Suiseki Aesthetics & Evaluation
Classic Aesthetic Standards
The Japanese have developed a detailed classification system that helps field collectors assess their found treasures. These classifications help in the visualization process. All suiseki must have a recognizable shape that is suggestive of mountains, waterfalls, canyons, cliffs, etc. Human forms and animal forms are other valued shapes. Lastly, for those that do not fit the many recognizable classifications, there is an abstract shapes category called chusho-seki. Shape's best identified in the stone's profile. Classifications must fit into a Golden ratio design. There should be a one-third, two-thirds composition, horizontally or vertically. Of course these rules may be broken, but there better be good reasons for it in terms of what other attributes suiseki possess.
Textures may be smooth or rugged, and should be in harmony with the suiseki. Textures create the lakes, glaciers and fields of flowers on a suiseki. The heavily textured suiseki, or hadame, is highly prized. The more textural variety on a suiseki the more aesthetic value it has.
Color helps create the power of suggestion in suiseki. Although many collectors search for the elusive black or kuro stone, in truth they are not that common. The research for my book showed that 68.5% of Japanese suiseki are shades of gray, and only 18% were black. Collectors should not shy away from collecting what is available in their countries. Although we in Northern California are blessed with a plethora of minerals in all colors, not all countries have such a geological cornucopia. Nevertheless, I believe suiseki artists should be proud of what they can find in their back yards, and not be defensive about the fact that their stones are light in color or consist of soft minerals. If the stones meet other criteria — especially shape — then the collector has a potential suiseki. To simply purchase foreign stones just because they are black does a disservice to the art in collectors' home countries.
A stone's sheen or luster develops over time. Nature does its share, then it's up to the owner to handle it often, rubbing it as much as possible. The harder the mineral: jadeite, nephrite, serpentine, jasper, etc., the easier it will be to enhance its patina. Keep in mind that rough-textured suiseki do not have patina, and it should not be forced on it; it will look artificial. Patina may be equated to the sheen on beautiful antique furniture. The harder the mineral the better the patina. Minerals with a Mohs mineral scale hardness of at least 5 is recommended.
Harmony & Balance
Quality suiseki have a sense of unity that is obvious to the eyes. They should have visual tension, yet also have a sense of solidity, of place. A suiseki must sit securely in its daiza, not look like its going to topple over or sit in a daiza too big for its base. The stone's color, texture, patina and shape should meld into a wonderful statement of the art that captivates the eye.
Embracing all the attributers discussed above is the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi may be best defined as a religious and philosophical aesthetic that helps shape our way of experiencing the unique qualities of suiseki. Wabi-sabi, developed in the sixteenth century under the influence of Zen Buddhism, evolved into a standard of beauty that emphasizes imperfection, incompleteness, and ordinariness. In wabi-sabi, the natural environment becomes a medium through which personal truth and spirituality can be explored. The melancholia associated with distant, lonely places is a type of wabi-sabi. Similarly, the field collector sees in the banal and often overlooked details of a stone a world of emotional recollection. It values the differences and imperfections that make objects one of a kind, and it is comfortable with the fundamental unpredictability of nature. It emphasizes the organic universe (growth, decay, erosion, etc.), soft and vague shapes, and attrition over time. It seeks to expand sensory information, and it tolerates ambiguity and contradiction. In tone, wabi-sabi is dark and dim. Wabi-sabi in suiseki emphasizes yugen, or the sudden perception of something mysterious and strange, hinting at an unknown never to be discovered; shibui, anything reserved, refines, quietude, and, aware, when the moment evokes a more intense, nostalgic sadness, connected with autumn and the vanishing world. I have translated concepts of wabi-sabi into a suiseki aesthetic that includes, but is not limited to the following: suiseki as a natural, changing, dynamic, odd over even, suiseki as the personal, the mundane, and suiseki as the ultimate statement about simplicity.
Shibui, simply stated, means the representation of the art object (in our case), in a low-keyed manner. There is no ostentatiousness, no garishness. Suiban should not be bright in color, for example. The daiza should not consist of woods that are bold and call too much attention to themselves, like oak with its pronounced grain. Also, the wood should be satin in finish, not glossy, and not be crafted in an ugly, non-professional manner.
Suiseki—The Invisible Art
By Felix G. Rivera
"Perceive those things which cannot be seen."
Miyamoto Musashi, Samurai, 16th C.
