Trembling in Awe Face to Face with the Nakedness of the Universe
A dialogue on aesthetics regarding ¡°Black and White Landscape Photography¡± between Xia Zhongyi and Wang Wusheng
Xia Zhongyi: For a Chinese artist¡¯s ¡°black and white landscape photography¡± to be able to be honored by the art worlds of Europe and America as a classic of ¡°Modern East Asian Landscape art,¡± to enjoy the honor of being shown at Vienna¡¯s Kunsthistorisches Museum, as well as the first solo show for a living artist, as well as the first fine art photography show, to be mounted; also being shown together with the works of seven old masters of landscape such as Shitao, Jianjiang [Hongren] and others at Washington D.C.¡¯s Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, these accomplishments constitute nothing less than glory. But ¡°glory¡± ordinarily refers to being admired; here, one would rather say, it cries out to be interpreted and understood.
And now I have the chance, face to face with Wang Wusheng, directly to lay out in detail my own interpretation and understanding with the very author of this ¡°black and white landscape photography,¡± and this is not only an honor, but a challenge! This is because I do not know if my perception or insight on black and white landscape photography, laid out in contemporary scholarly terminology, will correspond sufficiently with your artistic frame of mind while actually creating these works. Although the sources of both scholarship and art lie in the soul, there is no ¡°Great Wall¡± separating them from each other. And yet to penetrate to the secret pathway linking them, one certainly needs to have ¡°a magic thread in one¡¯s heart!¡±
At the present time, what I wish to tell you is the very first impression that I experienced upon eye contact with this ¡°black and white landscape photography:¡± it was, that I was all alone, trembling in awe face to face with the nakedness of the universe!
What am I calling ¡°the nakedness of the universe?¡± Conventionally speaking, the Yellow Mountains¡ªthe original models for this black and white landscape photography¡ªare located in China¡¯s Anhui Province. But if we consider the matter from the point of view of geological history, then hundreds of thousands of years ago, when the Yellow Mountains surged up from underneath the sea, it goes without saying that there were no nations on earth, and that even mankind had not yet come into being, and yet the Yellow Mountains were already towering high, here on earth. And this earth is merely a single planet in the midst of the vast universe. In other words, the ¡°Yellow Mountains¡± captured by your lens are not the supreme tourist attraction of our nation, nor the Yellow Mountains trampled by the feet of millions of tourists; no, they are instead this sort of entity: the cosmic entity that at that time caused every nerve-fibre in your body to tremble in awe! And why should I call this ¡°the nakedness of the universe?¡± Because the Yellow Mountains that you photographed were a cosmic entity that had not yet been wrapped in any man-made cultural garment. The mountains stand there revealed in their nakedness, as the clouds are there revealed in their nakedness, having thus floated for hundreds of thousands of years, without the slightest appearance of having been carved or ornamented, or draped in any outer garment. And yet, you were truly shaken. Why were you so shaken? Because as you stood there before the vast, expansive energy of the mountains and streams, you had already stepped outside of history itself! Marx says that mankind is a species who lives entirely within a world constituted by his own civilization. Everything we know is encompassed by this civilization. You must live according to this thing! Other animals have never reached this point. But one day you suddenly climbed the Yellow Mountains, 1800 feet above sea-level, and suddenly saw this naked universe existing there, never having been touched by the hand of man, that is in fact you were suddenly standing outside of history. Your sensations at that point were beyond description. Historical culture from the first has been a skin covering every person¡¯s nerves and limbs. No one can leap outside of the binding of his own skin. But you, standing at the summit of the Yellow Mountains, suddenly had leapt out of your own skin! Would this not suffice to shake you deeply?
Wang Wusheng: My feelings then were simply that right before my eyes, the universe was going through the ¡°Big Bang!¡± My soul went floating away, floating away because of this feeling of being shaken.
Xia: This is as much as to say, the rules and creeds that had previously bound one, allowing one only to be able to think in a certain way, and not be able to think in some other way, had entirely dissolved!
Wang: The soul leaving the body. Xia: One¡¯s vision at the time of the soul leaving the body is different from ordinary perception. Otherwise, the verdant sweep of mountain peaks having entered your field of vision could not have been concentrated into a grayish silhouette. This is probably a case of your pouring the insight of your soul¡¯s trembling into the massive structure of the mountains. And then, all the old texturing techniques to which traditional ink-painters devoted themselves (call them ¡°national essence¡±) disappeared. With this, the craftsmanship by means mastered by an Ansel Adams for depicting the precise patterns of cliffs in intimate detail, disappeared. Even the so-called ¡°Technique of layered ink¡± uniquely deployed by Li Keran would be inadequate to express the profound darkness and weightiness of the structure of your mountains.
