I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
From “Invictus” by William Ernest Henly, 1875
When I took this picture I was sitting out on the cliffs in dense fog. The morning was chilly and the silence complete. The fog was isolating miniatures out of the larger landscape, like this life buoy sitting atop a sea of frozen waves of rock.
All cultures have their persisting narratives. These can be historical events, legends and myths or all three together. Cesar’s death, the siege of Troy, the Arthur legends and the stories from scripture are such examples in the West. Together they form an important part of the cultural package that is forwarded from generation to generation. Even if we don’t always realize it, they are a part of us. Any meaningful dialog between people requires that the respective narratives are recognized and hopefully even understood.
These narratives often pop-up as recurring themes in the arts whereby they are transformed and sometimes used as commentary to current events. One such theme in East Asia is the Eight Views. In strange ways I have been stumbling over this theme from time to time and it is one that touches me. Let me explain…
One can read from time to time that photography nowadays is an online medium, something to be produced and consumed while staying in the digital domain. And, yes, certainly many if not most photographs today go from a phone to social media never to leave the world of bits and data. Then, there are artists who specifically produce work that needs presentation on screens, like the animated genre-busting video- /photographs of Yang Yongliang.
Still, I think, living with art has its own value. But how do you hang digital files on your wall? At least for now digital photo frames don’t quite cut the mustard. Let me explain – and welcome to Dinosaurilandia…
“As for landscape, its material form exists, but its flavour is incorporeal.”
Zong Bing (around 400 C.E.), Preface on Landscape Painting, transl. James Cahill
Earlier I have written about the mood of a landscape much in the way Zong Bing talks about its “flavour”. What both terms mean is an inherent quality of a landscape, something that the artist detects, not something he or she adds to it. What the artist attempts is to become a conduit for the character, mood or “flavour” of a landscape.
During the history of landscape art this has been one of the major approaches to the subject, often called something like the “objective” school of landscape art. Whenever such a school became dominant, however, a counter-movement, a “subjective” school, was sure to follow.
If we see nothing, then this does not mean that nothing is there. John D. Barrow, The Artful Universe
It is not really news that human perception is limited. We hear only within a certain frequency spectrum, we can only see within a certain range of wavelengths and only things of a certain minimum size. Our perception is also optimised for a certain time window.
No wonder then that humans have been wondering forever what it is out there that we don’t perceive. The “known unknowns” and the “unknown unknowns” to quote a former U.S. politician. Photography can stretch into some of these unknowns but that opens questions of its own.
“It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.”
Kamo no Chōmei, An Account of my Hut, 1212
Many aesthetic terms and concepts are elusive. That might be because they often seem to stem from emotion first and only afterwards are translated into concepts. Something, we can’t quite put our finger on and still can’t resist to try. And while the concepts often seem culture-bound the underlying sentiments, I believe, often are universal.
One of the most elusive aesthetic concepts I have encountered is the notion described in the quote above and called in Japanese “yūgen”.