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Lakes and Pools





Light glances on the mirror, its dance obscuring all content. The parchment on which is written the image of our furthermost hope is a palimpsest washed clean by water, washed until only the light that illuminates all life remains (a page of our life written in water).


What is it about a view over water? The place of water in Chinese culture, like the place of stone that is its complement and constant companion, is a long and cherished one and provides the inspiration for what follows. The conclusions reached however need not be limited by geography nor culture. Any reflection on role of the view over water upon the inner life of the observer will certainly find an answering reflection in the many witnesses to such places of water found elsewhere in the world.


Whether on the shores of the Houhai, the Qianhai, the Xihai…or Beihai, with its white pagoda…(the lakes of central Beijing).  Or the pools of Suzhou gardens (yuanlin)… Or the West Lake of Hangzhou, with its view of distant mountains… On whatever shore it is that we find ourselves… There remains the implicit unasked question: What is it that a view over water adds to a park or a garden? What is it that a view over water tells us about ourselves?


Once again it is a question of Nature transformed: ‘shining Nature’: the presence of a ‘shining mystery’; the presence of a place where the light that appears, appears to emanate from within... The dancing light found on the surface of water.


Elements. Other elements (over and above the presence of water): light, space and air. Light; falling, descent due to an opening onto the sky, gift of the sun, or else the twinkling of artificial illuminations - in each case a presence doubled by the water’s reflection. Space; the openness that sits above an expanse of water, beginning on the surface that reflects it and ending with the infinity that soars above; configuring space - conferring the magical transmutation into ‘place.’  And the air that fills it; more translucent than water, but itself rendered opaque by the presence of mists… Nature’s elements tamed, contained, in the forms given to garden and park.


And the framing due to the encirclement of water by earth.


A setting aside of space filled with a liquid substance at times appearing molten, glowing.


A ‘gathering’ of the work of our senses (Heidegger). A gathering together of elements (of ‘nature’, of perception). Air and sky, earth and water, and the ever-present, latent sense of being before something. Of being placed before something… Even more than on the square (perhaps because we are not usually allowed onto this space, set aside, for looking only, and being next to - occasionally to boat on, but then comprising a special experience, a participation, and one we pay for…). What is the work of such a space? What alchemy is practised here?


The symbolic punctuation of the physical, of our visual realm, our visible realm, the experience of our eyes, our space; a symbolic overcharge, a translation of the things we see, a citation without origin in our visual field, a hiatus in our access to space…and light. And the sense of being before something special, laden with portent, meaningful… all of which adds up to the transmutation of space into place: the magic we believe comes from the space itself, but which is the gift of our humanity to our environment, genius loci. Gift of our gathering, a gathering place.


This effect is also present on a smaller scale in the gathering, centering effect of a garden pool (perhaps most perfectly expressed in the ‘Master of Nets’ garden, Suzhou). The pool: pillar of space, central pole of the garden arising from below (invisible at the base of the pool) a place hidden beneath water, rising up to the sky, which it holds, roof of the tent, tent of the garden, shivering and unstable, the tent of the sky, which it holds up like a pillar; yet still a source everlasting, light of the sky, brought down, reflected upon the surface of the waters, bringing it down, and lifting itself up, up towards its source, and us too, if we are among the fortunate, us lifted along with it….


It is in the aesthetics of lakes and pools, part of the art of the park, leisure space, pleasure garden, that we find again the trope of transformed space - now allied with the presence of open space. An opening at once above and below… before one, above one and beneath one (the mystery of the pool’s depths). Like that of a square, the space above the square, the aesthetic of the square… (but how different from a square with its frame of buildings; yet how like a square in its potential for trimming, to be fringed, edged with places to eat and drink, to sit around and watch). But without the ease, the immediacy of access of the square; for water presents a barrier, lacking an immediate mode of transport - swimming, if allowed, boats, if any, our transport on water. Like a square, providing for a space as frame (quite literally, more picturesque, as if contained within the frame of a picture) more specialised… So like a square… yet not a square - not like a square… (with a different sense of ‘before’ …). Although temples and other important buildings can often be found enhanced by a body of water, and so of the sense of ‘I’ or ‘we’, of ‘me’ or ‘us’ (standing) before the body of water; yet the water often lies before the building, the water between us and the building… so barring the building even as it propagates its reflection. Propagating the image as it would be seen ‘right side up’ from the other side, as if we were offered the image reversed as a promissory note, to tempt us into imagining the reflection of the building, lying at our feet, with ourselves included, transfigured together in the surface motion of the water, there together on the face of the waters. (Teasing us with the impossible image in the mirror from which we are forever excluded). The mirror that reflects not us but that which lies beyond; the place between doubled, twice present without us. Still here. Before the barrier between, between us and what lies ‘over’… or beyond, over there…


Whilst lakes and pools offer us a variety of experiences, it is the difference between open and enclosed space that is one of the greatest sources of symbolic significance. The key difference initially appears to be merely quantitative, a matter of size, the sheer expanse of water we perceive before us and its openness to the sky (whose final word is the sublime infinity of the sea, the presence of the ocean, infinite plane of extension above and below). This experience is then opposed to that of smaller lakes and pools which may be fringed with overhanging boughs or even enclosed by a roof of leaves. The degree of openness to the sky configures the water’s relationship to, and reflection of, what lies above. In qualitative terms we have the equivalent of an enclosed or intimate space, a ‘room’ in Nature, opposed to the open vista of landscape. However the presence or absence of an opening to the sky marks an important difference in the experience of the smaller place of water. An opening above configures a space inseparable from the sky, a place where the heavens and the earth are conjoined, where the image of the heavens is to be found reflected in water.