Any definition of art must embody the physical — such as one’s ability to think and perceive — and the experiential. The art of suiseki is a classic embodiment of these two constructs. The question that has engaged me for many years is how much of suiseki do we actually “see” as a physiological or cognitive act, and how much of what we see in a stone is guided by our emotions and life experiences? I addressed in my book the importance of developing visualization skills so as to better prepare ourselves to see potential material in the field, and also, to use these visualization skills to better prepare us to assess our material and those of other collectors.
My experiences have taught me one thing: some collectors are able to find better suiseki than others in the same area—not just luck—because they have the ability to truly see our invisible art beyond the obvious cognitive messages received as part of daily life experiences. Field experience, though critical, plays a subordinate role to perceptual skills; some collectors find great stones regularly, while other collectors go home with less that average material just as regularly. Furthermore, some collectors do not have the ability to critique their finds, glossing over their suiseki’s by throwing a “but I like it” blanket comment over their stones to help explain away any need for critiquing their collections. The art of suiseki belies its levels of complexity by appearing to be a simple found art form that seems approachable and understandable when first discovered. For some collectors this first level of appreciation is all they wish to involve themselves in and, for them, that is fine. After all, what can be more basic than a pretty stone?
If only it was that simple for the rest of us that have made suiseki a life’s passion. I have been involved with suiseki for over twenty years, and the more involved I get, the more levels of symbolic, metaphorical, aesthetic and philosophical interpretation present themselves. Interpretation is the linchpin towards understanding any art, and suiseki is no exception. Suiseki communicate at multiple levels. This theory was once again reinforced for me in a very dramatic fashion by a recent experience. An individual visited our home for the first time, and, upon seeing my suiseki, studied them very intently for several minutes. He finally said: “I don’t know what I'm looking at, but I know it’s important by what I'm feeling as I look at them”. This experience encapsulates what I call the “invisible art” unique to suiseki; observers may not understand the stones before them, but they have an appreciation of their complexity and suggestiveness by relying on their cognitive skills.
The purpose of my article is to discuss the reasons why and how we perceive suiseki differentially, and the ramifications of melding cognitive approaches and experience. How do we know that the mountain shaped suiseki we are studying is being perceived by each of us in the same way? Does it even matter? It is the synthesizing of the science of seeing with the emotions of experience that help us be more appreciative of a unique found art like suiseki. I believe that by being aware of what goes on in our minds via our eyes, we will be more appreciative suiseki artists. There is no one way of perceiving suiseki, but there is a cognitive framework that can help in the way we do perceive our art. The awareness of how these cognitive and personality dynamics function, I believe, is critical to the full understanding of suiseki.
The Art of Seeing Suiseki
Cognitive psychologists pretty much agree that to “truly see” we must learn how to see; it takes a conscious act of paying attention to what we are looking at. Perception is the active process of using information to suggest and test hypotheses, and this involves conscious learning. To appreciate the composition of a mountain shaped suiseki, for example, requires that the viewer have a reference point for what is meant by the word “mountain”, then apply that knowledge and experience to the minimalist object twelve inches wide that, its owner says, is a representative generalization, by way of an idealized abstraction of a mountain in miniature. Obviously we cannot assume that we all bring the same interpretative and synthesizing skills to suiseki, but what ever our level of understanding, it serves as a spring board to further explorations. The rest follows through teaching and experience. Another example is also worth mentioning here. In my club, the California Suiseki Society, we have a member that sees, almost always, some figure in suiseki being critiqued, contrary to the majority of the members present! Whether we agree with his assessments or not, the fact remains that his cognitive perceptions are just as real for him as our perceptions of the stone. Ideally, through the process of time and experience, a connection will be reached by all of us that helps us understand why we see what we see, not why we should see what we cannot see.
These differential ways of seeing have a foundation in very complex processes, some of which are understood, others which, for now at least, remain a mystery to science. Do we see ourselves in the suiseki? How do we know we are seeing what the suiseki collector standing next to us is seeing? How do we know we are seeing the “right” things in suiseki, assuming there is such a thing? I believe, from my experience in teaching and writing about the art, that suiseki may be seen in similar evaluative ways through extensive studying and exposure to the art. This has been my goal as the sensei of our club. What is not clear is the process by which the viewers sharpen their perceptions about how and why they arrive at that unified assessment of suiseki. I am aware, however, that an aesthetic agreement, as an ideal, with never be attained, nor should that be the goal. What is hoped for is a shared perception about ways of evaluating suiseki within a general aesthetic ethos. My suiseki club is definitely moving in that direction. A variety of classifications are exhibited, but all within a generally understood common foundation.
