An exhibition of handmade books made in response to the collection of Chinese landscape paintings at Durham University’s Oriental Museum.
A mountain is made beautiful, not by its height but by its ability to charm dragons.
Ancient Chinese saying
27th September 2012
“Re:collection” has opened at The Oriental Museum, Durham University. I am showing “Mountains of the Moon” and “Roads Unfurling” alongside ceramic pieces by Bill Woods. We have both maintained a close relationship with the museum over many years and this is our personal response to this fantastic collection of Asiatic art. We will both be working from time to time in the museum – I am aiming to make a new bookwork whilst in residence.
Two years ago I began working with traditional Chinese drawing materials: inks made from pine ash mixed with gum and formed into hard black cakes, ground with water in a slate dish; soft-haired brushes mounted in bamboo, designed for rapid calligraphic work; thin, absorbent paper which soaks up moisture like a sponge. It took many failed attempts to find a method and idea which felt right, which acknowledged tradition and history but which satisfied contemporary sensibilities.
Extensive reading gave me background and imagined journeys. From Marco Polo’s “Travels”, through Sven Hedin’s accounts of his explorations of Central Asia, to Colin Thubron’s thin volume about his circumambulation of Mount Kailash, the books took me to times and spaces. Always there were mountains to cross – passes to navigate, summits to climb, blizzards to endure, views to take in. The landscape of Central Asia is dominated by mountains, high ranges which kept all but the hardiest travellers at bay for centuries, but which drew adventurers, misfits and dreamers seeking fame, riches or enlightenment.
Mountains haunt the human imagination. They are the realms of the gods, the closest we can get to heaven without taking flight, mysterious sacred places to be feared and venerated. In the Western psyche mountains are challenges to be overcome, mapped, climbed and conquered. Wade Davis’s recent book “Into the Silence – The Great War, Malory and the Conquest of Everest” brings into sharp focus the contrasting and often conflicting attitudes of both East and West. The ill-fated expeditions to the high Himalaya in the years following the catastrophe of WW1 were regarded by the British establishment as a last hoorah! of empire, but were in effect made up of a complex web of deeply personal catharses for expedition members like George Malory, traumatised by experiences on the Western Front.
The attempts to climb Everest were blessed by the lama of the Rongbuk Monastery in elaborate rituals of mutual misunderstanding, the Tibetans baffled by the notion of even approaching the mountain and the British irritated by what they saw as dark superstition. John Noel, photographer and filmmaker to the 1922 and 1924 expeditions, was shown a recently painted mural depicting a party of climbers being pitchforked into a deadly vortex by angry demons. Lying prone at the base of the mountain was a single white body. Noel famously set up his camera with newly developed telephoto lens on the North Col to film Malory’s desperate summit attempt, but he and his fellow climber Sandy Irvine never showed. Malory’s broken, frozen body was found under the Northeast Ridge in 1999.
“Roads Unfurling” paperbacks with pine ash ink and Himalayan birch branches formed into scrolls
I have archived my research books as a library of scrolls, paperbacks coiled around branches of Himalayan birch and painted with a straight black line of pine ash ink mapping a journey from first page to last. Western convention transformed into an Eastern tradition, from butterfly book to whirlwind scroll. The idea occurred to me some while ago when I was involved in educational work with the International Dunhuang Project based at the British Library. The project was set up to bring together the dispersed library found by explorer and archaeologist Aurel Stein in sacred caves in Western China in 1907. The library consisted of hundreds of ancient paper scrolls which contained an amazing body of knowledge shedding light upon the early history of the Silk Road, the series of trade routes which linked China to the West.
The scrolls were ‘acquired’ by a number of different adventurers and scholars and they have ended up in collections in London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing and St Petersburg. IDP are conserving and digitising each document (378,000 worldwide at the last count!) and each is available to scholars online.
One small book gave me a direction for the development of “Mountains of the Moon”. Chiang Yee was a traditional Chinese scholar- official, brought up in a well connected family and trained in the refined arts of painting, poetry and calligraphy. In 1933 he left China for Britain, leaving behind his wife and family and an unstable political situation in the hope of establishing a new career in the West. He began to make a name for himself as an artist and illustrator, cashing in on a new interest in Chinese art and culture. In 1936 Chiang Yee travelled to the English Lake District, later publishing the thoughts and observations of a lonely traveller in a foreign yet strangely familiar land of lakes and misty mountains. “Silent Traveller: A Chinese Artist in Lakeland” contains 13 landscape illustrations in a distinctive Chinese manner, worked from memory, brushed in ink on thin paper. (Chiang Yee is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum).
The book flips the traditional Westen travelogue, the subject of the rest of my reading, on its head. Here we have a British landscape strongly associated with literary and artistic revery seen through Chinese eyes. The impression is not one of difference but of connection. Chiang Yee recognised and celebrated the link between Chinese Taoist mountain veneration and the English Romantic spirit exemplified in Turners’ watercolours and Wordsworth’s poetry.
“Mountains of the Moon – Mountain Range”
The drawings for “Mountains of the Moon” are made with traditional Chinese materials, ink, brush, paper, but used indirectly, at a distance, by manipulating the ink washes on sheets of acetate and lifting the image off onto the absorbent paper. The screen of etched lines further distances the viewer from the subject, interference in the signal of a transmitted image. The subject is the mountains of the Lake District, all 230 as described and mapped by Wainwright in his “Pictorial Guides”, each a loose reworking of his pen ink illustrations, but they could be mountains anywhere, generic mountains, mountains of Central Asia, mountains on another planet.
The drawings are organised into volumes, “Mountain Range” as in Wainwright’s 7 volumes, but wall-mounted as a continuous run to stretch the full length of the museum’s mezzanine wall (they will be bound as books after the exhibition); “Mountain Chain”, which follows his “Pennine Way Companion”; and “Mountain Ring” which is based on the “Walks on the Howgill Fells” , both made as fold-out concertina books in the ancient Chinese Buddhist tradition.
“Mountains of the Moon – Mountain Ring”
27th October 2012
I have been working at the museum on Saturdays, putting together a number of new pieces in between talking to members of the public. I have met some very interesting people, from musicians to anthropologists to visitors from China, Japan and Russia, and quite a few children wanting to have a go. I have finished a commission for Charlotte on the museum staff called “Walking on the Moon”, a series of twelve drawings of her favourite mountains from Volume 3 of Wainwrights’ Guides.
I have also started work on a new book called “Circumambulation” which will consist of sixteen drawings of Mount Kailash in Tibet. By using Google Earth I have circled the mountain, recording topographic views from all points of the compass and the finished book will open out to form a circle of drawings, a 360 degree flyby. Kailash is the source of four major rivers (Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Sutlej) and is sacred to four religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Bon (ancient Tibetan religion) and Jainism. Walking (or in the case of some Buddhists, crawling in body-length prostrations) a complete circuit of the mountain will bring great good fortune but this is one of the more extreme sites of pilgrimage, remote, inhospitable and dangerous. Rough terrain, appalling weather conditions and altitude sickness can defeat even the most devout.