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Chinese Gardens X (On the Anthropomorphism and Sublimity of Stone)




Rocks gently, a leaf lies on the surface of waters lapping on stone.


The Chinese Garden, unthinkable without stone. The smaller, the more Southern, the more… personal - the more stone. From the carefully placed individual rock to the rock-built ‘mountain’, from the stone banks of the streams and pools to the stone epigraphs, the inscriptions that punctuate the passage along stone pavements; a ubiquity of stone.


Stone in the Chinese Garden: an initial typology:


*Figural/mimetic: recognition and reference (found object).

*Suggestive/ambiguous: recognition uncertain, reference blurred (found object).

*Abstract/minimalist: all reference stops with itself, living texture (found object).

*Carved: functional/decorative: support for structures, ideograms or patterns.

*Constitutive: the making of stone landscapes (mimetic, meiotic, ideal, sublime).


Mood (the modalities on reference):


Figural-mimetic; stones found to be like …something (if made like… something, they would be statues, yet there are no statues in Chinese Gardens… or very, very few; their role, commemorative not decorative). Stones so obviously like… something; something we might recognise, put a name to, a face to…. The face in the stone which no one has put there…


(The face in the stone is a face without responsibility…).


Suggestive-ambiguous. From resemblance, (strong in suggestion, relatively weak in ambiguity) as being like… something (scandalously, accidentally, like a stone caricature of... something) like a tortoise or lion, or the head or face of… something more or less determinate. To a disturbing borderline recognition, where we recognise but do not any longer know what it is that we recognise (the strongly ambiguous; something simply suggestive with no clear direction, weak in reference).


To the presence of rock as such, the matter of rocks as such (stone as such). To stone itself as the source of a strong attraction. This total lack of mimetic referential force is the source of an uncanny sensation, a sense of the uncanny inherent in stone, it should resemble… something we know, but it doesn’t, yet something is there; the face of the faceless. A sublime relation. Abstract in classification, yet as itself (as matter) apparently offering a symbolic force beyond itself (beyond matter). It is as if its very reference to itself as pure matter has created a reference to a point beyond itself. (Or there is something about this point of reference that we can not accept). A case of deixis deflected elsewhere. An index of the limits of indexicality itself, revealing to us, reminding us, of something in ourselves in our relation to stone.  A materiality beyond materiality. Stone.


Multiplied. A procreation of stone. Stone procreation. Repetition applied. Rock procreation. From stone mountains to mountains of stone. A creation of stone. A stone creation. Tamed and applied. The Rockery. This is the basic unit (above the rock itself, sentence to its word) out of which are constructed, inferred, inscribed, the little mountains and ravines, the pools and winding streams that make up the landscapes of the garden and the park. Shrunken landscapes shaped from stone. A meiotic mockery of its original, but one nevertheless which transforms them, refining, distilling the best… Collecting together the great moments of the wilderness, the experiences of Nature’s space, of Nature’s special places, the sense of genius loci …the better to relocate it within easy reach, a short walk, a step away. The sublime ‘spirit of the place’ as a collectors item, at once a playground, a game in search of an audience, and an art work in which we participate, a poem in stone.


Stones. (Figural/mimetic; recognition with nomination). Huge tortoises haul themselves out of the ground. Lions are seen crouching in the bushes. Here, the head of a fish, the head of a dragon. There a demon stands by, witness to the petrifaction of a mountain spirit, its own imminent materialisation. This is the moment of prosopopoeia, of transformation, of becoming similar. Or is it that something is becoming mimetic? (As in becoming visible to us as its possibility…). The possibility of seeing an impossibility, as the absent and inanimate is given a face.


Stone mimesis: the heavens reborn in stone.


Stone. (Abstract/sublime; recognition without nomination)… “No… but something.”


Carved Stone. Stairs and balustrades decorated with tortoises, clouds and dragons, the presence of stone tables and chairs (stools). Strange intermediary between Nature and Culture. Texture (again) apparent; kept maintained, no sacrificial illusionism required, rather it is the degree of illusionism itself that must be sacrificed, as in all the Chinese arts, to higher factors, to spiritual-expressive factors; as to lower ones (or by means of lower ones) the texture of stone. Nature in matter; culture in form. Thereafter nature is required, but suggestive… a symbolic Nature, with a second meaning of beyond Nature (from supra-Nature to supra-Culture, their reunion in the sublime and a-temporal, rhetoric of eternity). A Nature turned to function, and to symbol in/as decoration…(culture). Or chosen for its symbolic value (its symbolic function). Decoration is also a form of repetition in miniature. Or (as in the Rockery) Nature as Replication (and repetition, of form as of the units, through the units that make up this form). As in a Meiosis of Nature.


