Mountains Have No Eyes
The Miniaturality of Landscape and Landscapility of Miniature
As well as Chinese literary writing, traditional Chinese aesthetics heavily relies on embodiments. It is not mystic nor complex; it, as a matter of fact, is surprisingly reflected in the development of visual language. We choose something that looks cool, and then assign meanings to it through self-consistent logic; ever since, a concrete subject would become an integration of meanings, which significantly increases the density of information and the efficiency of communication. For example, bamboos, their durability, material nature, even their growth pattern, have all been artistically associated with noble characteristics. Ironically, on the other end of the continent, market economics has transformed this figure of "unswerving refusal to corruption while maintaining of a poor life" (usually used on civil servants) into a rare commodity as a luxury building material for decoration and hobbies, and as historical evidence of the global expansion of colonialism of course. About a decade ago, the average daily payment for back-carrying tens of Moso bamboos was about £10; two weeks ago, I spent £138 on nine metres of it, which hardly assembles one Moso bamboo bole. If my family from ten years ago knew this, they'd shout echoes of "divine feces”.
Bonsai occupies an important position in Sinospheric culture. Although the format traditionally shows a momentum of "high art", there are always, for example, muddy pots of woody plants shaped like gnarled pine trees in yards. Plants and pots are barely attended (or perhaps never attended), but the cultural filter still displays Orientalism objects' respectful momentum. Regardless it is in rural gardens or urban balconies, if there is Chinese, such makeshift bonsai would be inevitable as vegetable gardens. The obsession with embodiments in Chinese culture is like our sentiment to owning land; with a piece of land, anything can be rebuilt; and with an aspiring embodiment, a tiny garden would be a proud articulation of a household's official refusal of worldly seductions and is filled with high ambitions; as for who's gonna achieve them, usually offsprings. A bonsai is designed to be an object that you can play with, but it is educational.
I cannot help to notice that many have developed interests in moss — including me. Perhaps it is because of its visual feature, the obvious stacking of massive details, like a tamed landscape, demonstrating the grand mechanism of mother nature in the size of a patch of dirt. There are no unnecessary elements in a bonsai; each leaf or grit has its own meaning and composites the delicate balance of an image. Bonsai displays the miniature of a landscape, and vice versa, as long as there is a workable logic that explains its components. In the foreword of Japanese Garden Design, Preston L. Houser (1996) wielded his humorous and accurate language and wrote:
“..gardens, like their distant theme parks cousins, are fictitious environment in that they are not wild…The visitor to a garden participates in an illusory environment that often represents, ironically, a psychological reality richer than our daily experience…The garden becomes, therefore, a kind of anthology of symbolic images and patterns….”
So we could possibly assume, that between the sizes of bonsai and landscape, there is garden in the middle; they can be flexibly defined as the result of either an engineering reality or a philosophical debate. Thus I'd suggest a similar research direction to western picturesque and romanticism, especially to "taming", or "conquering" landscapes, that we can find the landscaplity (if it is a word) of Bonsai, and the miniaturality of the landscape it translates.
This is more like a cultural collision that I forced: not far away from the bus station to Land’s End, at the very end of the Great Western Railway - the final destination of a romanticised and idealised search of idyll a hundred and fifty years ago, I discovered a corner in a park; it is embraced by bamboos, a natural element from my hometown; concrete canal, cement wall, and mini waterfalls formed by height difference, all remained me of a surrealistic collage of suburban area of home, but when I look far, it is Cornwall, as if someone set the stage for me long before I knew I was going to bring along another perspective of culture. So it would be a waste if I didn’t take it.
I always enjoy mimicking Moso bamboo with asparagus fern; I miss the odour of chopped bamboo and the noise they make in breezy dusk. It has been two years and nine months since the beginning of the pandemic; I am obstructed from visiting home, which is culturally unacceptable. This is the initial motivation of the project, which is to sprinkle some personal understandings and impressions through a formulaic visual language so that some complicated discussions can be introduced and, hopefully, support my argument in a bigger context. This is a miniature of my home, the miniature of her landscape, culture and garden; it is filled with symbols and constructed by illusions - the unauthentic but stereotypical Japanese visual features. This writing also is a miniature of academic writing. I love this kind of informal writing practise, I can list out references, but I don’t have to, which feels absolutely remarkable.
Landscape and the Dark Landscape
I have tasted dogs.
This is not a good start, but I did try dogs.
Before any judgement, please allow me to start by introducing the background through some technical details. First of all, I do not remember the last time I ate a dog; and for the sake of humanitarian endeavour, I have no comment on how to cook dogs and how they taste. Starting with such a weird confession is going to be very reasonable as it is going to lead to a cross-disciplinary discourse - well, it is eye-catching, provoking, at least for anglophones. But unfortunately, maybe for a continuous period of time, words can only pass information through linearity in writing and thinking, so I might have already lost some readers.