Wang: I have in fact been influenced by Li Keran. Once when I climbed the mountains with him, he said, ¡°Wang, they critique my paintings as being black mountains and evil-looking water: just look and tell me, Are these mountains black, or not?¡± This remark of his had a profound influence on me. And yet I am not the same as he. His ¡°layered ink¡± involves repeated applications of ink any number of times, with the result that the mountains display their structured layers, both dark and powerful. But I later discovered that I don¡¯t need this sort of thing. It is still insufficient to express the powerful impressions I received.
Xia: Le Keran¡¯s ¡°layered ink¡± definitely has its own rationale. But if it were to be used to express those revered ¡°holy mountains¡± in your heart, it would be found to be inadequate. ¡°The humane man loves mountains,¡± according to Confucius: but for showing forth the standard of nobility achieved by the ¡°humane man,¡± ¡°deeply concerned in his heart for the whole world,¡± only towering mountains and precipitous ridges can adequately symbolize his manly, staunch energy. You do not merely transform the green mountains into deeply black ¡°yin¡± images, but you also transform the mountains¡¯ manly [¡°yang¡±], staunchness into a kind of honorable sombreness. I imagine the power of the mountains¡¯ structure upon your heart¡ªrising to heaven and planted on earth¡ªmust be really profound, and that of their material density really great, to the point where they have been absorbed even into your very soul. And that is why right before your eyes they turn darker, darker to the utmost degree, the mountains becoming entirely sombre. Sombre mountains can make a man tremble indeed, can make a man who approaches them keenly feel the weakness and insignificance of his own person. Here there seems to be a kind of ¡°diagnosis by art:¡± because you revere the spirituality of the mountains, you have made transformed them from ¡°manly and staunch¡± to ¡°sombre.¡±
Moreover, I see how your mountains are able to sparkle, like the glittering of a diamond. This sparkle I have seen deep within the eyes of Mr. Wang Yuanhua; when he had this sparkle in his eye, he would be deeply immersed in thinking about history, about the history of the Revolution, deeply immersed in the ways in which his soul had been moved by those events, a place in the heart where blood and tears both flow. After this, I think as well of a Buddhist sutra, the Diamond Sutra: the structure of your dark mountains, it would seem, can only be adequately described by a single word, and that would be, adamantine or diamond-like. Their entire body is burnished to brilliance, yet sombre, and if one were to tap them with one¡¯s hand, they would ring out with a rich ¡°pinging¡± sound, deep and resonant, very subtle¡ªimpossible to say where its border or bottom might reside, its depth beyond reckoning. This kind of heart and soul-moving mountain structure (it should actually be called, ¡°formal appearance¡±) I have truly never before encountered in any volume on art history, east or west. Perhaps the horizon of my knowledge of art is too limited!
And then there is the ¡°Ocean of Cloud,¡± those white clouds that to the very horizon swallow then spit forth the peaks! According to reason, clouds are the lightest, most graceful, softest and Yin-like of things, while at the same time most scintillating with sunbeams, most expansive, and with the greatest capacity for burgeoning everywhere. When you comprehend how the limitless ocean of cloud burgeons forth in such a multilayered fashion, striking against the dark, clustered peaks, and causing them in the midst of these pure white clouds to float and then sink, you can be amazed. If we depend upon the conventional vocabulary of Chinese, there simply is no way to describe that majestic spectacle which you have photographed! Your ¡°Black Mountains and White Waterways¡± inform us that the universe indeed contains certain never-before encountered ¡°powerful weakness,¡± or ¡°clustering caresses¡±!
