Cutting the Bottom of the Suiseki Stone
Some 20 years ago, I was working
with my brother in San Francisco. Having long been interested
in bonsai, we joined a local bonsai society. During one of the
meetings, Felix Rivera gave a suiseki demonstration; and I was hooked.
That year I made over 150 daiza, hardly any of which I still have.
Most of Felix's suiseki stones had their bottom's cut off.
My first stones had cut bottoms, which had a marked impact on the approach
that I brought to making suiseki daiza. Several years later on
my first trip to Japan, I discovered that the Japanese suiseki that
I preferred were not cut, nor were they manipulating in any other way.
Following this trip, my cutting-stone days were over. This issue
became a bone of contention between Felix and me, and has remained so
ever since. A few years ago when I was in Oakland, I presented
a few of my suiseki to Felix's group. The group's response
was interesting—although they were quite taken by my daiza, they could
not understand my aversion to cutting stones. This issue has remained
on my mind, however to date I have not addressed it. On aesthetic
grounds, what might be said in the controversy between cutting and not
cutting the suiseki-stone?
Stone as Prime Matter or Natural Sculpture
Most critical in this debate
is what one takes to be the basic nature of the stone for suiseki.
In favor of "cutting-stones," it could be argued that the stone
consists of the basic material from which the suiseki is created.
Here, in the Aristotelian sense, the stone is the prime matter
(the physical medium) awaiting to be given its form (the
piece) from of the craftsman. In this case the suiseki stone is
analogous to the block of marble from which Michelangelo created his
great works of sculpture, by means of subtraction, i.e., removing all
stone, save that which constitutes the work of art. In this case,
the marble that eventually became Michelangelo's David is in itself
of modest importance.
By contrast, the "no-cut-stones"
advocates could argue that the enterprise of suiseki begins with stone-stock,
which could be regarded as objects of natural sculpture.
The grounds here would rest in a certain "reverence for nature,"
and the symbolic reflection of this residing in the stone. Since
the earliest days of our humanity, be this 50,000 or 250,000 years ago,
man's first religious inclinations were directed toward naturalistic
pantheism. This is understandable: we are not only products of
the nature that surrounds us, but our individual and species survival
depends upon it. Japan's early indigenous Shinto religion found
its practice on this respect for "divine" nature. Many of
the religions which have sprung up the past 2500 years are based upon
principals derived from the basic tenants of pantheism. It seems
safe to say that many of our divinities, both old and more recent are
nature based. Thus, it is no surprise that we hold "virgin-nature"
in high esteem; and for this we make the distinction between nature,
which provides the materials for our survival (trees for houses, marble
for sculptural art); and "nature in the buff" to be admired and
appreciated for its inherent beauty. This is what I mean using
the metaphor, "seeking the kami in the stone." On the
basis of the precepts of Shinto, I suspect that it was in no small part
due to their commitment to the natural wholeness
of the stones. Thus, in addition to their other aesthetic properties,
their being uncut was significant.
Pros and Cons for Cutting a Suiseki Stone
One potential argument supporting
the position of cutting suiseki stones may come from the tradition of
stone setting in Japanese gardens. For nearly a thousand years
stone setting has been one of the essentials of Japanese gardens.
An important rule regarding stone setting is that the stone must be
securely set in the ground, which normally would be to the depth of
its greatest girth such that the stone appears to be "growing" from
the ground in which it sits. The suiseki-stone-cutters could argue
that this is precisely one of the intended effects of cutting the stone.
It is rather ironic that they find it necessary to cut the bottom of
the stone at the optimal point for allowing the resulting suiseki to
simulate the stone setting rule applied to Japanese gardens to achieve
the appearance of "naturalness."
Other reasons for cutting stones
could be that doing so, improves the quality, the clarity and sharpness
of the stone and its subject matter, e.g., as a mountain range.
In some schools of suiseki, this practice is essential. Also,
cutting improves the proportions of the stone (length, depth and height).
Finally, the stone might have a number of special features, but it is
unusable absent being cut. These arguments however, fail to be
convincing. They are predicated on the notion that there exists
some "trans-stone" phenomenon, such as the "work of art," that
takes precedence over the inherent nature of the stone itself.
