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Chinese Gardens: Totemic Traces                       





The presence of absence. Old pines in classical gardens, dry with age. Along a verdant lake-side, willows with hollowed-out trunks. Along flowing waters, amid green borders; dry husks, the empty shells of dead trees. Surrounded by flowering shrubs and the verdant continuity of a myriad growing green things – a figure on a ground. In such well-tended spaces, with every visual moment aesthetically accounted for, we find still the empty trunks of willows, tall yellowing bamboo, pines whose tops have long since withered and remain to tower above all else. The dead among the living. Unconcealed. Old amid the new. Older even amid tradition; older than tradition. Occupying pride of place. Often found to be relying on supports, so defended, perpetuated, kept for their symbolic value (for if everything has a use-value and a symbolic value, in a garden all things first have a symbolic value, this is their use-value as parts of the sign system, the meaning world of the classical Chinese garden space, their growth, their life, is the material support of their meanings, the cessation of growth, death, would then appear to lie outside of this meaning world, this practice of signs, something to be removed – and yet, there they are still, still standing, persisting…). Incorporated; like stone… Re-incorporated… like the dead.


Nature worship as trace of the sublime, effect of an often inimical causality, of a Nature needing to be assuaged if not understood, so personified and offered palliatory sacrifice, tamed by ritual, absolute outside bought inside… alongside…


Like the personification with which we greet the stone forms, the ‘lithomorphs’ that rise up out of waters, stand on mock hills, and mounds, often constituting these mounds, stone forests, (Lion Garden), rise in the midst of bonsai pots (pensai or penjing, 盆景the scene in the pot) often included in miniature (meiosis) within the world of the pot itself, or just standing in the midst of a courtyard, or to one side adorning a wall, like a film, still life, old images flickering, a wall, a cinema screen, the screen of the cave wall, and cave paintings… The personification with which we tame the all too inhuman forms of the stone ‘gods’… applied to dead nature too, applied to Nature itself, producing genius loci, ‘the spirit of the place’, then ‘gods’ then ‘God’… with the mono-theistic ‘last step’, the ultimate personification or meta-set personified. Yet the forms we see here, are prior (unlike western classical gardens we are not surrounded by statues… the end result of personification, of allegory or actual reference). Suggest priority. A conscious use of the process of personification, of the suggestive force of personification; but at its very edge, without its ‘conclusion’, or anthropomorphic apotheosis. Similitude standing on the edge of similitude. Superstition understood as such…? Self-conscious superstition? Understood. But still required, its force, the force of human desire for intelligibility and the desire for the sacred met… forces half-understood but strongly-felt, made safe. The debt we owe Nature and the past too are met… (in the words of the philosopher of ritual, ‘give the gods and ancestors their due, and keep them at a distance…’). And if the distance is symbolic or aesthetic, this too will do, will produce art and culture, an art culture… a culture of living wrought out of the fear of the dead (and the weight of the past) and the forces of Nature. Out of the respect for the Other (in truth, a strategic respect), a respect for the self.


He might have said, ‘give the gods and the ancestors their due, and put them to one side…’ in a space, put aside… so doing framed, (re-framed) become a part of ‘the civilising process’, a ritual ground with its scenes and analogues of proportion and balance, a ritual of civilization. A ritual with a ground; made from the ground. The ground on which we walk…


Most evidently here, in the ‘Master of Nets’, with that strange, anomalous, pine; towering above all, a totem-like creature, not animal (but looking like an animal, a massive insect) a plant, then (but no longer alive). A symbolic presence; but actual, what we see when we look up; what we see in the depths of the waters, reflected, figure, with the light of the sky as ground (with the surface of the waters as means of expression). Nature mort; still life, amid the tour de force of the Garden or ‘Nature improved’, ‘Nature tamed’ - even Nature transfigured. Transformed into safety and beauty – but still the old threat remains, overlooking the human appropriation, the nightmare (old) lurking still behind the dream (of a Nature untamed, its processes uncontrollable, sometimes incomprehensible, destructive, inimical - incorporated into the culture of the living, a trace, a reminder…). The presence of the dead; reminder of Nature’s final gift to all things.


In the most organized of spaces, shrine to beauty and balance: the sign of entropy’s end.


(Even here, at the heart of the most classical, most elegant, most revered, and copied of classical Chinese garden spaces… perhaps the model of restraint and proportion, the refined disposition of matter… the rearing totemic presence…).





Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2018