Among the most prestigious of a Chinese scholar’s personal assets, Lingbi stones are naturally formed rocks prized by scholars and collectors alike. Wu Bin’s famous handscroll, titled “Ten Views of a Lingbi Stone” (1610), depicts such a revered object in a thought-provoking eponymous exhibition. Completely unfurled, each of the ten views rendered by the artist are exposed simultaneously, allowing for an unparalleled experience of the dynamic transitions between these studied views of the ancient stone. Although obvious reasons demand such an unnatural staging of the Ming Dynasty scroll, originally created with the intention of a one-by-one revelation in a far more intimate setting, it also invites revelatory comparisons with the surrounding installations that range from the nearly contemporaneous Wood Sculpture of a Taihu Stone (Qing Dynasty, Kangxi reign; 1622-1722), to the nearly contemporary, such as Zhan Wang’s Artificial Rock No. 135 (2007).
To begin, one must enter to the far end of the gallery, with the first view of what the artist Wu Bin and the stone’s owner Mi Wanzhong defined as the “front” of the Lingbi Stone. From there, each view provides a snapshot, continually revolving around the nebulous shape rendered in energetic flame-like washes of black ink, capturing a sense of the energy believed to lie within the stone itself. The equally complex negative shapes seem to push forward to the surface, evoking notions of rivulets and waterfalls, the very forces of yin that once shaped the yang element. Moving through the different vantage points, the shape-shifting rock seems to evolve — referencing the notion of the stone’s life cycle, rather than viewing it as a static object. Though the views seem comprehensive, it is through viewing the adjacent stones, both natural and manmade, that allow the modern viewer true insight to the source of Wu Bin’s inspiration.
The evocative scholar rocks were traditionally valued as contemplative forms, miniature manifestations of the dramatic mountain ranges of the Chinese landscape that allowed for a vicarious experience of the natural world, even while trapped in the urban environment. On view here, a trio of natural stones pulls us away from the scroll and demand closer inspection. Situated nearly parallel with the initial image of the scroll, the charcoal gray Mo Stone is interrupted with mottling and veins of white, echoing Wu Bin’s transcription. The next stone, the warm gray stone, titled Auspicious Cloud, embodies the four aesthetic principles (thinness, openness, perforations, and wrinkling) associated with judging these rocks since the Tang Dynasty. The mushroom-shaped shadow cast by the stone in 1744, when the “Auspicious Cloud” was first collected and inscribed, clearly held different meaning than for viewers of its silhouette today.
Several drawings on view parallel the studied resolve evident in Wu Bin’s scroll and illustrate the reciprocal nature between drawing the stones and the landscape itself. Meanwhile, a pair of scholar stones carved in wood takes the notion of an axe-cut brush stroke quite literally. With a contemporary twist, Beijing-based artist Zhang Wang re-envisions these traditionally revered natural forms in stainless steel. First wrapping an actual stone in sheets of the industrial material, the artist then removes and recreates the original forms in an identical, yet hollow, seamless cast. The result is mesmerizing; glints of light from the overhead tracks trace the ridges of the industrialized form, while the viewer’s reflection provides a continual reminder of this mediated, though decidedly not empty, experience of both the object and surrounding environment.
Counter this material, perhaps with a lifespan even greater than the stone itself, with the bright red foam rendition of a vertically oriented Scholar’s Stone (2009) by Sun Wentao. Beijing-based Sun regularly takes traditional subject matter, from the genre of landscape to the symbolic elements within, and recasts them in various contemporary materials. The contrast between these two contemporary renditions, the eternal and ephemeral, brings us back to the initial subject. The guiding principle of the rock as a focal point of meditation, a means to cultivate an appreciation for the eternal present, if only for a fleeting moment.
Article first published in ArtScene (Jan 2018) and Visualartsource.com