Suiseki: Personal Reflections
Suiseki is the Japanese
art of the viewing stone. Stones are exhibited on a wooden base called
a daiza or in a shallow ceramic bowl called a suiban.
Since the latter is generic, I prefer the daiza, which is constructed
uniquely for each stone. The translation of suiseki
is "water stone," referring to a stone that has been moderately
weathered or aged, traditionally described as a stone in a stream half-way
down a mountain. It is neither too "green" nor too worn, as it would
be on an ocean beach. While less popular than its sibling art, bonsai,
suiseki has a parallel history. Both arts can be traced to millennia
BCE in China, and both rely heavily on illusions of age and scale. I
am particularly fond of the image in folklore of the lonely Buddhist
monk on the road with a bonsai in one hand and a suiseki in the other.
My initial attraction to suiseki,
some twenty-five years ago, derived from my love of wood and its creative
potential when combined with beautiful stones. The year that I began
suiseki I made over 150 dais, of which I may have three left. At the
time, the literature in English on suiseki was exhausted by Vincent
T. Covello and Yuji Yoshimura's The Japanese Art of Stone Appreciation:
Suiseki and Its Use with Bonsai, which I devoured. Not only
was its information incomplete, but it contained inaccuracies as well.
For instance, it stated that the underside of the dai need not be completely
removed, and that cheap species of wood could be used and then painted
or stained. It is through the close examination of high-quality suiseki,
primarily in Japan, and through sheer practice, patience, and persistence,
that I have been able to create and produce serious suiseki dais.
In classic Japanese style,
suiseki stock is hard, dark stone, such as black basalt. Stones can
be of two types: rubbing stones (which are oiled) and dry. The former
is traditional in Japan: the story is that if every day you rub a good
suiseki with the oil from the side of your nose, over the years it will
acquire a spectacular patina. America has two indigenous kinds of suiseki
stone: Murphys stone from California, which is minimally weathered,
and desert stone from the Southwest, which is weathered by wind and
sand rather than by water. Neither of these two is a rubbing stone.
For the novice, the experience
of viewing stones likely begins by recognizing the subject matter revealed
in the suiseki. Particularly popular subjects are near mountain, distant
mountain, waterfall, plateau, and water stone. Other suiseki have a
variety of physiognomic and erotic subjects. My experience is that as
I become familiar with an art form, I gravitate toward more abstract
images and those which depend less upon their subject matter. Today
the only "mountain" stones I keep are those that have significant
historical value for me. My favorites now are quite abstract and would
not fit into any of the categories mentioned above.
Some suiseki craftsmen in the
U.S. believe that the bottom of a stone can be cut, and for many of
my earliest suiseki I used cut stones. But the most important suiseki
lesson that I learned from my first trip to Japan was: "No cut stones!"
Though I did not know this when I began suiseki, a crucial cultural
dimension for the Japanese is the spirit of kami (gods) intrinsic
in the stones. While many of the particulars of the art of suiseki,
like other Japanese arts, came from China, values central to Japan's
indigenous Shinto religion are present in the spirit of these stones.
Cutting the stone's bottom destroys this spirit, and with it, the
stone's suiseki potential. (See my piece on "Cutting Stones.")
A critical aspect of the relationship
between the stone and its daiza is that of proportion: the depth
of the feet to the depth of the dai; the height of the stone to the
depth to which the stone is buried in the dai; and, most important,
the depth of the dai to the overall height of the stone. Among the ratios
I take into account is the Golden Section (1:: 1.618), which has the
legitimacy of millennia behind it in both East and West. For daiza depth
to stone height, the ratio of one to seven has served me well.
Only the very best exotic hardwoods
are appropriate. For me, these include Brazilian rosewood, ebony, teak,
and old mahogany; in fact, any "old" wood is satisfactory. I have
also used walnut, cherry, and fine-grained oak. The criterion here is
that the wood must accommodate an exquisite finish: after it has been
sanded with at least five grades of sandpaper and given thirty coats
of tung oil, it must exhibit the evidence of this effort.
Unless a stone has an established
history and/or a recognized pedigree, it is simply a "stone" until
it is placed upon a daiza. At that point it becomes a suiseki and a
serious artifact. While the process of stone choice is critical to suiseki,
collectors basically locate and pick up rocks; there is very
little art involved here. It is the daiza that not only brings life
to the stone, but presents it to the world. The wood's species, color,
and grain, as well as the size, shape, and depth of the daiza, capture
and convey a distinctive sense of the stone.
During the past quarter century,
my daiza have evolved through three generations. The first generation
was conservative, with a vertical profile and feet squarely under the
primary weight points. The second was more free-form, with a mixed profile
and the daiza reflecting prominent features in the stone. In virtue
of my using only natural-bottom stones, the third was an island format
(inspired by the fifteenth-century Kyoto rock garden Ryoan-ji); with
these daiza, the profile opened out into the horizontal plane with their
feet hidden or, in the last couple of years, subtly exposed for aesthetic
emphasis and balance. It is a sheer joy to work with these gorgeous
stones from around the world and with the great wood that I use.
(Daiza I have designed are
in the National Arboretum, Washington, D.C.; the Takagi Bonsai Museum,
Tokyo; and the book Suiseki: The Japanese Art of Miniature Landscape
Stones, by Felix G. Rivera.)
March, 10, 2008