Chinese Gardens V (Landscapes/Grounds).
Caught between top, middle and foreground. Certain Chinese landscape paintings (as do certain landscapes) present themselves as the distilled essence of these three parts, the three grounds of the picture plane. Represented, purified. In terms of meaning; rhetorical parts. In such paintings these three rhetorical parts are present but vestigial, reduced almost to a minimum and, in turn, revealed in the minimal monochrome strokes of the ‘scholar’ style. This marshalling of minimal units and their segregation on the page is the source of a maximal meaning that reaches unto the realm of last things. Significance as the product of the placing of a ground.
The top, whether separated, floating, or as contiguous background (but always in proximity to the sky) carrying one meaning. Always, in the art of the world, from whatever provenance, East or West, South or North, this is the zone that belongs to the gods and immortals. It is therefore a zone of symbols; a zone where perforce all must become symbol. In Chinese and Medieval western art alike, this is the realm of the more than human, of deities and heros, of feitian and angels, their home, a depiction of the heavens. The place of ideals, the field of pure aspiration, a country free of contingency. The place also of the sublime, the lofty domain of the unrepresentable. No matter how often presented as real; its placing and suggestion are nevertheless suggestive of a realm beyond the everyday, beyond illusion, care and desire. The Pureland is there to represent the pure but unrepresentable. This is the realm of illuminated peaks and upland pastures, the realm of floating mountains.
The foreground (a space often expanded to include the centre of the image). The ground of the present, temporal, earth-bound; site of the tiny temple, humble dwelling of lonely bench, site of diminutive humans observed in their contemplation of the colossal vistas before them (just like us, as if an echo, mirror, or instruction, of how to look and what to learn). If not the present, whether in actual (such a scene now) nor historical terms (the past represented), then we find in the foreground (precisely in the place of the tiny figures) the intuitive equivalent of these times (present, or past) in terms of the parallels we use to make sense of the picture (the place of the viewer, the viewer’s present in the picture, or our present as joined to the present of the past, as represented). This is the place we find ‘nearest to ourselves’ in the picture; where we find ourselves in the picture; where we find ourselves ‘in the picture’. This is our point of entry, the conjunction of our present and the picture’s present (or the present of its presented past). The foreground (and/or centre-ground) provides the bridge that enables us to match ‘now’ with ‘now’, aligning our other temporal facets with those in the picture, assigning the values of past and future, before and after. (Even though in terms of absolute chronology all the events depicted may have happened long, long ago). The amalgam of the two presents (of the picture and of ourselves) offers the hand of meaning, the bridge of understanding or participation (giving the sense of the painting as ritual), and provides the conduit for the transfer of the moral from the image to the self.
The ambiguous middle. So often the middle is just the foreground of the background (its nearer approach) or the middle ground to the other two grounds, squeezed between the foreground-with-centre and the sky(line). Yet often found, detached. Floating. As if cast adrift from the time and space of the other parts whose discreteness its own separation guarantees. And so, sometimes clearly (in the narrative art of many cultures, and many different art historical traditions) an aid to temporalisation as it becomes the past or future of the event depicted in the foreground. Part of a narrative dissected, spatialised and displayed like entrails or a journey across the planes of the image. Sometimes amorphous, often oblique, suggestive, not quite simply one or the other of the available temporal valencies, never clearly quite past or future. The separated middle ground of Chinese art is an island easily transposable forward or backward in time. Before and after in Chinese art topography begin with the metaphysical level, with the universal above and the particular below, the in-between takes its place in this sequence, its symbolism coded accordingly. The heights may be eternal, but the lower two grounds still admit of temporal order – often showing a path that leads both eye and person up to the universal plane. On the temporal level, the level of narrative, the choice of left to right and right to left directionality in Chinese (medieval) art remains biased towards the right to left, most narrative follows the direction of right to left, the direction of the unfolding of the scroll in Eastern cultures: whilst in the Western tradition the movement is from left to right –our viewer’s left to right- and this movement remains the default directionality. Much later Chinese art appears to adopt this Western convention.
Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk