山形靈璧石 (Rock in the Form of a Fantastic Mountain) Qing dynasty (1644–1911)
We saw “Museum of Stones” at NY’s Noguchi Museum, a vast survey of elements, mass, earth, flights of cosmic abstraction — weirdly, since solid rock seems at odds with airy thinking. Not so. Not to Noguchi, seminal modernist sculptor, not for the collectors of scholar’s stones, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. Where “rock and water rub up against each other, in a river gorge, along a coast…Rock is the sculptor and water is the material. Expand the timeline a bit, however, and the relationship reverses; water becomes the sculptor and rock the material” (said the exhibition catalog).
The traditional Chinese veneration of these pocked rocks always mystified me, at temples, palaces, gardens (below, Shanghai’s famed classical Yu Garden, Yuyuan). Hollowed-out, craggy — unlike Kyoto’s smooth rock and sand gardens, these stones are furrowed, wrinkled, honeycombed, twisting. What I found ugly is exactly why they’re valuable. Only now do I understand why.
China’s literati collected Scholars’ Stones, gongshi (gong=spirit; shi=rock) for thousands of years. First in gardens; then Taoist monks wanted them inside for meditation and inspiration, small enough to put in their studies. They loved those that resembled mythical creatures, actual beings, or “the magical peaks and subterranean paradises (grotto-heavens) believed to be inhabited by the immortals,” the Met explains. The immortals — the many gods of the Taoist pantheon — live in the holes. Stones may also resemble earthly islands, caves, mountain landscapes. They appear in so many classical paintings, and millennia ago, in Tang dynasty (618-907) poems.
I should add that some got drilled, improved a bit, to evoke more. They’re “Rorschach blots in three dimensions,” a Times critic wrote. “In the blink of an eye they move from abstract to representational, conjuring a great deal of Western sculpture as they go…. One thinks of Rodin, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Dubuffet, de Kooning … Michaelangelo.”
The best are perforated, full of emptiness, “worlds within worlds” (as the Asia Society titled a past scholar’s stone exhibition). In them you find creation, time, nature’s forces. The underlying concept emerges from Taoism. Pu — ‘the uncarved block,’ i.e. the power of the thing in its simple, natural state. These are thing and metaphor at once. As Artist John Mendelsohn wrote about scholar’s stones, “Nature made art in its own image, an eccentrically evocative fractal of itself… for tabletop contemplation of the universe.”
Now I get it. Stones. Battle (David and Goliath). Danger (Scylla and Charybdis). The grab at eternity — how our tomb stones and memorials, as the catalog says, “try to deny the insignificance of a biological lifespan on a geologic timescale.”