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.
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!
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.
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
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. ↩