travel and lodge on the way, now here, now there. (pg. 145)

To build originally means to dwell. To dwell means to live our lives.

To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell. The old word bauen, which says that man is insofar as he dwells, this word bauen however also means at the same time to cherish and protect, to care for, specifically to till the soil, to cultivate the vine. Such building only takes care – it tends the growth that ripens into its fruit of its own accord. (pg. 145)

To dwell also means to care for our home.

To die means to be capable of death as death. Only man dies, and indeed continually, as long as he remains on earth, under the sky, before the divinities. When we speak of mortals, we are already thinking of the other three along with them, but we give no thought of the simple oneness of the four. (pg. 148)

As mortals, by living, we are already thinking of the earth, the sky, and the divine (because of inevitable death).

Mortals are in the fourfold by dwelling. But the basic character of dwelling is to spare, to preserve. Mortals dwell in the way they preserve the fourfold in its essential being, its presencing. (pg. 148)

To dwell, is to preserve the fourfold of earth, sky, mortality, and divinity.

Dwelling preserves the fourfold by bringing the presencing of the fourfold into things. But things themselves secure the fourfold only when they themselves as things are let be in their presencing. How is this done? In this way, that mortals nurse and nurture the things that grow, and specially construct things that do not grow. (pg. 149)

With care (nurture and construct), mortals bring the fourfold relationship into things. That is how we dwell.

Man puts the longest distances behind him in the shortest time. He puts the greatest distances behind himself and thus puts everything before himself at the shortest range. (pg. 163)

We like to change distance into speed.

What about nearness? How can we come to know its nature? Nearness, it seems, cannot be encountered directly. We succeed in reaching it rather by attending to what is near. Near to us are what we usually call things. But what is a thing? (pg. 164)

However, we understand nearness by reaching out to things.

In what does the jug-character of the jug consists? We suddenly lost sight of it – at the moment, in fact, when the illusion intruded itself that science could reveal to us the reality of the jug. We represented the effective feature of the vessel, that which does its holding, the void, as a hollow filled with air. Conceived in terms of physical science, that is what the void really is; but it is not the jug’s void. We did not let the jug’s void be its own void. (pg. 169)

Taking the jug as example, science has devalued the jug’s main feature, the void, as nothingness.

How does the jug’s void hold? It holds by taking what is poured in. It holds by keeping and retaining what it took in. The void holds in a twofold manner: taking and keeping…the twofold holding of the void rests on the outpouring. In the outpouring, the holding is authentically how it us. To pour from the jug is to give. (pg. 169)

In fact, a jug both holds and gives.

The spring stays on in the water of the gift. In the spring the rock dwells, and in the rock dwells the dark slumber of the earth, which receives rain and dew of the sky. In the water of the spring dwells the marriage of the sky and earth. It stays in the wine given by the fruit of the vine, the fruit in which earth’s nourishment and the sky’s sun are betrothed to another. (pg. 170)

It gives the gift of water from the sky to the earth.

The gift of the pouring out is drink for mortals. It quenches their thirst…But the jug’s gift is at times also given for consecration, then it does not still a thirst. It stills and elevates the celebration of the feast. The gift of the pouring now is neither given in an inn nor is the poured gift a drink for mortals. The outpouring is the libation poured out for the immortal gods. (pg. 170)

It gives the gift of water to mortals. It also gives the gift of libation to the immortal gods.

Earth and sky dwell in the gift of the outpouring. In the gift of the outpouring earth and sky, divinities and mortals dwell together all at once. These four, at one because of what they themselves are, belong together. (pg. 171)

The jug gathers earth, sky, divinities and mortals.

When and in what ways do things appear as things? They do not appear by means of human making. But neither do they appear without the vigilance of mortals. The first step toward such vigilance is the step back from the thinking that merely represents – that is, explains – to the thinking that responds and recalls. (pg. 179)

A thing appears when we think beyond representation.

A thing appears when the fourfold has been gathered into one.

How?

By dwelling; specifically, dwelling poetically.


1. Martin Heidegger, Poetry. Language, Thought, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1971).

Heidegger by quotes (part 1): “What are poets for…poetically [hu]man dwells…”

Sometimes I find Heidegger’s writing to be impossible to decipher, but other times very easy to understand. The basis for most of my philosophical work on landscapes derives from the collection of essays from Poetry, Language, Thought,1 which is quite inspiring. Perhaps in a method that is rather odd, I will try to share my reading of the book, backward rather than forwards (moving from the end essays to the beginning ones), by using quotes directly from the essays.


