Beginning with my earliest
suiseki, I would usually exhibit them in combination with one or two
other objects, often works of visual art. The fact that suiseki and
painting or drawing complemented each other appealed to me. Today, some
20 years later, most of my suiseki are still displayed in this manner.
This practice has been formalized somewhat with the recent completion
my new Japanese summer bedroom, which has a tokonoma, the raised alcove
originally based upon the Buddhist altar, now used to display important
scrolls and other art objects. (See interior photos.)
I recently saw an image of
a suiseki work by Mas Nakajima titled Silence, displayed on the
that he shares with his wife, Janet Roth.
Silence is a compound piece consisting of a painting and a suiseki
in a suiban. As a rule, I am not in favor of using suiban for suiseki;
I prefer the uniqueness of the daiza for a particular stone. However,
it seems that one reason Mas uses a suiban in this work is to reduce
the stone's overall impact in the piece. The perceptual focus rests
somewhere between the painting and the suiseki.
Mas's work overall is some
of the best suiseki being created today. Responding to his work Silence
in light of my new Japanese room and reflecting upon how I have chosen
to display my suiseki through the years, it occurred to me that I have
a "tokonoma criterion" for suiseki presentation.
Suiseki is a Japanese
viewing stone, presented in some fashion. "Presentation"
of two-dimensional works (painting, photography, prints) in the traditional
Western sense is usually framing, and this notion could be extended
to include suiseki. The frame serves a double function of enclosing
the work and separating it from the world (Jacques Derrida). It may
be the case that neither the suiseki daiza nor the suiban alone can
accomplish this successfully. The tokonoma, however, provides a structural
frame that is a function of both its contents and the room of which
it is part.
It might be of value to consider
suiseki's parallel tradition in Japan, bonsai. Until recently, bonsai
have not been exhibited in the tokonoma. Historically, suiseki have
often been exhibited with bonsai, more as accent pieces than as serious
works in their own right. Bonsai enjoy a significant symbolic relationship
to suiseki; they can have a life expectancy of centuries. Nevertheless,
they are living beings, which means that they will die. In their mortality
they stand distinct from suiseki.
The tokonoma is essential in
the Japanese tea room, and also popular in many formal Japanese rooms
used for entertaining. It provides an environment, historically and
aesthetically, that is more favorable to suiseki than are bonsai exhibits.
The occupied tokonoma is at
once complex, diverse, and unified, qualities we look for also in Western
art. In addition, tokonoma contents are dynamic, seasonal, impermanent,
and may be directed to a particular person's interest. The tokonoma
provides not only the frame, but also the context for its aesthetic
potential. In contrast to an art gallery space of comparable size, the
tokonoma is the single object of aesthetic focus in the room.
The contents of the tokonoma
are always multiple, but never total more than three. Often one of the
items is more important than the others. For the tea ceremony, for instance,
the scroll invariably predominates and is often selected for the guest
of honor; however, if the guest is an admirer of ikebana, the
flower arrangement might take precedence. Cut flowers in the tokonoma
embody impermanence; bonsai and suiseki contrast with cut flowers. The
way in which a tokonoma displays the uniqueness of each element is illustrated
by one of my favorite stories: Hideyoshi Toyotomi had been invited for
a tea ceremony by Sen no Rikyu, whose specific purpose was to show Hideyoshi
the new species of morning glory that he had developed. The honored
guest was somewhat dismayed by seeing not one single bloom upon his
arrival. Entering the tea room, Hideyoshi was overwhelmed by the exquisite
beauty of the morning glory displayed in the tokonoma, which was made
all the more spectacular in virtue of its singularity.
Suiseki is certainly a viable
candidate for being the third element in the tokonoma, along with the
scroll and cut flower. In my tokonoma, it would be difficult for the
suiseki not to prevail. Suiseki symbolizes permanence as profoundly
as the cut flower symbolizes its antithesis. While it can be argued
that suiseki will eventually return to the "dust" from which they
came, their distinction from bonsai remains significant.
Suiseki are very proprietary
when it comes to sharing their aesthetic space with other suiseki. In
my small house, aside form the Japanese bedroom, at any one time there
may be as many as 12 suiseki throughout; however, there is never more
than one suiseki at a time in the tokonoma in the Japanese room. The
artistic potential for suiseki seems to be markedly improved by placing
the stones within a compound context.
March 11, 2008