This is precisely the "Michelangelo-argument"—the sculpture David
takes precedence over the marble from which it was created.
Originally in Japan, the grounds
for suiseki were analogous to those governing bonsai—to bring large
nature indoors by miniaturizing it; the easiest means by which to do
this was by placing the stone on a daiza and the tree in a pot.
Over the course of the past millennium of Japanese history, the pragmatics
have become formalized within Japanese ideology and aesthetics.
My answer to the "Japanese garden stone-setting argument" would
be that in this sense suiseki diverges from the tradition of Japanese
gardening. For me, among suiseki's properties of substantial
relevance, is that the suiseki must "express" its natural-bottomness.
This is my strongest argument
against cutting the suiseki stones. A cluster of properties come
into play here, not the least of which is revealed in the contrast of
suiseki to its cultural-sibling, bonsai. One pronounced feature
in the aesthetics of bonsai is that these miniature tress are experientially
two-dimensional, i.e., they are perceived as "flat" visual phenomena;
they are distinctly frontal; they are always exhibited at a distance;
and they are never intended (psychologically, logically or pragmatically)
to be touched. While this contrast with suiseki is not uncontroversial,
it is fairly important. In contrast, suiseki are tactile, three-dimensional
phenomena—they always retain their being "six-sided" objects,
conceived, defined and intended to be touched ("rubbed," if you
will; see the piece "Rubbing Suiseki Stones"); and this is
especially so, even in those instances in which they are exhibited and
cannot be touched. Even in the visual experience of suiseki it
is crucial to project their tactility onto their nature as they are
being experienced visually. This is an essential aspect of my
saying that suiseki must "express" their natural bottoms.
As a corollary, psychologically,
it is obvious that a stone has been cut, even when the cut-bottom is
not directly perceivable; aesthetically, this constitutes a significant
difference in experiencing the suiseki. This suggests what for
me is central to how art is best experienced: through one's peripheral
vision (i.e., experiencing art without directly perceiving it.)
This peripheral experience is very powerful over the long term; it is
the manner applied to much of the art, much of the time with which one
lives. In this sense, one will invariably "feel"
the cut bottom of a stone, even and especially when it is not exposed.
There are two important consequences here: 1) the obvious overall, physical
difference between cut and natural-bottom stones; and 2) that cut stones
telegraph the fact that they are so; these constitute a duel liability.
One central activity for all
suiseki is stone collecting. The criterion driving the pursuit
of collecting is grounded upon the eventual suiseki to be created—
whether with a cut stone or not. This distinction determines the
mind-set brought to collecting. One literally "sees" the rocks
in the river bed differently if the stones are intended to be cut or
left natural. The very mind-set distinction is transferred directly
to how one approaches the experiential encounter with the finished suiseki.
Thus, we arrive at a significant epistemological difference here in
the visual schemata brought to the experience of these two phenomena
—the cut-stone and natural suiseki. This "mind-set" difference
is as complex as it is subtle.
For the committed non-cutter,
what is allowed, relative to "working" the stone? After being
collected, the stone may be cleaned, not exceeding what is accomplished
through the cycles of the dishwasher. The stone cannot be ground
or sanded in any manner; that the Japanese allow their suiseki to be
sandblasted is unfortunate; it makes not a wit of difference how subtly
and inconspicuously it is done. The stone can be left outside
in the weather; and then after a decade or two when very little has
changed; it can be placed on its daiza, or whatever. In those
cases where the nature of the stone is appropriate, it may be rubbed
with the oil (baby or mineral); the myth here is that, with doing so
daily for several decades, the stone will acquire a spectacular patina.
(See "Rubbing the Suiseki Stone") Whether historically accurate
or not, this surely is a great story.
I hope that these thoughts
have gone some way to capturing the nature of the suiseki stone (i.e.,
its ontological status). On the other side of the philosophic
coin, how is our experience and meaning of suiseki effected by these
considerations? These questions are of consequence relative to
the theoretic dimension of suiseki; and I hope that this discussion
has moved the issue forward.
March 24, 2008