It is my goal that, by introducing concepts pertaining to visual perception, we will be better prepared to understand how we come to approach suiseki, or any other visual art the way we do. What can we learn and thereby apply through our understanding and appreciation of cognitive precepts and their applications to the evaluation of suiseki so that it no longer remains an “invisible art”? Two cognitive scientists wrote in an article titled “The Problem of Consciousness,” that “. . . the information available to our eyes is not sufficient to provide the brain with its unique interpretation of the visual world. The brain must use past experiences (either its own or that of our distant ancestors, which is embedded in our genes) to help interpret the information coming into our eyes.” If we can learn to plumb the depths of our past and present experiences, utilizing our collective and singular consciousness, we can be better prepared to appreciate suiseki as an art. Part of our mission is to be able to communicate these experiences.
Pragnaz and Suiseki
The Gestalt laws of organization are one of the ways we begin to formulate a set of principles that help us in understanding the ways we segregate and group visual elements into patterns or units. The law of Pragnaz looks at properties unique to the perceptual environment, and, by extension, to how we perceive suiseki.
Seeing: Much of what we see depends on past experiences (memory), our own personalities, culture, and what we are looking for. What we experience depends upon external and internal factors—what we are looking at and what we are looking for. What a suiseki collector sees and experiences is the product of perception, which is a process. This is known as a percept. What a suiseki collector reports seeing is an attempt to describe a nonverbal experience. It is an attempt to verbalize a percept and often falls short because of the complexities involved in seeing. Some view it as a form of information overload, where so much data is being presented to us that we simply cannot understand it all. In essence, saying is not seeing. Percepts differ among all of us based on our unique psychological makeup, physical stimulus patterns and the fact that our reactions vary from time to time and place to place. These dynamics have resulted in fascinating discussions among psychologists, philosophers — especially existentialists — and artists about what reality is. Some of the greatest art has addressed these questions. The Japanese classic “Rashomon” comes readily to mind, as well as the brilliant Antonioni film “Blowup”.
The law of Pragnaz, it is believed, helps us organize our world so we can cope with it. We search for stability and meaning, balance and security. When something as arcane as a suiseki is introduced, we either filter some of it out or simplify it by grouping it into broad, overly simplistic, or comfortable and familiar categories. Rather than trying to describe the complexities of suiseki, it is the general intent of most collectors to try and simplify what they are seeing, for it is the only thing that can be done at that moment in time.
Memory and Suiseki
Memory is an integral part of perception. It is much easier, for example, to see what we know, what is stored in memory, than to see what we do not know, what is not in memory. This could help explain why many suiseki artists often set a recently collected stone aside for months and thereby “learn to live” with the stone so that it, in turn, communicates itself to the collector. In so doing, the percepts are introduced a little at a time, giving the collector time to learn to see and digest the suiseki.
Association: We remember events through association. Quality suiseki have the ability to help us in relating them to other visual symbols. Thus suiseki’s associative meanings, their powers of connotation and suggestion, is what gives them value. The more associations we can make as we study them, the more valuable they become. Quality suiseki become visual metaphors or poetic statements for things outside of themselves and their immediate physical elements. Quality suiseki become more than just suiseki; they may be metaphors for life; a reminder of loved ones, a cherished moment in the mountains, or a symbol for peace and tranquility as we meditate upon their qualities.
Signifiers: Elements within suiseki may serve as signifiers, or symbols for other visual elements or motifs. Suiseki may remind collectors of the human form, animals, flowers, and nature.
Colors: Colors also serve as signifiers and are culture as well as context-dependent. The kuro, or black suiseki is highly valued both because of its many levels of suggestiveness and symbolism, and also its artistic and cultural value emphasizing the subtle and understated in the Japanese arts. In the West suiseki colors have been expanded both because of the difficulty in finding true black suiseki and the availability of colorful minerals such as jadeites, serpentines, and jaspers, to name a few.
Equivalents: Equivalents are the power of suiseki to remind the viewer of something else. Equivalents help to trigger memories of past events, be they feelings or experiences. A word often used by suiseki artists to express the same thing is “suggestiveness”. Viewers that are reminded by suiseki of something within themselves are experiencing a degree of Equivalence. I believe that the concept of Equivalents is one of the most powerful attributes unique to suiseki.
Synesthesia: Synesthesia is the triggering of one sensory input by another. Suiseki are known for their strong textures, thus, a tactile experience may be felt by viewers looking at heavily textures tones. The compositional tension unique to quality suiseki may also help in developing a sense of synesthesia as viewers also experience a sense of imbalance and its resulting tension.
