Seigo MATSUOKA (Director, Editorial Engineering Laboratory)

         May      2005

Photographic Sansui
The Miraculous Resurrection of an Eastern Method

When I first saw Wang Wusheng's photographs of the Yellow Mountains, I observed an ancient time and a vision of the future joined in a 。ーphotographis sansui。ア embodying both the traditions of Chinese landscape painting and the sensibilities of contemporary art. There are many photographs of Chinese mountains but I had never encountered images such as these, in which I discovered the "inner sansui" I had long sought.

In East Asia, "landscape" is frequently expressed using a compound for 。ーmountain。ア」ィノス」ゥ and 。ーwater。ア」ィヒョ」ゥ, pronounced sansui by the Japanese and shanshui by the Chinese. But sansui is not merely a landscape, and certainly not a common landscape. It is a topos of lofty peaks and flowing streams, a scene from nature onto which a higher order of spirituality and deep consciousness can be projected. Sansui is neither simply nature nor a scene soon to be forgotten. The sansui of the East is a landscape that makes you wish you could exchange your own spirituality and consciousness for those of the mountains and rivers. It is an "inner sansui" bathing the depths of the mind in light.

Dogen, one of Japan's foremost medieval Zen priests, wrote in the 。ーMountain and Water Sutra。ア (Sansui-kyo) chapter of the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobogenzo) that "to view sansui is to meet yourself before you were born." The self before birth is a self beyond time and space. Dogen wrote that this self is a "formless self" no one has ever seen. This yet unformed self is the essence of sansui. A depiction of something beyond time and space whose appearance is yet unformed-- this is how Chinese sansui should be seen. As I stood before Wang's photographic sansui, I could feel this acutely.

Expressing sansui through landscape poetry or landscape painting has long been a respected pursuit in China. Perhaps as much as twenty-five percent of Chinese poetry and painting has taken sansui as its subject. Landscape painting, in particular, depicts "the formless before sansui" using ideas and techniques that are unique in world art history.

Pure landscape painting first appeared in European art history with A View of the Danube Near Regensberg and other works by Albrecht Altdorfer in the 1520s. It would be three centuries more before the arrival of the Impressionists, who produced, as had Friedrich and Corot, adiverse variety of landscapes. These artists merit mention for establishing landscape painting in Europe, but landscape painting had already been well known in China for a millennium. With brush and ink and paper, monochromatic sansui paintings conjured up a sense of the divine concealed in the heart of the landscape.

Ink painting developed bold techniques and employed a point of view completely unlike the single perspective favored by European artists. The san'en technique, for example, featured the simultaneous combination of three perspectives within the same frame: the heien looking out horizontally, the koen gazing upward, and the shin'en peering deeply within. The painter presented three directions while the viewer'?absorbed the entire picture. In the use of water and ink, too, there were numerous transcendental technical innovations. The layered use of haboku (broken ink) and hatsuboku (splashed ink) washes, especially, allowed for infinite gradations and distinctive blurring. Such techniques led to the depiction of a unique sansui world in which it almost seems possible that the mind's eye might wander forever.

Naturally, Wang has not employed such methods in creating his photographic sansui. Painting and photography are different processes and employ different techniques. Wang。ッs camera could hardly make use of san'en or haboku or hatsuboku. Nevertheless, his unique combination of lens, angle, and printing techniques has created a new kind of monochromatic sansui image, one using the camera as the brush, the lens as ink and through printing techniques that create the illusion of a new kind of paper.

Actually, the techniques and concepts underlying Chinese monochrome sansui painting differed radically between the North and the South. Painters of the North favored landscapes with precipitous mountain peaks while those of the South had a taste for landscapes with gentler lines. This is not unlike Chinese medicine, where acupuncture was favored in the cold northern regions and moxibustion in the milder south. In any case, such divergent tastes remained in place for a long time.

Wang Wusheng's photographs are not only infused with the spirit of Chinese sansui painting, they are the heirs to the techniques and concepts of both the North and the South. His images represent an extraordinary embodiment of this legacy, and this is why his work is so astonishing to me. As I was drawn more and more to Wang's photographic sansui,?I soon realized something else, too. By living in Japan for two decades, he had adopted the Japanese sansui sensibility.

Broadly speaking, there are two characteristics that define the Japanese sansui sensibility. The first can be seen in dry landscapes like the rock garden at Ryoan-ji Temple. Already well-known in the West, such gardens are composed of little more than stones positioned at intervals among white sand. Called kare-sansui (withered sansui), such rock gardens first appeared between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and can be found all over Japan. These were not created by famous artists, but they were the inspiration of low-level ishidate-so craftsmen, who were responsible for designing gardens. The gardener who created the rock garden at Ryoan-ji, therefore, remains anonymous. Nevertheless, the site presents an innovative concept, introducing an ideology of subtraction by removing water to suggest its presence.

How does one suggest the presence of water in its absence? It is achieved by representing the flow and sounds of water using only stone and sand and plants. In a bold move to foster this result, the water was completely removed. This philosophy of omission is part of the Japanese sansui sensibility, which is why those who seek it sit before rock gardens, straining their eyes and ears.

The second characteristic, which established itself between Hasegawa Tohaku in the Momoyama Period and Ikeno Taiga in the middle Edo Period, is the generous use of empty space, that isspace in which nothing has been drawn. This space is neither a tabula rasa nor a small drawing on an otherwise blank sheet. Empty space is included within the frame for evocative purposes. Say there is a butterfly in a field. To paint such a scene, Tohaku or Taiga might draw a few blades of grass at the bottom of a white frame and a small butterfly in black ink fluttering in the middle of the frame off to the left. There would be no field, sky, clouds, or color. Yet one could still feel a breeze sweeping through the field and even sense the direction the butterfly was heading.

In other words, Japanese artists found empty space even within a landscape and reproduced it in their paintings. They learned to suggest an entire sansui panorama through the depiction of just one part of it, a technique also seen in the haiku of Basho and Buson.

In his photographic sansui, Wang employs such Japanese subtraction and empty space dynamically and stoically. Indeed, he often strikes me as more Japanese than the Japanese.

Wang's stoicism shows itself in his strategic placement of dark forms, at times centering the frame around forms whose blurring and gradation are overpowered by blackness. His printing methods have the power to transform the history of Chinese and Japanese sansui painting. Not mere shadows, the depth of his blacks represents an eastern void and a silence of time.

I call such photographic sansui a "sansui of absence" or a "sansui of nothingness." Here, "absence" and "nothingness" do not mean there is nothing there but that something is born from the void. Absence is presence. In ancient China, the philosophy of Lao-tse and Chuang-tse incorporated the concept of mui shizen (artless nature). There is, they said, an artlessness in nature, and the way to encounter true nature is to face it with a sense of inaction. Wang Wusheng's work pulses with a Taoist spirit informed by this distinctively Chinese philosophy. How I wish I could share his photographs with Tenshin Okakura, who created the departments of Oriental and Japanese Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Tenshin, after all, was the first Japanese to detect the 。ーimaginative absence。ア in Asian art.

Wang's work is also alive with the subtraction and absence so characteristic of Japanese thought and culture. A dark mass of mountains is not dead space but the very soul of the living mountains. The white sky in his photographs is not an empty sky but a sky shown after the passing of a raging storm, which is now bathed in sunlight. Such photographs are unprecedented the unique product of Wang Wusheng's ability to combine the two eastern sensibilities of Chinese and Japanese tradition.