By contrast, a more fully enclosed space, the sense of a ‘room’ proper, the appearance of a dwelling created by a turn in a stream and including a pool as a resting place between the stream’s onward flow, is to be found protected by walls of rock and sheltered under over-arching trees. With the uncanny feeling of an inhabited space, a sense of place which implies a genitive, so prompting the question, whose room? And the suggestion of genius loci…  the pervading sense of a ‘spirit of the place’. Here the opening to the sky may be absent, and is anyway only of importance perhaps as a kind of skylight or occulus, letting in the light which seeps through the enveloping branches and glances off the water below.


The place of reflection. The surface… of water. Flayed, fallen skin of the sky. A surface edged above and below by that which surrounds it, by that which touches it, the doubled shore line; reality and image touching each other; as if looking into a parallel universe, world’s edge, place of return, repetition of the Same. Where ‘out’ becomes ‘in’ and ‘there’ is but a replication of ‘here’. The irony of sameness offering yet another shade of otherness in the space we behold, another colour to the palate of other-worldliness, mood of anticipation; over and above that anyway conjured by a stretch of open water… by the sense of another’s dwelling, abode of water sprites, nymphs and dragons, the personifications of place in mythology. The place of water, place of reflection, where the play of light alone guarantees a sense of imminent annunciation. Together with its relative inaccessibility, a place protected - we can not walk on water.


Yet the reflective force of water suggests the presence of another element: the uncertain something that lies beneath… ever alien, always other. The omnipresent something that waits behind the light of reflection. The Other of land and air, inimical even (ever present is the threat and promise of drowning), resistant to penetration, waiting unknown behind the curtain of reflection. In texture unlike any other thing, transparent at certain times in certain places, yet otherwise opaque; fact and figure for the act of hiding. The place of the hidden, the concealed: yet no matter what our actual control over it (water levels, draining, cleaning) in its impression upon us, in the realm of the image, in figure, in the world of suggestion, it always escapes us… it will always escape us… is in excess of our ordered minds. For it seizes our imagination and makes off with it… leading us to places we can barely understand… and where we can barely understand ourselves.




A place where we can barely understand ourselves… for the apprehension of the light in the sky leads not the enlightenment of the mind, but to the night of reason…


As the half light of the moon replaces the sun, so understanding confronts the face of its shadow and learns the bitter-sweet lesson of its limits… 


And what of a night spent on the margins of water, on the margins of understanding. Night in such places, also governed by the role of light, now artificial, augmenting the moonlight that conceals as much as it reveals, and the stars which reveal only themselves. Moonlight realm, magical, fantastic, a realm of fantasy. Shore of suggestion. Garden of the sexual… park of promiscuous promise … Paradise of ambiguous motives, fecund glances; half light of the erotic (in potential at least). Night on the Houhai: night in the gardens of Hangzhou. Passages through a twilight geography replete with exchanges, of glances and of words, of cash and of time, of money and of gifts. Between buyers and sellers as between friends. Exchanges with the taste of the infinite, trace of the eternal. Sealed by the sacred transformation of space into place; all the elements of an identity ritual. The time of leisure, of ‘waste’ expenditure (non-productive)… a matter of consumption and selfhood… consummation and identity… the night of personal affirmation… before the place of water.


Once more, the question: ‘before’ what… garden or park, lake or pool, what is it that draws us so?


In addition to the sky and its reflection, the open funnel to the heavens, and the masked depths below, there is the sense of another place before us, over on the other side… the sense of a barrier acting as a lure to meaning, its framing effect an intensification of meaning


Important to both kinds of watery place, whether open or enclosed, and particularly cogent in the case of a river, is the sense of ‘over’ - a place ‘over there’. The sense of another side most cogently found in the presence of a barrier beyond which something lies... This is the myth-laden ‘other-side’ whose symbolic ‘otherness’ is multiplied by the intrusion of something in between – of something that comes in between. The value, the very desirability of what lies beyond, is become dependant upon its (symbolic) unreachability. Opposite banks or shores, islands lying along the horizon, all conjure this sense - our experience of these vistas is transformed by it.


Before. That sense of ‘over’. Of being ‘before’, this side, gazing over at something ’over’ on that side. Called by something that was there before, here, in our being before…


Other modalities of meaning, other ways of understanding ‘what lies before’: mimesis (a copy of what lies elsewhere); metaphor (an unstated comparison); simile (an obvious comparison or copy of what lies elsewhere); metonymy (here, we are closest to what we desire from such a view); synecdoche or part-for-whole (we are already a part of the whole effect - in effect, its hidden origin lies in us). Or even a performance of our desire for… what lies elsewhere. Performance because even as we look, so are we transported. Participants now, no longer observers. Unless shaken by the experience of an event or place, we are confirmed; by such places as parks and gardens, the places of leisure, places of our investment in ourselves, are we confirmed. And even if we are shaken, we are also confirmed. The economics of identity do not rest but incorporate all (not least, the un-incorporable). The movement away presages the movement back, the elastic holds firm, the pull of gravity holds true, we regain our position, our place. A position refreshed, with the  tireless forces of entropy tearing at the edges of the old, pushed away (until next time). Like sleep, putative death of the self, haunted by dreams in its nocturnal wanderings, leading to the rebirth of the self, the sunlit awakening in the morning. Our machinery of self, like the day itself, renewed. Open.


Before an open column of space, before an opening onto the sky; portal and glimpse onto the infinite…


The presence that hangs over water…







Copyright 2007, Peter Nesteruk