I found myself inspired recently to follow-up on some research into East Asia ink wash paintings following on from a conversation with Russell, my tutor for CS. Both of us have a connection to Chinese art in particular and have a very fluid dialogue on the influences. We talked a little about the BBC documentary series Civilisations (2018) in relation to early Asian art and the first waves of globalisation, which formed a part of my first essay for CS.
A returning theme for me in this course is how to consolidate influences such as this into a contemporary art practice. While discussing the inception of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes (see fig. 1.) I questioned how in todays self-referential culture, how come certain art techniques and universal themes which become synonymous with a particular artist are not repeated and could be deemed as copying. What immediately comes to mind is Jackson Pollock’s drip, and perhaps even Sugimoto’s Seascapes.
This was not always the case. Art schools in both the East and West had a spirit of what the Japanese call shokunin (or craftsman). The apprentice studied the masters work through ritual and repetition, with the aspiration of surpassing the skill, before the prospect of adding a personal voice. Indeed many celebrated artworks such as the Splashed-ink landscape by Sesshū Tōyō and Katsushika Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji were created in what we call today retirement age, a culmination of a life’s work. Contrast that with how contemporary practice focused on our personal voice, our individuality complies with “…the subjectivisation of photography, the ways in which the connoisseurship of the photograph’s ‘spark of chance’ is converted into a connoisseurship of the photograph’s style.” (Crimp, 1993, p.105).
And so in my research to Song Dynasty painters I found a body of work of the painter Ma Yuan (c. 1160-1225). A Study on the Properties of Water (see fig. 2.) is compositionally similar to Seascapes. It is, as the title says, a study, not a definition. Simply, a series of examples depicting water under differing conditions. Air (or wind) and water, referred to in China as feng shui, is the simplest of interactions, yet offers a seemingly endless variety of interpretations. Air is represented in that, which is familiar in so much East Asian art, emptiness or negative space.
His depiction of frothing waves (see fig. 3.) are recognisable more than six centuries later in The Underwave off Kanagawa (Hokusai, 1829-1833) or what we are often referred to as The Great Wave. It is possible to identify familiar artistic choices and possible cultural migration present, whether Hokusai had seen this painting by Ma Yuan I do not know. However over the process of time, it is clear that a similar conclusion was reached on how an aggressive wave should be represented, and in Hokusai’s case also translated into the medium of the wood block print.
When I was referred to Sonja Brass recently by a fellow student I also drew compositional comparisons to Sugimoto’s Seascapes. The chronological titling of each image in The Passage (see fig. 4.) implies a journey through a hostile, frozen landscape. While Sugimoto’s work is based on recapturing a shared view of a primitive world, his captioning employs an element of psychogeography, seeing the same premise in various locations across the globe. Air and water are again the two elements of interaction in a minimalist visual. In the case of Brass, she addresses the contemporary topics of truth and representation of photography. The images are not of reality, but models constructed in her studio. The viewers perception is challenged by the context of the image after being drawn in by its familiar aesthetic.
Similarly I see an example of hybrid artwork in Edo period Japan. Cracked Ice (see fig. 5.) by Maruyama Ōkyo (1733-1795) contains Western perspective that differentiates from ‘flat’ compositions where depth is specified through tone. Cracked Ice, for me is also distinctly Japanese with its high emphasis on emptiness and elegant simplicity. Ultimately what I am concluding from all of this is a return to a familiar subject and aesthetic with new ideas and variable reasoning.
All of this I hope is seen as more than an elaborate way for me to justify my own attempt of that familiarity. With an empty day in my calendar I set myself a challenge of facing Lake Ontario from a fixed position on the centre island of Toronto. As I have stated before I am looking to evolve from impulsive traveller, in an impatient state of continual motion, to someone who sees changes in space and light more meditatively and works within limited parameters. So I see a study on water as an example of that containment. To stay in the same place and constrain composition (my dominant feature). I used the same fixed lens (90mm) and found variation with nothing more than exposure and focus to play with in time.
The result of this is not, to be clear, a new body of work, but a study and a reflection. As a challenge of self-imposed limitation to inspire creativity like my smartphone notations. In this exercise I find inspiration from the element of time as seen in Brass and the cameras technical capacity seen in the broader series of Sugimoto. But also in keeping with the artistic traditions referenced above. To engage with a practice within a framework in order to self-reflect through shared experience with my tool, the camera.
Braas, S (no date) Available at: https://www.sonjabraas.com (Accessed on 23.10.18)
Crimp, D (1993) On the Museums Ruins. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Faena. A (2016) 'A Study on the Properties of Water by Ma Yuan' In: faena.com 29.07.16 [online] At: http://www.faena.com/aleph/articles/a-study-on-the-properties-of-water-by-ma-yuan/ (Accessed on 23.10.18)
Sugimoto, H (no date) Available at: https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com (Accessed on 23.10.18)
Sugimoto, Hiroshi (2015) Seascapes. Bologna: Damiani.
Sullivan. M (1998) 'Ma Yuan' In: Encyclopaedia Britannica 20.07.98 [online] At: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ma-Yuan-Chinese-painter (Accessed on 23.10.18)
List of illustrations
Figure 1. Sugimoto, H (1980) Carribean Sea, Jamaica [Photograph] At: https://www.sugimotohiroshi.com/seascapes-1 (Accessed on 23.10.18)
Figure 2. Ma, Y (c. 1160-1225) The Waving Surface of the Autumn Flood [Ink on silk] At: https://china-underground.com/2017/11/16/the-paintings-of-ma-yuan/ (Accessed on 23.10.18)
Figure 3. Ma, Y (c. 1160-1225) The Yellow River Breaches its Course [Ink on silk] At: https://china-underground.com/2017/11/16/the-paintings-of-ma-yuan/ (Accessed on 23.10.18)
Figure 4. Braas, S (2009) Week 2 [Photograph] At: https://www.sonjabraas.com/the-passage/week-2 (Accessed on 23.10.18)
Figure 5. Maruyama, O (late 18th century) Cracked Ice [Painting] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maruyama_Ōkyo#/media/File:Cracked_Ice_Okyo.jpg (Accessed on 23.10.18)