Wang: For many years, people have said that my ¡°landscape photography¡± only has mountains, and has no water. My response is, What are those clouds? Are they not water?¡±
Xia: Clouds are congealed particles of water reacting together in the void. Clouds or ¡°energy¡± are more water than water itself! They are the soul of water. When the ascending particles of water seem to congeal or to scatter, that is energy. If they closely combine to embrace and fill mountain and valley, then they are clouds. When your lens captures the ocean of cloud flowing along the mountain ridges seemingly wrought of iron, wildly flowing and descending, I can¡¯t help but feel that neither Li Bai¡¯s ¡°The Silver River falls from ninefold Heaven,¡± nor his ¡° The waters of the Yellow River come flowing down from Heaven¡± can do justice to the way the Ocean of Cloud presses down on everything there is, this vast energy or perhaps sovereign energy! With this one can believe that in the realm of landscape, it may well be the clouds that can best perform the ¡°natural diagnostic method.¡± That is, in the whole universe, the lightest, most graceful primal elements, congealing with high density or spreading to the point where there is nowhere they are not, have a potential for the most complete permeation. I once remarked that your ¡°black mountains¡± cause Yang to become Yin, while the white clouds that appear here also can make Yin become Yang: and what must this cause the viewers to think of? They should think of the ¡°Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate¡± in the Book of Changes! The black and white of the two polar forces of yin and yang transforming and interchanging, as in the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate: this marks the symbol for the philosophical principle of the universe¡¯s perpetual, unceasing life. And the vast actions and eruptions of the life of the universe manifestly take place beyond the realm of human history and culture. At the time when the planet did not yet have the human race upon it, it was already working in this fashion. After the appearance of the human race, it continued to work in this fashion. And the history of the human race having evolved to the present point, even though high technology has made it possible for us to understand and even change the face of nature, with both positive and negative results, if we compare the life of the universe to the limited length of human activity, the history of the universe approaches to being beginning less and endless, that is to say, eternal. This amounts to saying that when you, still possessed of conventional thinking and reasoning suddenly, at the summit of the mountains, stumble upon the incomparable magnificent solemnity of the universe, you cannot help but feel awe and trembling because of it. The root of the power to move us possessed by your ¡°black mountains and white water¡± lies in this.
Wang: I¡¯d been searching for this ¡°root¡± for decades, that is to say, I can¡¯t say for sure what, ultimately, was the nature of that initial, ¡°blind¡± feeling of being shaken?
Xia: This is a once in a lifetime random, sudden emergence from the prison of mankind¡¯s history and culture, just like breaking out of a shell, and brusquely discovering that yes, indeed there is this type of existence, capable of making human history and culture feel ashamed of its own inadequacy. Its name is, the Universe.
Wang: The first opening of ¡°Primal Chaos.¡±
Xia: ¡°The first opening of Primal Chaos¡± would seem to have two levels of implied meaning: the first refers to the original appearance of the universe in itself; the second refers to the psycho-spiritual turmoil of human awakening to cosmic consciousness. Why do you speak of your ¡°Yellow Mountains¡± as being ¡°Mountains in Heaven?¡± Such mountains could only exist in Heaven! This ¡°Heavenly being¡± refers to the way it broke through your conventional field of vision, conditioned by human history and culture, and at the same time having such scenes intoxicatingly thrust before our eyes, awaiting our entrance therein, while we have not yet prepared ourselves in spirit to treat adequately such a gift of the universe.
Wang: I understand ¡°The First Opening of Primal Chaos¡± to refer to mankind¡¯s feeling of personally for the first time passing through a strange encounter which one has never before experienced. At the time they do not read correctly this ¡°feeling of being moved,¡± but the ¡°feeling of being moved¡± had already subconsciously merged with the genetic code of their spirit.
Xia: Therefore, speaking from that angle, the feeling of being absorbed into the image is very much like aboriginal man facing the symbols of his totems, causing his heart to feel a baffling sense of awe.
Wang: The ¡°aboriginals¡± of whom you speak, would, I take it, be the primordial tribes not yet bound by the fetters of mankind¡¯s ¡°high development?¡±
Xia: These too can be discussed under two headings. Firstly, if one pays attention to the psychological nature of the ¡°trembling in awe,¡± then no matter whether aboriginal or modern man, both are rooted in the subject¡¯s spirit being shaken by the object he venerates or offers homage to. There is no distinction here between ¡°prehistoric¡± and ¡°historic¡±. Secondly, if we pay attention to the cultural content of ¡°trembling in awe,¡± then the trembling of the aboriginal¡¯s spirit is of a mystical form, as in his mind he is unable to distinguish clearly that the unreal interpenetration between himself and the totemic symbol (symbolizing the tribe¡¯s ancestors) is merely imaginary; on the contrary, he really believes the superstition that all he need do is become carried away by the primitive sacrificial ceremonies, and the spirits of the ancestors can then actually return and enter his own physical body. But when you look upon the ¡°black and white mountain and water landscape¡± of the Yellow Mountains causing your soul to transcend, you are merely allowing yourself to break through the constraints of human culture, and to experience a previously unencountered ¡°liberation of body and mind¡± with a concomitant convulsion of consciousness.
