Interventions: the mediating work of art.

Author:Hay, Jonathan
Position:Critical essay

To readers of this essay who are not specialists in Chinese art--the vast majority, I hope--the painting A Solitary Temple below Brightening Peaks (Qingluan xiaosi) may be at least vaguely familiar (Fig. 1). This painting in ink and light colors on silk dating from the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) is one of a handful of major early Chinese landscape paintings in American public collections. Much reproduced--indeed, a central exhibit in the modern canon of Song painting--it has long been associated with the name Li Cheng (919-967), a painter of mythical importance active in the mid-tenth century. Today, A Solitary Temple, which incorporates an awareness of Li Cheng's art, is generally thought to postdate Li's lifetime. Although its precise authorship is not crucial to the argument I want to make here, in a forthcoming article I argue for its reattribution to Wang Shiyuan (active ca. 960-1006 or later), the most versatile and one of the most prominent among the many painters active at the Song capital of Kaifeng in north-central China shortly before and after the year 1000. (1)

I approach A Solitary Temple not as an object in a specific medium (ink painting) but as an event that comprises mediations with which the painting also engages reflexively. In my attention to the artwork's mediations and reflexivity, I follow the line of art historical interpretation that emerged in the 1970s, with its tendency to approach the artwork as a site of material and semiotic operations implicating the viewer, both contemporary and later, as active participant. (2) Most work of this kind, however, including my own prior writing, has explored this dimension of the artwork within the framework of the interpretation of art as a social practice, which over the last thirty years has centrally focused on the issue of representation. Here, on the other hand, I place the focus on mediation itself, denoting the broader capacity of artworks to create transformative linkages between the viewer and the world in which both viewer and artwork operate. (3) In one direction, the mediating work that art accomplishes changes the viewer's sense of her place in the world, while in the other direction, the viewer's awareness of the aspects of the world engaged by particular linkages alters what the world is in her eyes. Open in its affective implications, mediation offers no guarantee of pleasure or reassurance.

This dematerializing, event-oriented course implies that A Solitary Temple is just as active as its viewer. It also builds on the tendency in recent interpretation to view the objecthood that an artwork possesses--its combination of material thingness and virtual image--as a powerful effect produced by the structure of its mediations. This structure operates on two levels, since the painting, as well as mediating directly between viewer and world, has the capacity to draw in the participatory viewer in such a way as to problematize, and thus mediate, its own mediations. The resulting reflexivity raises dramatically the stakes of the agency that is distributed among artist, viewer, and artwork. (4)

The process by which A Solitary Temple both mediates and questions its own work of mediation specifies its singularity in a way that exceeds the parameters of the interpretation of art as a social practice. The problematic associated with this horizon of interpretation can be defined approximately by the intersection of two axiomatic principles. The first is the broad acceptance by its practitioners of interpretation's need to acknowledge and confront as central the artwork's resistance to interpretative closure--its overdetermined and contingent character; the second is the decision to proceed from the symptom and the aporia. A more fully mediational view of the artwork opens up a related but ultimately different interpretative horizon under which A Solitary Temple can be characterized as individuation out of a field of linkage it both establishes and questions. This field operates not only in the narrow terms of the social but also in a wider frame that might provisionally be termed ecological, without any clear boundary existing between the two. As individuation, the singularity of any artwork may be understood as the constitution of a node of agency within a network of linkages. (5)

In order to specify the terms of agency of A Solitary Temple, my account takes the interpretation through a series of different analyses of the painting in order to build up a cumulative picture of it as event. The account as a whole seeks both to enact the individuational interpretation proposed above and to construct in the process the necessary underlying concept of the artwork as mediational event. I first introduce the painting through traditional art historical methods, noting their indirect acknowledgments of mediation. The next step, also methodologically familiar, presents a symptomatic interpretation that acknowledges mediation more directly. In the following stage, I address the limitations of medium as an unspoken point of reference for the interpretative approaches in the preceding sections and shift the direction of the analysis toward an engagement with mediation on its own terms, with a view to starting from its operations rather than finding a way to them. I continue in this direction by examining successively the mediating roles played by the ground of the image and by boundary. In concluding, I attend to the painting's achievement of an ultimate coherence and intensity in relation to the complexity of its mediating work. Finally, I explain briefly why I believe it to be important for art history, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to rethink the artwork as the object of its study.

Style, Iconography, and Metaphoric Space

Today, A Solitary Temple (43 7/8 by 22 1/4 in., or 111.4 by 56.3 cm) is mounted as a hanging scroll (88 by 22 3/4 in., or 223.5 by 57.7 cm) with a surrounding surface of paper-backed silk that comes very close to the two edges of the painting but extends quite some way above and below. Originally, to judge by its proportions and size, it would similarly have been mounted as a hanging scroll (rather than, for example, as a screen), with the pictorial image directly adjacent to the wall on either side, as seen in a surviving tenth-century hanging scroll excavated from a tomb in northeast China (Fig. 2). (6) It is important to take the mounting of the painting into account because it makes this a very different painting from the same image, framed in the manner of a Euro-American easel painting--the fate of many later Chinese paintings that found their way to the West. Whereas frames evoke the architectural forms of Western windows and doors, rhetorically underscoring the picture's transversal relation to the wall, the thin paper and silk mounting of Chinese (and Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese) hanging scrolls floats parallel to the wall behind it, reinforcing the painting's doubling of the wall as a boundary constituting its own surface environment.


The convention of modern art historical reproduction that crops the scroll to its pictorial image is therefore misleading, because it allows frame-conditioned Western habits of looking to take effect, turning an example of the Chinese category tuhua (conventionally translated as "painting") into a picture. The representation, in other words, should not be seen as windowlike on a Western model; one needs to make a conscious effort to become attuned to the polydirectional play of mark making and imaging across the surface that scroll mounting subtly reinforces. Yet the effect of immediacy created by the way that this particular kind of mounting presents a "slice" of landscape--an effect reinforced by the conspicuous cropping of forms by the right and left edges--resonates with the view through a window in some kinds of Northern Song architecture, as seen in a slightly later Kaifeng painting, Along the River at the Time of the Qingming Festival (Fig. 3). Finally, it should also be remembered that, as a hanging scroll, the painting would have been on view only for restricted periods, and then it may not always have been seen hanging on a wall. Paintings were also viewed hanging from a pole, with the viewer holding the bottom of the scroll (Fig. 4). As we shall see, this temporality of the artifact resonates with a temporality internal to the image.

The painting represents a country scene, topographically recognizable as set in north-central China, at the edge of a mountain range, where a Buddhist temple stands on an outcrop beneath a mountain peak. The season appears to be early spring. Although the trees are still largely bare, shoots are starting to sprout from branches and there is no sign of winter's bitter cold. The figures are uniformly dressed in light clothes, and it is already possible to eat and drink with the windows and doors open (Fig. 5). Given the light that infuses the painting (which, following Chinese practice, does not emanate from any fixed external light source), evening seems to be still far off. The donkey rider at bottom left wears a hat to protect himself from the sun. Despite the vibrating intensity of the image, the scene itself is remarkably still--no wind is blowing that would buffet trees or disturb the surface of the water, no birds are seen in flight; instead, water falls and eddies, mist rises. This stillness is echoed in the activities quietly pursued at the restaurants. In the simpler and somewhat dilapidated buildings to the right, travelers seated in ones and twos at the tables eat, converse, or nod off; a female cook tends her stove. The two pavilions to the left, in a much better state of repair, are occupied by scholars; in the nearer of the two, fancy enough to have a calligraphy screen as decoration, two scholars are deep in conversation. One imagines the sound of the nearby waterfall, and we must...

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