Before criticising dog-eating in some regions of China, especially through a more opposing perspective that established on Saiid's "occident-orient", I need to point out that simple criticism is not likely to help tackle this problem. I am no expert in agricultural history, but I can assume this is a tradition inherited in the time of material shortage, or maybe ancient times. When dogs were tamed and started to function as a part of the family, they might be more "labours" instead of "companions"; the companion here is not simply referring to emotional or mental attachment, but a more modern, contemporary definition of pet. It seems logical that material shortage can force households to treat dogs as a hard-to-gain protein source after their duty of guarding property, assisting in hunting are fulfilled - especially in regions that lack of terrain conditions for developing husbandry. In a lesson when I was asked to introduce my shit-stirring in art-making, I swept around classmates and performatively stated:
"Vegen, is a privilege".
And I paused for a dramatic effect which never arrived,
"Well, when vegan, or vegetarian is a choice of lifestyle, it means the presence of invisible privileges. For example, synthetic vitamins, health care system, protein that can be obtained not through meat - the most traditional source- but through other channels."
Sometimes my father talks about the days of material shortage, and judging by the time, it was when sparrows flew over Chinese fields again after the campaign which mobilised the country to eliminate this "verimin to grain". "I saw a sparrow flew by, to me it was a slice of meat flew by…we opened the rice jar, it was empty; we went to school, came home at noon, it was still empty…There was a time there was meat on the table, very rare occasion, I ate two slice of smoked meat (smoked ham are often steamed with dried vegetables so that the dish can last for a long while and it helps with tasteless main food), my mom looked me in the eye and sighed, 'Ming-Ming, you can really eat!', and I stopped eating immediately.”
In the Consumption of Dog Meat in the UK (2019), there are a lot of quotations of statements around the time when the 2018 American Farm Bill was published. Page 2, Jim Shannon said to the Backbench Committee,
“I think it is obscene, gross and immoral that someone could, technically speaking, cook a dog and eat it themselves and they would not be doing anything illegal, but if it were to be sold in a shop…many other hon. Members who have put their name to the application. They recognise the loophole in the law… we want to remind our Government here in the United Kingdom that it could be included in upcoming provisions on animal welfare.”
Then the report quoted Bill Wiggins’s statement on 19th Feb 2019, that “It may seem extraordinary, but consuming dog meat is currently not illegal in the UK. Luckily, there is no evidence that dogs are eaten in the UK yet, but due to the vile way in which dogs are treated in China, I would like our country to join in setting an example to the world. China argues that, until we make it illegal, why should they?”
I do not judge either side in this case. I agree that animal welfare needs to be improved and what needs to stop should be stopped, but at the same time, I hold experiences of a mere-passed age of poverty, in which consuming meat was like an annual celebration for ordinary people. So I found myself in a weird position. I'd encourage any reader who reached here, if a standpoint has already been chosen in mind, to not criticise the other immediately, for different values and cultural contexts has brought too many variables and turned this qualitative enquiry into a miserably quantitative one. This is not about one economic aggregate minus the other one; this is but the ideological conflict between industrial civilisation and the tradition of an agricultural society. In recent years, an increasing number of researchers tend to individualised rural China and urban China as two parallelled entities, which reflects the giant gap between her rural areas, which stand for "all the old times", and her cities, which demonstrate a remarkable speed of industrialisation, urbanisation and the siphonic effect that dries the surrounding. After expressing a shocking condemnation of the Yu Lin Dog Meat Festival, the report also mentioned that 70% of consumed dogs in China were stolen. But the report only acts as a condemnation that sits in an industrial civilisation's value and its new, modern morality - that's it.
Time and "forwarding" are both linear. Forty-five years can surely make something unimaginable; living in two different provinces at the same age does, too. In one province, you walk from morning to night and find yourself finally reaching the bottom of a mountain; in a much Northern one, beyond the plain's horizon, there is more but plain. They surely have different agricultural structures. Perhaps it does not need 2000 kilometres; maybe a couple mountains away, lives forty-five years away could be found. But what is for sure is that, meanwhile, on the other side of the earth, Star Wars premiered. Forty-five years later, I am here, using your language, weaving writing that was trained by your education system, telling you that when your fathers imagined driving a four-wing light speed fighter, my father was imagining catching a two-wing nugget. This is also why my hometown motif often reflects anxiety about that age of planned economy.
To be honest, if there was no dog, this case would be replaced by another kind of animal. Chinese authorities definitely noticed this matter, and administrative flexibility did its job. Since the domestic public opinion also condemns stealing dogs for consumption, and it is lucky enough to have some humanity sublimes that are more than “violating private property” over this crime; legally, there are no further restrictions on private slaughter and consumption; instead, the administration allows public morality and value to guide the development of the market. For a country where six hundred million people earn an averagely of £100 per month, establishing a nationwide animal welfare supervision system like developed countries is simply too futuristic. We should believe in morality; although it is a superstructure constructed by humans, its enterprise, or its collapse, are both logical.
Two years after the Farm Bill, Shen Zhen became the first city in China that prohibited the consumption and sale of dog meat.
This is but a matter within bamboo mountains; it was a rare dish when the village was young. Perhaps the village will vanish before we progress in this debate. Things her residents cheered about, or shed tears for, will soon be labelled as “historical case studies”, and objectivity will take the stage; none of our opinions will matter.
Red Matter, White Matter
My cousin is in Savannah; he made a collage named Chinese Funeral a couple days ago - I didn’t know he was that talented; As a matter of fact, this is the first time I saw his finished work. But I swear, the massive use of red strings is not for intentionally creating a work that is piled with opposite cultural symbols. In Chinese culture, the funeral is called “the white matter”, and the wedding is called “the red matter”. After seeing his work that made me laugh and nod simultaneously, I feel it would be the white matter for my illustrator title soon; luckily, he majors in fashion design.
We are both from the mountains, in a manner of speaking, and there is another cousin. It is not as explicit as to when a sparrow was a nugget with wings now; back then, returning to the mountains was a white matter, a white matter for seeing the outside; a white matter for death and all that related. Being absent for a wedding can always be justified, but the fearful respect for death is easy to reach consensus.
Another fashionable trend considers the obsession with extending the family line in the traditional agricultural society, which particularly justifies the patriarchal sexism as the essential mean of gaining extra man forces for heavy labour as well as acquiring advantages in domestic conflicts that can only be settled by muscles. This discussion can be expanded widely and is targeting recent social incidents in my country. The artist feels nothing but a cold disappointment and is not willing to address this more. He believes that the social contexts of related incidents are all inter-connected and are directly caused by the sexual repression and involuntary childlessness anxiety in the traditional culture. He then utilised the colour red - the colour that should only represent joyfulness, wedding, and the lunar new year, entwined with water grasses in the smell of rotting, saggy red curtains looking like remnants of new year celebration on a melting snowy landscape. Nobody is going to clean them up; they are left for natural degradation and eventually become a part of the mountain. It is easy to see through curtains of cords to the “outside”; unlike gardens, this is always a philosophical debate. On the other side of the red curtain, through a red matter, solid truth would be transformed into what is conventionally defined as a “family squabble”, hence becoming invisible and culturally inappropriate for open discussion, lies within the grey zone between law enforcement and clan forces. People wish such private, unpleasant news to go away themselves; until it has been stalled into a white matter, people can reasonably maintain silence for unconditional respect for the deceased. Walking through curtains is easy; walking out of mountains is not; mountains station, linger, hunt; mountains capture their prisoners, turn them into bamboos, into bonsai, into gardens - into miniatures of miserable histories, and as symbols of hardship. It has no end, so it does not need to exemplify specifically; it has been on and on in a variety of formats, in various ways. And all we can do is but a moral condemnation - that’s it. Another mountain after a mountain, the same horizon beyond the horizon.
While conducting sociological and ethnographic investigations, inevitable commenting on the content blurs the boundary between the universal value and the sympathy for alien customs. Where should the sympathy lie in the grotesqueness? Where should practitioners start with? When we ditch away cultural filters on red and white matters, regardless of life or death, sublime or context, they are but red cotton cords on tied bamboo sticks; moreover, even the artist, who should be proud of his work, also admits that it is visually unattractive. Len language is enclosed, and filters are formulaic; they shrink landscapes into smaller pieces till a dyed symbol. What I want to express is the urge to see essences through realities, to go back to basics, and observe the content instead of a conceptual grand narrative.
The movie Blind Mountain is about the miserable life of a young women being kidnapped and sold into mountains. It was filmed in 2007, but seems changed nothing domestically.
The project wished to name itself as Blind Mountain, but what is more unfortunate than the taken name, is the reality the movie reflects, and the necessity of the very existence of the movie.
Ares, E. and Sutherland, N., 2019. Consumption of dog meat in the UK. [online] House of Commons Library. Available at: <https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CDP-2019-0045/CDP-2019-0045.pdf> [Accessed 1 June 2022].
Keane, M.P. (1996) photographs by ōhashi haruzō, drawings by the author. Japanese Garden Design. 1st edition. Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan, Charles E. Tutte Company, Inc.
Mountains Have No Eyes, installation, 2022
Ce Chen is a PhD research student who investigates Cornish landscape and identity through an ethnographic perspective. He makes artworks of a wide range of mediums in the manner of a shit-stirrer. He questions the authenticity in the making of cultures, challenges the materiality of identity, and interrogates what is termed “the true essence of Cornish landscape” as an outsider. Chen enjoys nudging basic elements in a specific discourse.
This work reflects his interest in the romanticisation in the making of the landscape. He used a formulaic composition to mimic an unauthentic Japanese garden which plays with the landscape identity – through bamboos, he re-visualised the process of romanticisation. The artist addresses, however, dark realities associated with the landscape that responds to bamboo mountain landscapes in China.