Wang: I can tell you that I am very happy! At first, At first, when the Yellow Mountains led to my ¡°trembling in awe,¡± for the sake of understanding what exactly this phenomenon was, I spent over thirty years! At the same time, for the sake of using the language of photography to express it to my satisfaction, I also spent over thirty years. The explanation I have just heard makes me very happy, because you have read so accurately my visual language, and this means that I must have succeeded after all!
Xia: At this point, I would like to probe more deeply into your creative process. You have said that ever since 1974, when you first encountered the Yellow Mountains, until the time when you were able to fully execute a ¡°black and white landscape¡± of what had so strongly moved you, was a period of over thirty years of struggle and searching. It is not hard to imagine how in the beginning when you came down from the Yellow Mountains so full of excitement, and wanted to share your initial snapshots with your friends, your friends were not that moved¡ªit stands to reason.
Wang: I simply hadn¡¯t yet succeeded in expressing it well.
Xia: This leads me to believe that the ¡°Yellow Mountains¡± that were retained on your negatives at that time were merely the raw material for your ¡°Black Mountains and White Water;¡± or perhaps one might call them a rich lode of ore, full of potential, awaiting your further prospecting. I have heard that in your files you have several tens of thousands of negatives of the Yellow Mountains. These negatives suggest to you ¡°There is gold here!¡± but this gold must await your putting it through a smelting process later on. And this ¡°smelting¡± would consist of taking the original raw material and purifying it into a basic mold. First is ¡°color.¡± Why did you put aside the colored Yellow Mountains and treat them in black and white? Even if the mottled colors of the mountains themselves or the mountain mists have permeated the black and white negatives with a color-like feeling, they have already been transformed there into ¡°Black and White Landscape.¡± This is very close indeed to the way that Zheng Xie (Zheng Banqiao) in painting ink bamboo on Xuanzhou paper would directly take advantage of the flat reflections of three-dimensional blue-green bamboos on the wall. What is more, you at one point tried to draw close to the work of Ansel Adams. Adams indeed has the capability of shooting to a profound degree the rich striations of mountain formations in the moonlight. But you ultimately chose a rich, weighty, pure black in which to cloak the mountains overall. That is to say, perhaps, when your spirit was shaken by the peaks, what struck you right between the eyes was an overall impression, rather than the magnification of some small detail. Or to put it another way, when your spirit was shaken, you were entirely absorbed into the object, in such a way that you had not intention nor any time to reach for a magnifying glass, and then minutely examine the patterns of the mountain surfaces like Adams? Or again, it is even more like the way a lover sinks, intoxicated, into a river of love: he no longer can delegate his mind to appreciate how lovely is the ring upon the beloved¡¯s slender finger. . . . .
Wang: You said a lot there! When I, from my current stance today, remember the feeling of being shaken by the Yellow Mountains thirty-seven years ago, I find myself confronting two different mental realms: ¡°The feeling at that time;¡± and ¡°My present memory of that time.¡± The former depended purely on direct perception, direct awareness, and it was very ambiguous, not yet evolved into anything; while the latter consists of a constant inspection and interpretation of why the Yellow Mountains of that time so moved me. Therefore, rather than say, I have been seeking or forming my photographic language on the basis of the aspect of ¡°shape and form¡±, it would be better to say, that I have been putting my energy into ¡°the enlightenment of self-awareness.¡± Only when ¡°self-aware¡± can there be ¡°enlightenment!¡± Only when I myself understand what this feeling of being moved really was, can I comprehend what sort of artistic style or technique is wanted.
Xia: This is something like a ¡°two-track¡± system; roughly seen, there are two parallel lines. In fact, the line of ¡°the enlightenment of self-awareness¡± provides motivation and a mechanism for discrimination when one is searching for a technique on the level of expression.
Wang: At that time, I was twenty years old. All I knew was that I was being shaken. As to why I was being moved, I did not know¡ªI did not understand in the least!
Xia: It is just like falling in love with a girl: you don¡¯t really know who she is, but you love her; you could not state clearly why you love her.
