In Chinese landscape paintings of the Sung Dynasty (11th Century) there is a tradition of leaving areas of blank space, termed Xuwu, (1) nothingness. This aesthetic once considered incomplete by Western critics reflects a complex and refined philosophy which is rooted in Daoist ideas of a reverence for nature. The Dao is the creative life force which gives birth to all things an element that is unknowable and invisible.”The Dao that can be named is not the true Dao”.
This elemental creative energy that exists in the land is represented by the artist as blank space. It is un-namable and unknowable and so beyond any artists ability to represent it. The spaces that are left unpainted allude to the Dao and attempt to engage the viewers personal subjective experiences and imagination.
When faced with areas of blank canvas the viewer is left to fill in the details using their expectations of what they should be seeing. By being removed from the representational expectations of art the painting shows the world in a unfamiliar way, less judged by our preconceptions. It is no wonder, as Gary Snyder wrote in ‘The Brush’, that the Sung Dynasty painters were highly sought after and collected by the discerning and appreciative Zen monks of Japan.
“Cloud finger dragons dance and…tremble down the ridge….” Gary Snyder.
Here the North Pacific weather of rain, mist and fog conspire in similar ways to mask and obscure our surroundings with a bounty of blank space. The hills, mountains, trees and buildings around us are lost and the world becomes covered and veiled . The English word adumbration comes close to describing this, its definition in part is “a sketchy outline, indistinct, to disclose partially”. Almost hinting at something that is metaphorical. I first encountered this word in the book ‘Arctic Dreams’ by the naturalist Barry Lopez who writes about the Canadian Arctic,”It is a region like the desert, rich in metaphor, with adumbration”.
When being outside here it is not the vastness of the landscape that blurs distinctions, here the lines that delineate me from the land are covered and revealed, brought close then retreat, it confounds my senses I have to reach further to be where I am, to understand. In the process there is a step over between myself and my surroundings, something that is beyond just the cold and damp.
(This is a draft of an article by Peter Cressey.)
(1) The significance of Xuwu (nothingness) in Chinese aesthetics;
By Fan Minghua: