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I see the whole world in a tiny stone. Some objects in this world are huge, and others are small, and they come in all shapes, but they are not that different when you look at their essence.Hideo Marushima, The History of Suiseki in Japan
Art is perhaps one of the things that distinguishes man among other living beings and it is generally associated with beauty. The typical behavior of the human being in front of something astonishing and wonderful is that of an ecstatic sensation caused by the product of artistic creation, hence obviously the relative ability to create what we define as artistic products. With the cultural and social changes typical of our evolution, I believe it is possible to say that even art has changed its nature: its gaze has also turned to disturbing subjects, often even upsetting, but which nevertheless arouse emotions. No longer only in search of or in representation of beauty in itself, but related to something that gives rise to emotions, even if they are about disgust or uneasyness.
It is therefore probably the human sensitivity that defines what art is, and not only guided by culture: a sunset, a rain drop, a shadow, a space between two flowers on a branch, a snow crystal, wherever the sensitive man turns his gaze towards nature he is able to grasp its beauty defining the object of observation as a masterpiece, along the lines of the artistic artefact. So it is not only art what derives from the creative act of man, but the evolution of culture and human sensitivity can lead to new artistic paradigms for the research and appreciation of works of art created by nature.
Going further, can we define a simple stone as art? Are Australian Ayers Rock, a glimpse of Provençal calanques or Peruvian Rainbow Mountains definable as art?
Maybe not, maybe they just manage to create emotions not unlike a natural event. But what about an object, not created by man but by nature and his cycles, which man instead searches for and simply places on a pedestal exactly like a work of art? In this case we cross a different border, to delve into what has often been defined as the definitive, final art, a compendium of a thousand other arts typically fruit of human culture and sensitivity, but created by nature on nature itself, which stimulates in us the same emotions of an artistic masterpiece, in the purest style of an event that can only happen naturally, but which carries with it a profound meaning as if it were created with intention. Or perhaps this is precisely the unintentionality inherent in the beauty and in the message it is able to convey.
This is Suiseki, or small rocks that are naturally sculpted for example by the flow of water or by the insistence of the wind, stones that have particular shapes, colors or textures. They are not simple stones, but they must show some expressiveness: they are art for a sensitive observer, they become art to be shown on a par with paintings and sculptures, and in some ways they feed an art market not different from the one we are most used to think about. Suiseki is therefore very different from the art of stacking stones, or stone/rock balancing, a discipline aimed at placing stones and boulders of different shapes in balance on each other, without a base and without any support other than that of the force of gravity, often closely connected with Zen, with relaxation, with the exchange of energy and the increase of sensitivity, which surely requires concentration and patience but which still remains an art that requires human intervention for its realisation, even if it is based on the sensitivity of the artist in selecting the suitable stones or the place where to exhibit his creation.
Unlike stone balance, Suiseki is the Japanese art of stone appreciation. An art originated in China more two thousand years ago, where it is known by the term gongshi, and introduced in ancient Japan during the Asuka period (538-710 AD) but became more popular during the Kamakura period (1183-1333 AD) thanks to the recognition by the ruling class of the samurai.
The essence is that of research, and therefore of exposure, of so-called figured stones, that is, they have to be able to represent something. Since the original Japanese term suiseki means water (sui) stone (seki), or nature, this imply everything that modifies the stone. In fact, these stones must have been created solely by nature, they must not have undergone interventions by human being, they cannot have been cut, sculpted or coloured, but they can be mounted on a support to improve their exposure.
The only exceptional intervention accepted is in fact the flat cut for the creation of a better support base, since these stones can be presented as
– Daiza: equipped with a wooden base
– Suiban: placed on a sort of tray or in a ceramic bowl, filled with water or sand
– Doban: like the Suiban but placed in a bronze container
Although Suiseki can be considered as an extremely minimalist expression of art, delving into the classification of such masterpieces is far from being simple. Just as nature has infinite facets, Suiseki also has a myriad of classes, perhaps also the result of the Japanese tendency to catalog and assign names to establish the most subtle and intimate differences between things.
On a larger scale, but not primary, a first classification can be made on the shape, i.e. stones that represent the natural aspects of a landscape, or stones that represent objects or animals, each with various sub-categories and each characterized by a specific name. .
The first, Sansuikei-seki or Sansuikeijo-seki, suggest scenes and landscapes found in nature: about thirty sub-categories belong to this family, such as those representing waterfalls, single and multiple, seen from the front or from the side, expose channels from extinct waterfalls, single mountains or multiple peaks, whether or not covered by vegetation or snow, viewed directly or through valleys, islands that emerge from the water, plateaus and hilly areas, beaches, stretches of water, rocky coasts, shelters of various nature for protection from the elements, or tunnels, each with its own name for the best and most precise classification.
The stones that represent animals or intimate objects connected with nature are instead called Keisho-seki: these must not copy the object itself, but as often happens in sumi-e, they have to suggest through delicate lines and shapes. There are just under a dozen sub-categories in this family, which group stones resembling rustic houses (necessarily rustic, a Western-style or a modern house would not be considered), straw huts, boats, bridges, animals in general and more specifically real birds or mythological, butterflies and other insects typical of the Japanese tradition, fish, including obviously carp, human forms with particular attention to workers such as fishermen and peasants, Buddhas and monks, stones that represent different objects, in quantity as of three, and viewed from different angles.