The default of God means that no god any longer gathers men and things unto himself, visibly and unequivocally, and by such gathering disposes the world’s history and man’s sojourn in it. The default of God forebodes something grimmer, however. Not only have the gods and the god fled, but the divine radiance has become extinguished in the world’s history. The time of the world’s night is the destitute of time, because it becomes ever more destitute. It has already grown so destitute, it can no longer discern the default of God as a default. (p. 89)

The loss of faith is the end of humanity’s spiritual connection to the cosmos (which is what gathers us all together).

For generally the utilization of machinery and the manufacture of machines is not yet technology itself – it is only an instrument concordant with technology, whereby the nature of technology is established in the objective character of its raw materials. Even this, that man becomes the subject and the world the object, is a consequence of technology’s nature establishing itself, and not the other way around. (p. 110)

Technology allows humans to objectify the world, but that in itself is the control of technology over humans rather than the other way around.

Modern man, however, is called the one who wills. The more venturesome will more strongly in that they will in a different way from the purposeful self-assertion of the objectifying of the world. Their willing wills nothing of this kind. (p. 138)

Modern human will their way through life (to achieve). But who are the most courageous in their willing?

Poets who are of the more venturesome kind are under way on the track of the holy because they experience the unholy as such. Their song over the land hallows. Their singing hails the integrity of the globe of Beings. (p. 138)

Even with the default of the gods, poets can still find the holy in the unholy of everyday modernity.

We would reflect on language itself, and on language only. Language itself is – language and nothing else besides. Language itself is language. (p. 188)

Language needs to be understood on its own. There is a language to language.

What does it mean to speak? The current view declares that speech is the activation of the organs for sounding and hearing. Speech is the audible expression and communication of human feelings. These feelings are accompanied by thoughts. (p. 190)

Speaking is usually understood as a scientific bodily process: a sound made by the vocal organs. Feelings and thoughts are expressed through this process.

We still give too little consideration, however, to the singular role of these correct ideas about language. They hold sway, as if unshakable, over the whole field of the varied scientific perspectives on language. The have their roots in an ancient tradition. Yet they ignore completely the oldest natural cast of language. (p. 191)

There is still more to language (and speech).

…in the between of world and thing, in their inter, division prevails: a dif-ference. (p. 199)

The dif-ference is neither distinction nor relation. The difference is, at most, dimension for world and thing…The dif-ference is the dimension, insofar as it measures out, apportions, world and thing, each to its own. (p. 200)

There is something between a thing and its world; it exists in a dimension of its own.

The calling of the dif-ference is the double stilling. The gathered bidding, the command, in the form of which the dif-ference calls world and things, is the peal of stillness. Language speaks that the command of the dif-ference calls world and things into the simple onefold of their intimacy. (p. 205)

Language is able to call forth this something between world and thing, and bring them together. Language helps us dwell poetically.

But how is “man” – and this means every man and all the time – supposed to dwell poetically? Does not all dwelling remain incompatible with the poetic? Our dwelling is harassed by the housing shortage. Even if that were not so, our dwelling today is harassed by work, made insecure by the hunt for gain and success, bewitched by the entertainment and recreation industry. (p. 211)

But with our lifestyles, do we dwell poetically? Can we dwell poetically?

Man, as man, has always measured himself with and against something heavenly. (p. 218)

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Heaven as seen from Earth? “Through the Galactic Arch” by Michael Shainblum, 2013.

The measure consists in the way in which the god who remains unknown, is revealed as such by the sky. (p. 220)

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Modern day heaven? (Image Source: Inland Capital Blog)

What remains alien to the god, the sight of the sky – this is what is familiar to man. And what is that? Everything that shimmers and blooms in the sky and thus under the sky and thus on earth, everything that sounds and is fragrant, rises and comes – but also everything that goes and stumbles, moans and falls silent, pales and darkens…But the poet calls all the brightness of the sights of the sky and every sound of its courses and breezes into the singing word and there makes them shine and ring again…The poet calls, in the sights of the sky, that which in its very self-disclosure causes the appearance of that which conceals itself, and indeed as that which conceals itself. In the familiar appearances, the poet calls the alien as that to which the invisible imparts itself in order to remain what it is – unknown. (p. 223)

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Between the sky and the earth… (Image Source: PC Wall Art Wallpapers)

The poet can call forth the heavenly through language. The poet can make the invisible visible, making things appear from the unconcealed.

