In short-bios I often mention that my work is inspired by the monochrome ink paintings of China and Japan. But there doesn’t seem to be much stylistic similarity between my photographs and these paintings. So people ask rightly what is this inspiration based upon and how does it show?
Well, it all started rather straightforward. I always liked these ink paintings and found in them the same visual vocabulary as in the Finnish landscape: rocks, water, pine trees. A first inspiration thus came in the form of scene selection, or simply what to photograph. Or should I say: what to notice when being out in the landscape?
At this point, however, it is also useful ask what we mean by “inspiration”. The dictionary tells us that it is the power of moving the intellect or emotions. Thus we can say that it means the motivational force that let’s us take up the camera (or brush) in order to create a visual work. There can be a whole range of motivations for photographing landscapes (from e.g. making postcards/calendars/books to environmental concerns to self-expression and anything inbetween). We can call these motivations the concern of the work. And I learned much about such concerns from the history of landscape painting in China and Japan.
When landscape art for the first time flourished in China, it largely served as affirmation of a harmonious order of the world into which humans and society were integrated. That is why we often find during the Tang and early Song dynasty “emperor mountains” (the big guy in the middle) and “minister mountains” (smaller companions) in landscape paintings. This social order and government seemed natural, eternal and unbreakable like the mountains. In this respect it was, surprisingly, political art.
But then, during the 12th century and under the threat of Mongol invasion this trust in an unbreakable order organized under the emperor was shaken. With the capture of emperor Huizong and the flight of his successor Gaozong to the South, the believe in the natural order may have disintegrated. Landscape art then became more individualistic, intimate and lyrical. A quest for meaning in a world threatened by madness. This forlorn and musical/lyrical landscape art found its pinnacle in the works of Ma Yuan and Xia Gui. In a way, poetry and painting started to merge and as a poetry buff I was quite attracted by the possibility to make poetry by picture. But on a deeper level I also found that poetry as answer to a broken world was a wonderfully dignified response. Maybe not a sufficient one. But given our limited ability to mend the world, isn’t it often only our dignity we can (up)hold against it?
Even at court, in the imperial painting academy, Chinese landscape art thus became more introspect. Outside of the court, however, an even more radical approach was introduced by the painter-monks of the rising buddhist sect Chan (Zen). These painters, especially Liang Kai and Mu Qi, started to reduce the visual content of their paintings to a bare minimum. This style (arguably the first example of abstract art in history) was later picked up by painters in Japan, notably Sesshu Toyo and Hasegawa Tohaku.
So, why are these “Zen paintings” so sparse and abstract? I think, it is because they merge the outer landscape (the “concrete”) with the inner landscape of the mind (the “abstract”). They are a form of meditation. Let’s remember that before meditation became a new form of employee torture (in mindfulness sessions) it was just that: an attempt to break through the barrier between the inner and the outer world.
Landscape art as a form of poetry still informs how I look at a landscape (or smaller scale scenes in nature). But it is this merger between the landscape and the mind that has become a concern, motivation, aspiration, a kind of artistic home for me. At least for now.
This “for now” is important. Interestingly, the photography journey takes me sometimes around corners without me noticing. So I don’t make promises where I head next, because sometimes I don’t know myself. I think, that’s part of the fun.