Another type of classification is carried out for the colour of the stone, called Shikisai-seki: once again it is the sensitivity of the observer to establish the goodness of the colouring through the sensations that the stone manages to evoke, connected to nature, such as sunrise, sunset, night, spring and so on, a classification characterized by having to evoke sensations solely through aesthetic characteristics. There are seven sub-categories that typically take their name from the single color of the stone, for example Kuro-ishi, black stone, plus a category called Goshiki-ishi, or five-coloured stone, which traditionally are a mixture of red, yellow and green together with something gray, blue, purple, white or black.
To complicate matters even further, another classification is based on the texture of the surface, called Monseki, characterized by textures, colours, lines, minerals possibly in sight, and once again Japanese collectors have developed a preference for textures that are particularly close to nature. The many sub-families, just around thirty, group stones whose surfaces recall trees, forests, potted bonsai, flowers (Hanagata-ishi, particularly appreciated in Japan) and in particular the chrysanthemum, the plum, the wild rose, various types of fruits, leaves, herbs, bamboo, weather, cosmic and natural, striped, mesh, or abstract patterns.
Finally, drawing once again on the Japanese tradition, a classification based on the place of origin could not be missing, places that are particularly known for the abundance of these stones, which in turn take their name from the toponym: in Japan there are at least a dozen famous places scattered throughout the country that give the stones their names such as Kurama-ishi, in the prefecture of Kyoto, Kamuikotan-ishi, in the prefecture of Hokkaido, Sado akadama-ishi, in the prefecture of Niigata, etc.
As a side note, there are obviously places all over the world that allow findind stones for Suiseki and in Italy some areas of the Reggio Apennines, in Piacenza areas and of Ligurian Alps stand out for interest, which offer hard limestone stones that by geological composition resemble the Suiseiki classified as Furuya-ishi, in the prefecture of Wakayama, stones called Palombini due to their blue-gray color similar to the plumage of the Wood Pigeon.
Even if a stone is rarely characterised by all the families and sub-families as listed, it is still typical to use more than one system and often to associate a poetic name as the last classifier.
The observation and contemplation of Suiseki is therefore something that goes beyond art itself, crossing the boundaries of human existence connected to the natural world. They are not artistic creations in the literal sense, but rather rough elements capable of returning deep emotions: it is therefore the sensitivity of those who find them to determine their artistic quality, and the sensitivity of the observer to grasp the sensations that they are able to communicate. In a particularly evocative way, Suiseki has been defined as having no limits in the exact way in which the ever-changing forms that can be seen by observing the clouds are infinite.
Master Nomura Masayuki in his conference held on the occasion of the 11th edition of the Crespi Suiseki Cup in 2015, reported that “Suiseki deals with a world which one reaches gradually after having experimented various things. In fact, the knowledge required is innumerable: in the field of Japanese polychrome and monochromatic painting, of the arrangement of stones, of the kakemono, of the real knowledge of stones and rocks (lithography), of the accompanying elements, of the tables as well as of other expressive forms of the Japanese tradition, such as the tea ceremony, calligraphy, flower arrangement, religion/philosophy behind it, antiques, ceramics and porcelain, decorative arrangement methods and so on. In short, all this knowledge gives life to the exhibition of a Suiseki, a global hobby that seeks its space in the hearts of people and their daily life. […] It is an “artistic journey” of decoration, an aesthetic one that takes place inside a room/space through the use of stones. Even if we have a wonderful, potentially decorative stone in our hands, but we don’t know how to arrange it, it is as if we had a dead stone. Suiseki, therefore, aims to best arrange – in an aesthetic and decorative way – the stone within a space. The same stone, arranged in a different way, will make its intrinsic beauty stand out or not. Here then is how we could define the “Suiseki-do”: it highlights a silent and calm interest in a stone, a landscape placed in a decorative interior spatial composition centered on the Suiseki itself, which is the essence and the quintessence of nature. It is a completion of the work of art in an aesthetic space with its own dignity.”
To better understand the meaning of the artistic journey that allows you to arrive at Suiseki, it is useful to list the seven principles of this art as listed by master Nomura Masayuki:
- Kanso (simplicity): simplify the display composition to highlight the beauty
- Shoryaku (omission): highlighting beauty through “subtraction”
- Yohaku no bi (space): create sufficient empty spaces within the composition to allow the user to appreciate the following points
- Seijo (purity): allowing the user to appreciate a sense of purity within the composition
- Jaku (stillness): allowing the user to perceive a state of stillness within the composition
- Iki (refined elegance): convey elegance through composition
- Fuin (an indefinable positive feeling perceived within the composition): the creation of a positive atmosphere indescribable in words, which conveys the beauty of simplicity and elegance.
If Suiseki is basically nothing more than a stone, to make it come alive and make it so that it can release its beauty and its artistic charge it is necessary that the spirit of the person who finds and shows it is deep, cultured and sensitive: it is something alive, it is not a coincidence that they are frequently called living stones, which open to the awareness of constant work, of nature in this case and in relation to human activities, a typical representation of the ephemeral characteristics of wabi sabi.
The deepest intimate meaning of Suiseki is to help develop one’s wealth of soul through the aesthetic concept called mono no aware, closely linked to that of wabi abi, that is the emotion for the beauty of nature and human life with consequent nostalgic feeling linked to its incessant change, or more commonly to the sensitivity of things.