But poetry, as the authentic gauging of the dimension of dwelling, is the primal form of building. Poetry first of all admits man’s dwelling into its very nature, its presencing being. Poetry is the original admission of dwelling. (p. 224)

Poetry is an essence of dwelling and existence (Being).

Do we dwell poetically? Presumably we dwell altogether unpoetically. (p. 225)

That we dwell unpoetically, and in what way, we can in any case learn only if we know the poetic. (p. 226)

The poetic is the basic capacity for human dwelling. But man is capable of poetry at any time only to the degree which his being is appropriate to that which itself has a liking for man and therefore needs his presence. Poetry is authentic or inauthentic according to the degree of this appropriation. (p. 226)

We only dwell unpoetically because we intrinsically know what it means to dwell poetically. We are all capable of being poetic by dwelling authentically.

What does it mean to be poetic?

Truthfully, I don’t really care for poems. I think the last time I wrote a poem was in elementary school when we learned how to compose haiku poems. However, Heidegger’s essay really resonates with me. To be poetic isn’t all about writing poems. Rather, it is an attitude towards life; a way of seeing the world. Landscape, experientially or as an image, is one form of poetry for me. There are many places where poetry resides (in fact, it can be everything and everywhere, depending on the genre you choose!) I also share the optimism of the essay’s conclusion: that we are all capable of dwelling poetically; it is part of being human. So here I wish everyone inspiration to live poetically!


1. Martin Heidegger, Poetry. Language, Thought, trans. by Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1971).

Ways of seeing the world: The relationship between subject and object

In last week’s post, I tried to summarize the study of phenomenology and its potential uses in landscape architecture. As mentioned, the study of phenomenology in history has covered varying perspectives relating to experience, ranging from the materiality of what we face everyday to larger existential questions of ourselves and the cosmos. We can apply phenomenology to anything we want because it is a way to understand the details and essences of being in the world. While philosophers have tried to put their own theories together to explain different aspects of phenomenological experience, understanding phenomenology, particularly in an equally vague subject such as landscapes, is rather difficult as a structured and empirical method. Nevertheless, one way to organize experience is to distinguish the relationship we take in the perception between subject and object. Simply, we perceive using one of these approaches:

  1. A one directional relationship from subject to object
  2. A bi-directional relationship between subject and object
  3. A diffusion of subject and object
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Ways that subject and object can be related in perception. (Image by https://poignantlandscapes.wordpress.com/)

Broadening our approach to perceive the world is beneficial regardless of whether it is intended for landscapes, another profession, or life in general. The subject to object approach is conventional. The scientific method allows things and events to be studied and understood as complex and objective elements. Similarly, landscapes are studied as objects. Yet, this focus is sometimes even forgone due to external pressures such as politics, finances, and individual concerns. Occasionally, there is an endeavor to take this study earnestly. In better landscape designs, the reciprocal relationship between subject and object is considered. These landscapes can express through their own language, creating dialogues between place, designer, and user. In the best designs, landscapes are no longer objects; they not only speak for themselves but also bring awareness to the users, not as mere perceivers but as part of a greater existential world.

The way we perceive is not easy to decipher. Traditionally, phenomenologists have tried to reject the subject to object approach to perception. The approach is dualistic, rational, and anthropocentric. However, most of the processing of our world through experience is ongoing in this mode. This is the way that the modern world operates. We cannot deny it because it is not the “better way” to experience the world. Husserl’s phenomenology may ask to bracket out pre-conceived biases and assumptions, but every experience does indeed lead to an objective understanding, judgement, and analysis of the world. Seeing landscapes as a creation of sociopolitical power, a picture image, or a series of patterns are characteristic of the subject to object approach to experience. When we look at landscapes as sensory and emotional effects, landscape matter, although distinctly objective, become part of a balanced relationship with the perceiving subject. Finally, when the whole of landscape, rather than its material and immaterial components, gains authority and voice, the subject and object distinction is blurred. When landscape is seen as archetype or as existential order, the objectification of landscape is eliminated. (I will be writing more about this through physical case studies and Chinese landscape painting in the future.)

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Taxonomy as a subject-to-object approach to understanding the natural world. (Image source: Palaeontologyonline.com)
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Subject and object reciprocates: “To touch the coarse skin of a tree is thus, at the same time, to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time, to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen” – David Abram, Spell of the Sensuous, p.68. (Image source: Shutterstock) 

Social conventions can make us bias towards certain ways of perceiving; biases towards ways of perception can also affect the way places are designed, giving the impression that better places are those that can appeal to a limited approach to perception. This sounds contradictory and does not make sense. While not every landscape design needs to be an existential lesson, a conscious awareness to the subject-object relationship should be brought to a common ground. Designers have the potential to trigger these different ways of seeing in the world in what they create, but first they need to see the potentials themselves.