Piling up of rocks into gorges, or used as décor on hills. Piled up, formed into the banks of rivers and lakes, or as décor, as islands, used in the formation of paths, stone paths, or their lining, their misshapen guardians, those found in gardens parks and those meandering across hills and sacred mountains. Or just in the wild. In the latter case (national parks and the ‘wilds’) stone is taken from local environment only to become a part of a local feature (see the photographs of paths). The path (the way in Nature, reconstructed from Nature’s bounty).


The Rockery. Citiation (resiting, reciting) of valleys and gorges, of ravines and mountains, to the garden, to the park (even if present minimally in the ‘Southern’, or ‘Scholar’ type garden, or even in a single pot). Or a garden in a park, in the corner of a park, around the temple or behind the dwelling in a palace. In a garden (in a park) or if in a park, perhaps not quite so minimal (so constrained, refined, so intense) as in a garden. Therefore possible on a ‘bigger’ scale than in the minimal Southern style or ideal garden, but still smaller than its (supposed) point of reference in reality. Still, in this difference of scale (or quantity) a difference redolent of the ideal (of a suggested quality) we are offered a cultural tour de force, repeating Nature by means of Culture, suggesting supra-Nature and supra-Culture, both; both of these impossible deixes connoting the presence of eternity…


Not Time. The place of eternity.


The place of the Sublime.


 A stairway to heaven (eye-raising and the following of paths up mountains).


Ideal…of its kind, or suggested… Or if including a path, one which may lead to an ideal place (as above).


A repetition or mimesis of heaven; unseen yet recreated.


The way. A way to the sublime via a meiosis of mimesis…


Nature in reality is dangerous and threatening. Nowhere more so than with mountains and rivers. Whence a source of the sublime; but with beauty and threat combined (instead of their opposition in Burke, Kant, Schlegel, Hegel and company). Like the Romantic tiger (Blake). Sublimity in this threatening form is never in sole opposition to beauty but rather combines with it. Beauty with a threat (real or imaginary, or symbolic, indeed, simultaneously beautiful, sublime, and symbolic, the very impossibility of the sublime deixis as accreting symbolic value…). Meiosis accentuates this combination, even purifies it; as the beauty is refined and the threat transformed into the sublime of the limits of mortals and mortality. The limits and boundaries of human knowledge may be the sites and portals of beauty. Their portality being their safely made passage into the sublime. Now cleansed of danger.


This passage, however, is one into a land as yet unclearly defined, or one defined solely by belief. As such the limits of human knowledge continue to play a role in the visions that the Garden presents, not least in its claim to the portrayal of the ideal, or otherworldly. A trace of the sublime also remains in the threat of divine Law, of the life choices that will determine the modalities of the after-life, such conscience-stirring normativity is the traditional function of (the rhetoric of) the immortal realm. The role of religion and its incarnation in the social rhythms of ritual.


Robbed of the hard edge of the sublime in its threatening incarnation, the Garden presents a form (recognisable only with difficulty by Western aesthetic theory?) which reconfigures sublimity as otherworldly -whence ‘sublime’- but not (as in the Western model) as size or limit as danger. Indeed the element of size is quite literally removed, and the sense of a limit is then transformed from a problem for human knowledge into an aid for self-knowledge. From the accumulation of quantitative information and its limits we are transported to a qualitative experience which brings focus to bear on value, not least in the role it plays in our experience of ourselves, and others, of our identity, our relation to first and last things (however defined…).


This sense of the ‘Other’ referent(s) a product of the technologies of the production of such experiences, may offer beauty as uncanny as sublime, where the sublime is not the result of a threat (inimical Nature), but persists in the sense of an otherworldly beauty. This ‘something’ from beyond the limits of knowledge must therefore not come from a culture but from a super(natural)-culture (simultaneously above both Nature and Culture). One which we however posit ourselves (a product of ‘our’ culture). This process of a worldly production of the otherworldly offers a sense that is both different from and complementary to the Western sense and notion(s) of the Sublime.


Stone: Symbolic. Force of the earth. Face of the earth.  Gift of the ground used to ground the ungroundable. Stone, succour of beliefs; beliefs existing this side of the rhetoric of eternity (of this earth and its distillation, stone). Solid, elemental… found alongside water… containing it, conducting it, ornamenting its still surface and offering itself as reflection… ground ungrounded, shivered apart in a silver shoal of ripples… Also to be combined with sky and trees, framers of the sky, (reframed themselves in the waters below, they in turn reframing the sky, the floating sky, below).  Green and blue. Blue water framed by stone. Blue skies framed by a wall of green… Blue light. Green shadows.


Water, conduit of identity (which would be like stone) maker of images, site of reflections. Like ourselves, the reflection of which, impossible, surmised, a self-reflection impossible, surmised… The place of art (word, sound, image, matter) in and for its builders and users. Site of identity.  Its vision the foundation of (a) community. The civilised within the walls of civilisation. The civil within the civilised. Site of urbanity in the Urban. Chinese gardens and their reflection in the waters of their pools and ponds. Contained and channelled by the citation marks of stone.




                                                                        Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk