Shan-shui: Responding to Contemporaneity
Shan-shui (literally ‘mountains and water’) ink and brush landscape painting is one of the durable icons of Chinese culture. Even if we don’t know the name or the history of shan-shui, or indeed its specific cultural significances, we will almost certainly have encountered its singular look in both high and low cultural contexts: adorning the walls of restaurants and museums alike. In short, shan-shui is a globally recognised signifier that immediately connotes ‘Chineseness’ across cultural boundaries and hierarchies.
Shan-shui has a particular historical relationship to Confucian thought and practice and by association the scholarly class known in Latinised terms as the literati and in Mandarin Chinese as the shi dafu. The literati served as administrators of the Chinese imperial state for over a millennium from the Han dynasty until the founding of Republican China in 1911-12. Official appointments to administration of the Chinese imperial state were initially secured through a combination of aristocratic status and the passing of state examinations requiring demonstrations of scholarly erudition and essay writing. From the Tang dynasty those examinations were opened up to other classes in an attempt to make selection more meritocratic.
To the literati fell the responsibility of maintaining social harmony at the macro level of the Chinese state and by association the micro level of the family as well as between heaven and earth in accordance with syncretic neo-Confucian principles. Above all Confucianism was and remains a secular rather than religious school of thought aimed at assuring the stability and continuity of society under the projected permanence of imperial rule. This aim extends to a responsibility on the part of the literati to signal disquiet with wayward authority, albeit in often oblique ways including withdrawal into nature, under the threat of unfettered state violence.
Alongside erudition and good judgement in administration of the imperial state, the literati were expected to demonstrate artistic skills in music, poetry writing and painting – the latter two sharing a technical means of expression: ink and brush on paper or silk. These forms of artistic expression were not merely therapeutic nor recreational. From the particular perspective of neo-Confucianism each was understood to serve as an index of the capacity of their makers to act spontaneously in accordance with nature and by extension to bring about harmonious administration of society and state.
Such expectations reflect the syncretic formation of neo-Confucianism and in particular its incorporation of Daoism, whose cosmological outlook characteristically looks towards reciprocal action between ostensibly opposed states of being – as signified by the now globally recognised yin-yang symbol – with a cyclical cosmological sense of movement towards and away from desired harmony. Crucially such thinking imputes to an otherwise largely rationalist and pragmatic Confucianism a necessarily constitutive sense of the irrational, anarchic and illimitable. In the context of shan-shui, Daoism’s non-rationalist sense of reciprocity is located aesthetically in relation to notions of qiyun shendong (vital energy resonance) and xu-shi (absence-presence), whereby reality is represented not entirely mimetically but resonantly and empathetically in the felt relationship between painter and nature and between painting and viewer.
In practice, of course, the literati did not always live up to the moral responsibilities conferred culturally upon them. In the absence of what we would now refer to as a public sphere, imperial China remained highly susceptible to cronyism and nepotism and the deleterious inequalities of rigid social hierarchy and patriarchy – the literati were historically an exclusively male class. Moreover, cultural associations between the literati and shan-shui as a signifier of accord with nature were never as clear-cut as Chinese and western scholars from the eighteenth century onwards have been wont to make out. In practice the literati adopted a variety of painting styles ranging between the loose/xieyi (conventionally considered appropriate to shan-shui) and meticulous/gongbi that cut across over-neatly conceived regional divisions between North and South. In short, the status of the literati and of shan-shui is undeniably mythical both in ethical and artistic terms.
Nevertheless, in culturally operative if not in historically factual terms, shan-shui remains a durable marker of high culture; of learning, intellectual reflection and refinement. It embodies not only what it means to be un-barbaric in culturally Chinese, civilisation-specific, terms, but how artistic practice and aesthetic feeling can be made resonant with socially-oriented ethical governance. As such, shan-shui does not conform to western(ised) post-Enlightenment expectations of a critical distancing of art and aesthetic experience from society–neo-Confucianism’s particular criticality in the service of a harmonious society resides precisely in a desire for reciprocity and an acceptance of uncertainty of differences rather than direct opposition. It is, though, the artistic concretization of a considered political-critical aesthetic of comparable if differing codified sophistication; a supplement that brings into question the assumed universality of post-Enlightenment principles.
The question which all of this begs, particularly in the context of the present exhibition, is: of what significance might the tradition of shan-shui be today? One might respond to that question from the point of view of postmodernist postcolonialism by advocating a critical hybridization of shan-shui with techniques and outlooks characteristic of western art; one that might be understood in its mutual overwriting of those two things to have deconstructed the colonising authority of the latter. However, such ‘third space’ hybridizations are now not only critically diffused by their institutional alignment with neo-liberal authority, but also open to criticism as yet another colonialist-imperialist imposition of destabilizing western values undercutting and neutralizing the operative specificities of cultural otherness. Hybridizations that also start from a continuing reproduction of the différend– that is to say, asymmetrical relations of power underlying colonialism-imperialism.
Extensions of critical legitimacy to essentializing experiences and representations of modernity other than those conventionally associated with western post-Enlightenment thinking and practice by more current post-postmodernist debates related to the term contemporaneity (that seek to respond critically to the colonialism-imperialism of postmodernist postcolonialism) are also problematic in this regard. The perspectivism of those debates has ushered in what can be seen as a critically becalming state of unity in difference - highlighted in the context of a shift of the centre of gravity of economic political and cultural power eastwards and southwards - wherein differing cultural outlooks and values stand in mutually negative siloed relation to one another; in the particular case of China pitting postmodernist cultural indeterminacy against assertions of an essential Chineseness definitive of China’s civilization-specific culture.
How might we respond in turn to the challenges posed by contemporaneity? In part, it is perhaps with respect to a(n) (un)certain resonance between the traces of a syncretic neo-Confucianaesthetic and those of postmodernist scepticism. Both share in acknowledgement of a structural non-rationality (spectrality) haunting and unsettling rationalist certainty. While the former points ultimately towards a desired reciprocity in accordance with Daoist cosmology, the latter is always-already doubtful of such views. Intersection between the two, although ultimately unreconcilable (their differing takes on indeterminacy should not be conflated), is nevertheless potentially productive of new and unexpected meanings with respect to the demonstrable indeterminacies of linguistic signification, with both postmodernist scepticism and syncretic neo-Confucianism held sous-rature (struck through but still operatively visible).
The title of the present exhibition, Shan-shui Australis, may be taken as indicative of such a resonance. Although ostensibly representative of a hybridization of Chinese and Australian landscape traditions – including, we should not forget, traces of both colonialist and first nation visual cultures – its titular juxtaposition of Mandarin and Latin idioms (like the trans-cultural interplay of the terms shi dafu and literati) is less certain in its contemporaneous conjunctive significance; not a locus of hybridization nor of uncomprehending difference but of persistently non-synthetic disjunctive resonance. In relation to which lie important matters of tectonic geopolitical change to which all of us must perforce come to terms.
Paul Gladston is the inaugural Judith Neilson Chair of Contemporary Art at the University of New South Wales.