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Diffusion of subject and object in the Zen garden. (Image source: thespiritscience.net)

Introduction to phenomenology (for landscape architecture studies)

After exhausting all the posts on landscape art and imagery, I have come to a point where despite my reluctance, I should introduce the topic of phenomenology. I would have loved to skip this post altogether and go straight into details of theories, archetypes, case studies, Heidegger, etc., but that would be confusing and defeating the purpose of bringing philosophy together with landscape architecture.

I never majored/minored in philosophy and am also a picture-person, so reading philosophy books (or truthfully, most theory books) make me feel like this:

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Image Source: TORCH Alumni Network

Nonetheless, with what I understand consciously, what I absorbed by “osmosis” in my studies, and with the help of the internet, here is my attempt to simplify and parcel the ever-elusive topic of phenomenology as it relates to landscape.

Phenomenology is such a difficult and abstract topic to define. Depending on the branch of study, phenomenology can be described as different things. Etymologically, it is the study of phenomena. However, it seems like anything can be a phenomenon. Then, perhaps phenomenology is the study of everything? Well, it is and it is not. A phenomenon is something that happens, appears, and is something we are somewhat concerned about. Therefore, under these considerations, every-thing can be a phenomenon if we consider it as one. The common factor is that phenomenology is about experiences, or more precisely, the objective study of subjective experience, or the scientific study of phenomena as they appear before us. There is a paradox here, as experience is always subjective but the investigation aims to be objective. This paradox, however, is what keeps phenomenology a mystery and a fascination.

I consider the following ideas as the simple historical/philosophical context behind phenomenology (as relevant to my scope of study):

René Descartes (1596-1650): “I think, therefore I am.” Human subjective existence is “proven” because of our ability to think.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): “There is nothing higher than reason.” As human beings, we have a set of cognitive faculties that are fundamental to knowledge and being. Things exist: as they appear (phenomena), and as they are themselves (noumena); we can never know about noumena because the world exists through our minds.

G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831): “The history of the word is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” All reality is part of an absolute (knowing, idea, spirit) and is understood by a self-identity and consciousness.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938): “To the things themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to see things in themselves (as opposed to Kant’s inaccessible noumena) by bracketing experiences (i.e. the phenomenological reduction) to eliminate preconceived knowledge, assumptions, judgements, etc.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976): “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being.” Humans have a pre-ontological understanding of being in the world (i.e. Being) because of having been “thrown into the world.” Existence is through experience embedded in language, thoughts, and practice.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961): “The body is our general medium for having a world.” Perception is an embodied experience. We understand ourselves in context by our bodies. There is an entangling (i.e. chiasm) between bodies of things that reciprocates, producing “flesh” or phenomenological experiences.

So why does this all matter to landscape architecture?

While phenomenology can cover everything and anything, how is it relevant to landscape architecture? For starters, if phenomenology is the study of experience from the 1st person perspective, then it means that everyone’s experience is unique. A phenomenon can appear for one person while it remains invisible for another. Similarly, a landscape can be beautiful, productive, special, worthy, magical for me, but it may not be for someone else. However, perception is malleable. My main objective for phenomenology in the context of landscape architecture is to trigger broadening perceptions. Areas where phenomenology is particularly relevant in landscape design include:

  • The body and spatial experience
  • Experience and consideration of the material world (both living and non-living things)
  • Understanding of place, in relation to time (cycles of material life, cycles of nature, historical narratives) and memory (including collective memories)
  • Perception of aura and atmosphere
  • Awareness of assumptions and prejudices of experience based on personal upbringing, social conditioning, political contexts

Broadening our field of vision, allows for greater possibilities both in the design and appreciation of landscapes (and life in general…). By opening and shifting the way we perceive, we can literally make things that were once invisible visible; make things that were always the same seem different; see with more depth; and effectively, create and experience more magic!

