When I for the first time saw a Finnish forest I was struck by the difference to what I had known about forests in Germany. Finnish forest seemed so light, fragile, transparent and for a long time I was wondering, how the experience of it could be communicated.
Only when I realized that the defining characteristic of Finnish forest is not the trees, but the empty space and light between them, I started to make progress. But the discovery of the significance of empty space is also a common thread connecting our five painters. This was, apart from the more obvious commonality of pines and rocks, what gave me the idea to use these masters as my mentors.
Besides the famous “Six Persimmons” of which I wrote in the last post, Muqi also created lesser known masterpieces of empty space. They all relate to (and take their titles from) a genre of Chinese poetry and painting called Xiaoxiang poetry.
The first one above, is “Geese alighting from a Sandbank”. One has to look very closely (zooming is your friend here!) to see any geese in the painting. But there is a group of four about one-third from the right. And there are larger flocks of them in V-formation in the sky. Flocks of geese are an autumn theme and the mist only enhances the autumn atmosphere.
Mist and fog are also generally handy tools for a photographer. They separate objects and layers in a photograph and can create or take away depth in a picture. But fog can be a tricky mistress, as it reshapes a landscape sometimes faster than the photographer can operate his tools.
But when Muqi uses mist, it looks like more than a mere visual tool; I think it is part of the message. Let’s look at a second painting below to explain what I mean.
The scene is again from the Eight Views of Xiaoxiang a classical theme in Chinese art, steeped deeply in symbolism. It has been said about this:
The theme of the Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers celebrates man’s emotional response to nature’s changing moods. First developed in Chinese poetry and painting during the eleventh century, it was introduced to Japan in the fourteenth century and became a major theme in Japanese ink painting.
On the background of the interpretation of Zen in the previous post, I think we can go further and say that underlying this emotional response to nature’s changing moods might be an intuition about reality – because that is what the Zen masters aim at.
Nine hundred years later, modern physics has caught up with this. General relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory – they all show us that we are ill-equipped to grasp some central aspects of nature, like spacetime or quantum entanglement, with our senses (and sometimes our brains). While we can calculate these phenomena, they don’t easily connect with our experience of the world. Our brainy filters have developed in a certain way and now also physics tells us, we didn’t quite get it right.
Muqi’s paintings tell us that we should listen to and trust our emotional response. The tension and mystery we feel in viewing these misty, evading views are the real thing. The mist thus becomes a representation (not a symbol, not a tool) of these “in-sensible” aspects of the universe. A representation of the shaping and moving forces, the very laws of nature. But let’s also be very clear at this point: I don’t mean by this (nor, I think, does Muqi) any “spiritual” forces or energies. Instead, it points to the dynamic and circular processes underlying nature. But these processes can seem counter-intuitive (like the findings of modern physics), so there is a need to re-train or intuition. That is, I believe, what Zen art ultimately tries to achieve.
Once I understood this, it became clear to me that what I tried to communicate about the Finnish forest and the Finnish landscape were my intuitions about it – like a feeling of timelessness in an endless circle. I also understood that I would not be able to communicate this in so many words. (If you have any doubts left about my inability to verbally communicate this, just read the above paragraphs again…)
Instead, I realized, that only with the camera as a tool I could point at the right place at the right time and say: hey, look there is a different way to see nature.