Wang: Indeed, I could not say why! But since at that time I was indeed shaken, I wanted to use the art I had at hand to manifest it. The process that ensued was entirely in blindness. I was just starting my studies, and had not yet accomplished anything in photography. On the one had, my photographic technique was groping its way forward, while on the other, my comprehension of that which I had photographer (the whole relationship between the Yellow Mountains and myself) was continually deepening. And these things, conversely, caused my photographic language to become richer and richer, more and more taking concrete shape. But at the time when I had just started, I had no real direction, even to the point where I simply went with the fashions of the moment, enjoying the color photography which was just then fashionable (through foreign reproductions); while at the same time in black and white photography emulating Ansel Adams. And it was during this process that I happened to form a deep interest in ¡°black.¡± At the time I didn¡¯t know why, but I liked ¡°black!¡±
Xia: If Croce were here, he would say, that this ¡°black¡± and your ¡°liking¡± were direct aesthetic perceptions! They contained the elements of an aesthetic self-awareness, but had not yet been refined into a concept.
Wang: If I felt it was good, I just did it. But I was also negatively received by some. At the end of the day, I would have to say that these sketchy mountains of mine were not photographs, and I regretted it. I could only withdraw them and stash them in a repository, and just produce color and black and white photography of the sort then being validated by professionals in the field. I did whatever they did; it was boring, lacking in any zest.
Xia: In art, what is valued is creativity.
Wang: I always wonder, ¡°Why did I choose Black and White Landscape Photography to be my life¡¯s work? In the history of Chinese art, from the Qing Dynasty up to the present, there have been many great masters who have depicted the Yellow Mountains, and photographed the Yellow Mountains! Among the former there are Shitao, Hongren, Huang Binhong, Li Keran, and Liu Haisu. Among the latter there are Lang Jingshan, and Huang Xiang. It seemed really stupid of me to choose the Yellow Mountains! But I paid no heed and did it no matter what. So I did, and was unable to do better than others. Oh, I just hadn¡¯t hit upon my own feeling.
And why were my things not the same as that original feeling of being shaken? In a flash, twenty years went by. In all the twists and turns I finally discovered¡ªOh yes! I must recapture that original feeling which had been lost! That is specifically, my deep feeling for ¡°black.¡± From that point on, I became relatively self-aware, and consciously formed my own style, not paying any attention to whether the outside world criticized me or not. And this included Japan. In the Japanese world of photography, the most prestigious institution is called The Institute for the Study of Photography in Japanese Universities. But the professors there were all of them slavishly following the Western ¡°classics.¡± They ordained that the use of black could not exceed 85%, that one should show a progression in tone and hue, and only then reach the richness of graduated sequence: this was their gold standard rule. I ignored it, as I did not wish to believe superstitiously in anything. When I read your book, ¡°Nine Letters Presented to Late Philosophers,¡± I found that you show a feeling of reverence towards those great men of the world of learning, those geniuses of history, and yet you are not blindly worshipping them. You demonstrate not one iota of self-deprecation. You view them fairly, and yet you do revere them. The two attitudes work well together. I was particularly moved by this. I have never revered anyone in history, I just have what I like, and what I dislike. But of course one can feel reverence. So when it comes to those ¡°gold standards¡± in the history of photography, or in the history of any artistic expression, I have never felt that I was barred from breaking them. Thus later on, I courageously recaptured that lingering love for ¡°black¡± of mine, and indeed developed it even further.
Xia: Photography in certain ways differs from other representational arts in rules and regulations. I hope you can explain how this ¡°black¡± by which you are so smitten is ¡°created,¡± starting from photographs out in the field and then going into the dark room. This would be like someone loving your fine cuisine, and then being particularly anxious to learn how you purchase your basic ingredients, and then to enter your kitchen to watch how you mix them on the spot.
