Mountains and rocks in nature have an exterior textural imagery. Do emotions have a textural imagery, too? In 2007, my joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness that had accumulated over the years reached an abundance that the body could no longer hold, necessitating a catharsis. Emotions brimmed to the point of breaching the levees of decorum. Bridled by tradition for years, the soul could no longer be restrained, and the unfettered consciousness naturally flowed forth (Fig. 1). The dots and lines under the brush began propagating in unfamiliar ways over the past dozen years. Having been immersed in literati shanshui painting, I had never gotten to know my inner voice. As my emotions burst forth, the voices that crawled out of the subconscious astounded me as I sobered: This is what the textural imagery of my emotions looks like.
In order to better understand these perplexing works I had made, I spent a great deal of time researching, and realized that existing historical painting theories and aesthetic identification systems fell short of this purpose. Ultimately, I understood that the fundamental fallacy lay in the inaccuracies of using aesthetic systems of naturalism or brush and ink character to discuss non-brush-and-ink characteristics of emotionalist styles. Not only were these systems imprecise, the works were potentially disqualified according to these established aesthetic standards.
Suddenly, I found myself standing in a wilderness without the lofty mountains of the ancients to lean on, and without an available of aesthetic category to settle in. I had strayed from the ideal territory of traditional ink painting, and had to rely on my own abilities to seek out my own path and to construct my own context in a realm lacking in feminine subjectivity. And so, I continued reading and writing, as though tirelessly weeding in the wilderness. I needed to make heads or tails of it, to see what could be built on this wasteland.
Shanshui is a form of the world. This world is complex with an external natural landscape across which travelers sojourn, upon which idealized appreciation is based, from which political and cultural spheres materialize; there is also a corresponding interior world of the heart and mind, with elusive psychological consciousness and abstract sentiments. The visible world centered on the idea of “an external master in creation,” which regards nature as the mentor, has achieved new heights in every era since ancient times, but the subjective internal world propelled by the endeavor to “find essence within” remains to be excavated.
2. A Manual of Emotional Texturizing
The technique of cun, or texturizing, has always been regarded as the surface patterns of objects. Can emotions be “texturized,” too? In exploring the inner world, various traces left by the passage of time become present, and imagery is overwhelming: longing is a silk thread that is constantly spun and woven; the tears of sorrow overflow onto paper as they fill the heart’s chambers; the burning flames of rage smolder silently on paper, perhaps this is the only way to gracefully calm my bitter fury; a barrage of heartaches leads to arrhythmia. When the medical technician showed me an electrocardiograph, I saw that my heart rhythm was converted to a visual image of textures on paper, and realized that emotions can create mountains and valleys of varying heights… the images of the heart are diverse and complex. Seven emotions and six desires interlace into what we call life. By focusing on myself, I realized that the emotional world is much more vibrant and intricate than the external landscape. I let this flow onto paper, and made paintings that comprised the Cold World (Fig. 2), Embroider Landscape (Fig. 3), and Ambiguous World (Fig. 4) series, and finally settled on an encompassing title of THEY Shanshui. This exploration diverged from the system of literati shanshui painting. I regarded it as a path of self-searching to find an abode in which to settle the soul in a world of abandoned wilderness; to break free from a territory (of traditional classical systems) where the feminine voice is absent, to find my own. As the French feminist scholar Hélène Cixous wrote in the essay “The Laugh of the Medusa”: “A woman must put herself into the text — as into the world and into history.” Through texturizing, I would write myself into shanshui.
Since 2007, these various texturizing strokes have become increasingly robust as they accumulate over time, just as the various forms of texturization had accumulated though generations of shanshui paintings before they were organized and categorized during the Qing dynasty into the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden. The Manual of Yuan’s Texturizing Strokes is the equivalent of the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden in terms of THEY Shanshui. While the manual seems to carry on tradition in the same vein with its appropriation of the format of the classical compendium to subvert the semantics, the internal references have diverged to pivot toward a new personal system of content and form in THEY Shanshui.
The Manual of Yuan’s Texturizing Strokes summarizes 32 texturizing strokes from works in the THEY Shanshui series, providing the nomenclature and interpretation that highlight the form and significance of Yuan’s various texturizing strokes. These interpretive descriptions have nothing to do with natural landscapes, but manifest the unseen emotions, auras, consciousness, sensory awareness through tangible textures of dots and lines.
The 32 styles in the Manual of Yuan’s Texturizing Strokes have been organized and sequentially arranged. On the whole, it encapsulates my personal emotional evolution over the course of 20 years, beginning with the earliest sentiments of longing, sadness, rage, frustration, irritability; to eventual appeasement; and finally, with the passing of time, a gradual sense of relief and solace. These emotional changes along the way have accompanied half of a lifetime. (Fig. 5)
3. The Worldscape of THEY and Juxtaposed Contrast The Chinese character 類 (lei) in the title of THEY Shanshui derives from the beast Lei described in the first chapter of “Classics of the Mountains: South” in The Classic of Mountains and Seas.