The Phenomenon of Landscape as an Image

It is almost strange that this blog has the sub-title “phenomenology and design,” and yet I have barely talked about phenomenology or design. In fact, I spent 9 weeks talking specifically about 19th century European art, and the weeks prior, looking at broad philosophical inquiries of the meaning of landscape, place, nature, and being human etc. One of the reasons for this is that I’m actually a bit disoriented in the mystery of landscape phenomenology and still trying to figure out my direction in it. The other reason is that from a contemporary Western worldview, the idea of landscape as image cannot be dissociated from landscape as experience. To understand our relationship with landscapes today, it is pertinent that we unravel its formation.

For me, the simplest definition of phenomenology is the study of phenomena as experienced from the 1st person perspective. Despite Husserl’s phenomenology of bracketing experience, there is only so much one can bracket in real life experience. The way we perceive is inevitably affected by culture, knowledge, personality, and intentions. Although most phenomenologist traditions have tried to reject the Cartesian subject-object view of the world, it does not change the fact that, conventionally, the modern world does operate in this way. What occurs is that every experience leads to an objective understanding, judgment, or analysis of the world. Seeing landscape as image would not be described as a traditional phenomenological approach to interpreting landscapes, but it is a predominant way that perception occurs.

Aesthetics, the judgment of beauty, like other judgments of worthiness in the public sphere is a political process. According to Kant, a judgment of beauty is also the application of a subjective judgment towards the universality of other people’s judgments.1 That is, when we judge something as beautiful, we believe that others should pass the same judgment towards the same object. Landscape has acquired through historical and cultural construct a common impression of beauty. In a way, the idea of landscape is already a pre-judgment of beauty,2 which was learnt from the history of Western landscape painting, particularly as landscape paintings became associated with various aspects of society, including status, pleasure, passion, and spirituality.

In addition to its origin in art, landscapes continue to be connected to imagery because of the dominance of vision in modern society. Since the development of perspective in the Renaissance, Western art has portrayed landscape as static, visual representations. What is seen is objectified and reproduced through the mind into the hand. With the invention of photography in the mid-19th century, the process is further simplified. Before needing to objectify landscape in the mind, the camera already does the work. With the invention of film, the experience of spatial movement, something that is not static, can be visualized as a series of still images like the frames of a motion picture. In effect, we are at a point where snapshots are so convenient that every experience is a potential photo image (e.g. Instagram)!

The landscape image as conceptual colonization or agent of change?

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Quote from Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, 2015, Art Gallery of Ontario.

At the 2015 Art Gallery of Ontario exhibit Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic, I snapped an image of the above quote on the wall. Acknowledging the truth in the statement brings about certain feelings of guilt and dilemma. I am fascinated by the landscape image (from painting to photography) and do not plan to let my enchantment of it to disappear. While there is danger in the image, accepting the predicament, understanding the intent of the image, and learning that there are more to landscapes than images are ways to move forward.

Today, the media chooses a lot of what landscape images are worthy to be considered beautiful. From tourism to environmental activism, each industry has their own agendas to market images of beautiful landscapes. The attitude of nature photography has not departed much since the time of the Romantics. When major environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, emerged in the late 19th century, nature photography expanded its role from recreation to advocacy. Artists such as Ansel Adams (1902-1984) and Eliot Porter (1901-1990) aimed to bring the divinity of nature, articulated in its materiality, to the viewer through the effects of photography.

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Ansel Adam, Roaring Mountains, Yellow Stone National Park, 1941, US National Archives and Records Administration. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Influenced by theosophical philosophies,3 Adam’s photographs brought the spirituality of nature and human experience into the material world through landscapes. Alternatively, Porter, reinterpreted the mysteries of nature photography with the use of colour.

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Eliot Porter, Birch Trees on Cliff, 1963, Gift of Joseph French and John Wawzonek. (Image Source: International Center of Photography)

Through the art of photography, the viewer perceives more to nature than what was apparent before. Whether it is through faithfulness to the divine, or strategic visual persuasion, the image has the power to change the perception of a landscape and its fate. The landscape image has been used for specific agendas, and often times, for positive change. Whether it is a painting or a photograph, the image is powerful. As architect Juhani Pallasmaa states:

A profound artistic image projects a sense of rootedness, completeness, life and magic. It speaks with the authority of an entire life-experience. It short-circuits our faculties of rational understanding and feeling, as well as the categories of life and knowledge, reality and dream, beauty and meaning.4


1. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. by James Creed Meredith, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1790] 1952).
2. T.J. Diffey, “Natural Beauty without Metaphysics,” in Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, eds. by Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 42-64.
3. Anne Hammond, Ansel Adams: Divine Performance, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 14.
4. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Embodied Image: Imagination and Imagery in Architecture, (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 57.