Wang: This takes us to the question of ¡°subjective vs objective¡± in photography. First comes choosing one¡¯s scene out in the field: what it is that the lens will face, is chosen ¡°subjectively.¡± What lens to use is also chosen ¡°subjectively.¡± Nature is there, right before your eyes, and constitutes a three-dimensional, holistic 360¡ã panorama (this is ¡°objective¡±). But your lens can only select one portion of it (this is ¡°subjective¡±). But once I use any type of zoom lens (telescopic or wide-angle), to face my ¡°subjective¡± choice of scene, often I can only wait [for the right moment to shoot], and this again weighs more on the side of ¡°objectivity¡± [i.e., the weather conditions are part of objective nature]. Photography is an art which places the greatest possible emphasis on ¡°light, and so the photographer can only ¡°await¡± for beams of light, or clouds, to come down to a certain position, before he can as quickly as possible press the shutter button: this again is ¡°subjective.¡±
When it comes to photographing the Yellow Mountains, my experience of that word, ¡°waiting,¡± is extensive! Every day at 4:30 am I would go up the mountains, and wait for the mists to appear! If they did not appear, I would swallow my disappointment, and come back down. It was like this everyday. And since everyday I was lugging 8 x 10 or 4 x 5 large cameras, I would get exhausted. And beyond getting them up there, once up the mountains and awaiting the ¡°cloud ocean,¡± which shifts form every instant, those large cameras were very inconvenient to adjust appropriately to the momentary transformations of the cloud ocean. At the very moment you are changing the lens, the scene you wanted has already disappeared! So I would often use cameras of 135 or 645 at most in maneuverability, while at the same time selecting an automatic lens of the sort then called ¡°club-level,¡± which most professional photographers would not deign to use. I was really ¡°cutting out¡± a bit of that universe in just a moment! And that was because the rapidly shifting cloud ocean can in half a second turn an entire mountain black, and then in the wink of an eye all white, engulfing the entire mountain! This is truly just an instant; sometimes even within one tenth of one second everything might change!
Xia: This is truly ¡°subjectivity within objectivity!¡± Or ¡°objectivity within subjectivity!¡± ¡°Subjectivity¡± here refers to the creative conception and its execution. ¡°Objectivity,¡± to the limitations imposed by conditions.
Wang: Now I can speak a little about ¡°black.¡± Because at the times that I witnessed the exciting emergence of the cloud ocean, in actual fact the mountains which I saw being embraced by the cloud ocean with its brilliant whiteness were themselves entirely black. This aspect of course is in contrast with the white clouds, it is the blindingly brilliant white clouds rendering the dark mountains completely black; but from a different angle, while I was shooting the mountains¡¯ structures, bathed myself in the great refracted light, the pupils of my eyes¡ªthat is to say, the apertures of the ¡°high-level, intelligent lenses¡± of the human eye¡ªmust for an instant have contracted, and with this the mountains appeared even blacker, as with diamond or rather carbon.
But a problem remains: When we use special lenses of optical glass to take the effect of the light, they are far more accurate than the human eye, so that the peaks which I see as ¡°black¡± like diamond or carbon, when finally manifested on the negative, have around their outlines a grey murkiness or fuzzy luminescence which is different from the ¡°black¡± that I wish to show forth. This then requires me to use special dark-room techniques to render those greyish mountains truly as black as carbon.
I don¡¯t know how many photographers like me there actually are in the world today. Because when I do ¡°Black and White Landscape,¡± the time spent in shooting represents perhaps 20% of the whole process, the remaining 80% being taken up with thinking things through in the dark-room, going through various stages of comparison, before I can recreate a photograph which fully satisfies me and is worthy of being called a ¡°work of art.¡± Some people¡¯s photographs can be limitlessly reproduced, while my works frequently are limited to this ¡°one sheet.¡± I recall Li Keran having a seal which read, ¡°3000 discarded paintings,¡± that is, anything he painted that he found unsatisfactory he would tear up and throw away. I am the same; because of my dark-room work, I never produce two photos that are exactly the same. I finally choose one version, and that¡¯s that.