“Mount Chanyuan contains many rivers yet no plants or trees. It should not be climbed. There is a beast here whose form resembles a civet cat with a mane. It is called the Lei and is hermaphroditic. Eating it will cure jealousy.” Master Zhuang said, “The Lei exists as both male and female.” (Fig. 6, 7)
The Lei has both human and civet cat features. It is chimeric and hermaphroditic. It transcends gender categories, and therefore transcends the entanglements of romantic love.
This reminded me of the recent Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of the singular “they,” in reference to those who identify as both male and female, transcending the gender binary while being both singular and plural. Where the pronouns “he” or “she” have become inadequate in referring to those who have a mix of male and female characteristics in their gender identity, the singular “they” can be used as a pronoun for those of this nonbinary gender. The development of sexual history has been a topic of focus in the West since the mid-20th century, and has moved away from the binary in support of pluralistic gender identity, but a super-classification that includes hybridity and hermaphroditism has long been present in early Chinese mythology.
The hermaphrodite Lei and the nonbinary pronoun “they” both transcend the binary classification. They not only embody hybridity, but also a state of juxtaposed contrast: “being is not being” and “not being is being.” This aspect corresponded to the concept of cultural subjectivity that I wanted to address with compositions constructed of juxtaposed hybrid texturized blocks. THEY Shanshui embody an ambiguity and uncertainty; they appear to be shanshui landscapes, but are actually not of the naturalistic shanshui category. They propose a dialectic of content and meaning between “being and not being.” The all capitals of “THEY” in the series title THEY Shanshui illustrates the intention of transcending established classification systems.
Ever since the Five Dynasties period, there has been a tacit rule in the composition of shanshui painting: There should only be one, or two the most, texturizing styles within one painting, in order to create integration and harmony through the uniformity of texturizing techniques. THEY Shanshui diverges from the tradition of uniformity in texturization. I intentionally use disparate clusters of texturized forms to create a sense of collage, to produce a unity of differences through juxtaposed contrast rather than homogeneity. This unity of differences not only limns the kaleidoscope of human sensibilities through emotional texturization, but also serves as a metaphor for a cultural vista distinguished by heteroglossia and heterogeneity on the island of Taiwan in its diverse post-colonial status quo.
THEY Shanshui may appear like shanshui paintings, but they are metonymies for the subject’s emotional characteristics and a metaphor for heteroglossia in Taiwan. This state of the world diverges from the utopia or Peach Blossom Spring depicted in classical shanshui painting. It is the heterogeneous world of Taiwan, where distinct ethnic groups prosper symbiotically. I have replaced the texturizing of mountains and rocks in Guo Xi’s Early Spring (Fig. 8) with texturized clusters of THEY Shanshui, and made it into a video of moving images. My intention is to accentuate the metamorphosis of the feudal empire’s political subjectivity in shanshui painting into the diversified world of juxtaposed contrast, a metaphor for the transfiguration of the world that unfolds as eras shift and regimes change.
4. Complete Transformation of Form and Meaning: A Radical Stance in Contemporary Shanshui Painting Looking back on the history of shanshui painting, I believe the invention, utilization, reproduction, categorization, and regulation of texturizing techniques throughout the evolution of the classical to the contemporary pivot around the principle of likeness and unlikeness in regarding nature as the mentor, as well as in the pursuit of pristineness and innocence in true shanshui.
Although the idea of “finding essence from within” has sustained throughout history, allowing texturizing to shift away from the emulation of nature toward a delineation of the interiority. However, a culturally contextualized painting theory that has focused on lineage and background inevitably parses shanshui painting in its stylistic paradigms. This mires texturization either in the differentiation logic and interpretive method of the Northern School and Southern School, or in the perpetual differentiation of true likeness based on a stylized aesthetics of naturalism.
Therefore, “texturizing” has always revolved around the two aesthetics discourses of naturalism, or brush and ink character. The historical barrier of naturalism has been difficult to break, even in the aftermath of the brush and ink revolution of the modern ink painting movement. Since the discourse cannot escape historical barriers, the only recourse is to invent new tricks in form. Shanshui painting in the modern ink painting movement becomes a rehashed revolution, where only form (tools, techniques, styling) has been reinvigorated, but content (aesthetics, interpretation, connotation) has not.
Is the question “What is shanshui?” still confined to an interpretive response of natural creation today? Or can we contemplate this question more liberally, and ask how we regard the corporeal world? Are there possibilities for a more profound interpretation of the term shanshui beyond natural creation, scenic vistas, or landscapes? And, as a key element of shanshui painting, can texturizing techniques vary not only in form, but have different connotations in content? If this can be accomplished, then shanshui has truly entered into a contemporary context! THEY Shanshui and the Manual of Yuan’s Texturizing Strokes are attempts to propose new possibilities regarding the discourse of texturizing and of shanshui from a perspective of subjective identity.