Xia: I would like to ask another question with regard to your technique for displaying the images. That is with regard to the suitable size of the actual photographs on display in exhibitions of your Black and White Landscape Photography. Some famous photographers¡¯ works sometimes are better suited to smaller rather than larger formats. An example would be Michael Kenna, whose ¡°Pure Photography¡± you admire. There is a certain mystical disposition, profoundly deep and yet delicate, in 17th Century French thought, as when Pascal comprehends that the human mental condition is that of ¡°thinking weed,¡± intelligent, and yet very frail. He does not belong in the category of things vast and powerful. Therefore Michael Kenna¡¯s philosophical photographic images often opt for the ¡°pocket size¡±. (Wang: Generally just one square foot.) If one were to forcibly enlarge one of them, it would be hard to avoid making them seem empty and shallow. Your Black and White Landscape Photography is precisely the opposite: The size needs to be large, not small; ¡°don¡¯t fear being too big; fear not being big enough!¡±
Wang: Let me just add this. You have just spoken of a key point, particularly relevant to my art. Whether my works are in ¡°large size¡± or ¡°small size¡± makes a considerable difference. Every exhibition I have had at home or abroad, there have been people who pay particular attention to art who have left this question on written on the sheet: ¡°How is it that you must magnify your ¡®135¡¯ negatives to such a size?¡± This is because I magnify one inch square negatives to one metre high and two metres wide, even so far as six metres, and it seems the artistic value might suffer , the image might become unclear, the grains may become too course. And yet I want these large sizes. When I exhibited in Europe, America and Japan, many of the viewers upon first seeing a collection of my images all said, ¡°Good! Good! But when my own countrymen walk into the gallery, almost all of them say that these large size works and small size album leaves [of traditional Chinese painting] leave a totally different impression upon one. Because of the size! Because these are of ¡°large size,¡± and also special lighting has been installed, the on-the-spot impression they make on viewers is far greater than that of small size album leaves. (In the last several years, I have also developed an artistic concept of ¡°landscape space¡± , that is, to use several enormous black and white images to ¡°wrap up¡± the main hall of Shanghai¡¯s Putong airport. The people who saw the mock-up images were truly shaken by them. Alas, I still haven¡¯t met my Bo Le [one who recognizes prize horseflesh], and so to this day the project has gone unrealized.) We should add that the original photograph and the printed version are not the same, the one using photographic paper for display, so that the true deep black is burnished to a polish like adamant, as if you could strike it and produce a sound, ¡°bong, bong!¡± What a great description! Whereas traditional landscape painting, because it uses Xuanzhou paper and ink¡ªthe traditional materials¡ªis basically incapable of achieving the same results as photographic paper. Many foreign viewers have said, ¡°You have created a completely new art, unlike any we have seen in our museums until this day. It requires no preparation in art appreciation. Anybody, just like listening to Beethoven¡¯s music, at once is swept into your art. This is an art that is received by the spirit!¡± They all have been in a dialogue with their own souls, entering into their own worlds [through the experience of this art].
Xia: This serves perfectly to corroborate my judgment, that the style of your Black and White Landscape Photography, from the point of view of the realm of aesthetics, belongs to the Sublime. In the view of Kant, the Sublime, as a kind of aesthetic object other than the merely ¡°pretty;¡± the power it manifests in basic substance, quality, and spirit far transcends the scope of everyday human experience. Thus when our consciousness is confronted with the Sublime, it will experience a kind of spiritual uplifting which is ¡°both painful and joyous,¡± painful, because for a moment one becomes aware of the pettiness and lowliness of one¡¯s own physical being, and joyous, because one has now perceived an expansiveness and magnificence never before known. And so, when your Black and White Landscape Photography is displayed hanging on all four walls of a chamber, the vast, burgeoning energy and solemnly beautiful creative force which writhes, radiates, bubbles and overflows from the images¡ªvery much like a gigantic magnet or aura¡ªsummons human nature itself to undergo sublimation to the point of taking flight! In the midst of bedazzlement, one imagines that a cluster of white clouds has somehow come floating out of the picture frame, and has lifted one by the arms, gently by the neck, and softly melted one¡¯s body into the burgeoning cloud-ocean of another of the landscapes. . . .And it was precisely in this manner that you, so many years ago, were inhaled by the Yellow Mountains for the first time, while now, you have, by means of the large-size Black and White Landscapes on the wall, inhaled the vision and the very souls of all the viewers in the world! This is like a great artistic cave with enormous power of inhalation! Because its spiritual power is so very great, the spirit within each person, which cannot compare in strength, is absorbed into it, just as a straight beam of light, once having passed the region of the sun cannot help but be warped by it. The larger your works are, the more such seductive power they possess. There is a direct correlation between a given work¡¯s seductive power and its size.
Wang: When these works were exhibited in Europe, America and Japan, many of the viewers were moved to exclaim, ¡°Ah! This painting is so beautifully done! Painted so well!¡± And I would tell them, this is not a painting, it is a photograph. They would gasp in astonishment! And well they might, as this makes manifest the power to shake one of these ¡°photos.¡± People left notes in the notebook for commentaries, in English, German, French, Japanese. . . .in all, thirty-eight languages! I myself can read Japanese. The majority of the Japanese notes said things like, ¡°I was drawn into them [the works]!¡± I saw people who would sit an entire day in front of one work! One should in fact spend half and hour or an hour in front of each, so that it could take an entire day or two days to see the whole show properly. The special feature of my photography exhibitions is, the large number of returning visitors. They would come back, again and again, even to the point of saying, ¡°You should set up your own museum! I would purchase monthly passes!¡± It is clear that they were not only enjoying these as works of art, but were in search of something spiritual: first entering into my ¡°Black and White Landscapes,¡± and then entering into the inner world of their own mysterious thoughts.
Xia: Your exhibition halls have indeed become a kind of spiritual oxygen source! ¡°Negative ions¡± far more powerful than those in the ordinary world are floating about! Such is the effect of the art you have created, and it is the effect as well of culture. If we start from this point, our dialogue can turn in a different direction: let us discuss giving a truly adequate name or title to your Black and White Landscape Photography. When we take a rough glance at a title, it seems like simply giving a label to the object. But on more careful examination, it is not lacking in deeper literary content: because whether the title is fitting or not can reveal the namer¡¯s angle or degree of comprehension of the entitled object. If we call those mountains in your black and white photographs, ¡°Famous Mountains ¡° [a standard formulation], this amounts to saying nothing. Some people would call them, ¡°Mountains of the Immortals.¡± These black and white landscapes, with cloud-mists floating about as if they were fluttering sleeves, can indeed seduce people into imagining, ¡°I am going to ride the wind and go to heaven!¡± And yet your works do not hermetically allude to ¡°growing wings and ascending as an Immortal¡± [as in popular religious Taoism]. ¡°Immortal¡± [Chin. xian ÏÉ] in a standard dictionary of Chinese culture, would refer to someone who has managed to extend the longevity of the fleshly body, while you in a more spiritual sense cause a feeling of purification of the person¡¯s spiritual sense of reality. Hence you yourself have honored your mountains by dubbing them ¡°Mountains of Heaven¡± or ¡°Celestial Mountains¡±, which is indeed precisely fitting. What is mirrored in the meaning of ¡°Heaven¡± is an inexpressibly elevated divinity, and so Celestial Mountains may be called in brief, Sacred Mountains.
In the history of Western art, if there is a master painter one might refer to in comparison with your Black and White Landscape Photography, that would be C¨¦zanne, in particular his Mont Sainte-Victoire. The significance of C¨¦zanne for modern Western painting lies in his being the first to suggest clearly that he means to paint those natural objects which in his heart seem to perdure as long as the universe itself, and which can embody the solemn serenity of that perduring universe, such as Mont Sainte-Victoire. And that would be because this particular mountain shows forth a triangular structure, and this triangular structure best embodies in several ways the serene feeling of the ages. Of course, this feeling is far more stable, purely calm, and spiritual than mountains depicted in such a manner as to give the sense of ¡°Heroes fighting for supremacy, battling over rivers and mountains,¡± mountains of ¡°blood and iron,¡± of power, of profit. And your Black and White Landscape is not limited to ¡°mountains¡± alone, but also is intended to call attention to humanity¡¯s need to emerge from the shell of history and culture, and beyond this, to convey the realization that humanity must achieve a dimension beyond this current society, the dimension of a free universe.
Wang: Every sincere wish will eventually be fulfilled! I thank Heaven above for letting the two of us meet! From a certain point of view, an artist struggles and labors hard his entire life for the ultimate purpose of meeting one who ¡°understands his music.¡± I have been through a good deal, and become accustomed to just let things take their course, to accept fate. Whatever Heaven above has sent, I have accepted. I have never gone in positive search of a ¡°music-knower,¡± considering that ¡°one can meet with such a person, but cannot go in search of such a person.¡± I even got to the point of thinking, ¡°For this society to grasp my Black and White Landscape Photography, may well require awaiting the time after my death! Perhaps I¡¯ll have to wait fifty years, or maybe a hundred years, before running into such a knower of my music, one who can use words, language to interpret me correctly.¡± I never thought that here and now, such a person would appear! Thank you so much!
Xia: Rather let me say, Thank you to your Black and White Landscape Photography!
Spring of 2011, given final form at the Xue seng xi du xuan Studio
1) Reference is made to Shitao (1642-1707) and Hongren (1610-1664; also known as Jianjiang), two of the master painters of China. Hongren was the leading representative of the Anhui or Xin¡¯an School. Li Keran (1907-1989), also mentioned, is one of the leading Chinese painters of the 20th century.
2) ¡°Croce¡± is Benedetto Croce (1866 -1952), Italian Idealist philosopher who exercised a major influence on aesthetic theory.
Translated by Jonathan Chaves