Suiseki and Space
Suiseki are known for their special physical variety, the “footprints” created by stones. Suiseki embody one’s ability to see depth in them. Well constructed suiseki will, for example, have smaller peaks towards the front and rear, with larger ones in the middle zones. This helps the illusion of space. More massive sections of suiseki, appear to the eye to be heavier, thus more powerful than smaller and lighter sections. Darker colored suiseki also express a greater sense of weight than lighter colored suiseki. A mountain-shaped suiseki, dark in color, with a variety of different sized peaks, for example, presents a visual complexity which is a delight to study very slowly, allowing the complexities of the stone to communicate itself to us in numerous ways.
The contours or outline of suiseki present complex precepts for viewers. Contours in stones may be perceived as having “hard” edges because they define the physical limits of suiseki. Some suiseki share the same contours but differ in texture and or colors. This may be seen where a section of a suiseki emanates from the mother stone as a specifically defined contour/texture like a waterfall, or ridge line or overhang. The sharing of borders in suiseki leads to contour rivalry; this sharing of borders is uncomfortable, for it creates tensions. Different sections or parts of suiseki look like they want to rip themselves away from the mother stone, become independent, as it were, because the contours clash or intercept each other, creating a visual tension. For example, in the classic kikka-seki, or chrysanthemum suiseki, it would not be far-fetched to visualize the flower moving away from the matrix, rough textures moving away from smoother ones, and dark colors moving away from lighter ones.
Where there are sharp edges in suiseki that also happen to consist of blacks and whites, we see the play of light and dark, soft and hard, opposites in harmony, and opposites in complementary feelings. Negative space versus positive space. This concept is called Notan, or, dark-light, by the Japanese. The ancient yin/yang symbol embraces the same general idea. Some suiseki reflect the notan aesthetic quite successfully. The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter wrote that “In the West, man perceives the objects but not the spaces between. In Japan, the spaces are perceived, named and revered as the MA, or intervening interval.” White on black or dark green suiseki help create the sense of MA and notan, where positive and negative spaces, created both by shape and color (mineral inclusions), create a complex visual tension in the viewer. Good notan in suiseki demonstrate visual tensions, where the blacks and whites seem as if they are moving away from each other, yet are bound by the mineral’s permanence. Thus a classic tension helps to create visual complexities.
Suiseki’s Subjective Contours
Our visual process, given incomplete information will “fill in the gaps” as we think they should appear. The human eye, according to Gestalt laws need to complete what appears to be incomplete. This is a technique used successfully in advertising; we fill in the missing words, or tunes, or symbols. Suiseki, being an abstract and “incomplete” art in the sense that many suiseki hint at or symbolize metaphorically rather than in actuality, often personify subjective contours. When one of our club members sees a turtle in a suiseki when everyone else sees a mountain, he is expressing a subjective contour assessment. Our subjective visual experiences in “putting together” the sections of suiseki is an example of how we create “virtual compositions,” to use today’s parlance. These virtual compositions exist only as a personal and subjective visual effect; other viewers of the same stone may connect the contour lines quite differently. The complexity of suiseki gives something to each viewer. Perception, or seeing, is a process that allows us to create images within the already existing images inherent in suiseki, thereby bringing a sense of completeness or closure to each suiseki.
Suiseki As Illusions
The discussion above points to an interesting phenomenon in our analysis of art objects. We have a hard time seeing things separately, or independently of each other, but, instead, as logical connections. Quality suiseki are masters of illusions! Thus they are a classic “invisible art” form. Our illusions are dictated by size, length, shape, dynamic movement and textures. All these variable interact creating a visual complexity that involves multiple interpretations of the same suiseki. The interpretations help in lessening the visual tensions by introducing more and more familiarity.
Suiseki and the Morphics
A morphic means to change in form. Suiseki do not change form per se, but they do represent or suggest these different forms or shapes. A discussion of some of the most prevalent morphs present in suiseki will be helpful to us as we learn to understand what we are looking at.
Isomorphics: Isomorphics in the art of suiseki shows how objects and take on the appearance, for example, of turbulent water when all we are looking at are quartz or feldspar inclusions. Another inclusion may look like an animal, a flower, or a human being. Colors as isomorphics may remind us of faces, flowers or figures. The power of similarity of forms, colors, and textures plays a pivotal role in suiseki aesthetics. Again, the example of our club member who sees animal and human forms in many suiseki is an example of the power of isomorphics! It is easy to understand how the complexities of visualization build on each other in complex ways. Where we are in the cognitive process, as we study a suiseki, for example, is impossible to say. This helps to point out that we seem to be all over the aesthetic and interpretative canvas, and getting us together to develop a unified aesthetic ethos is a daunting, if not impossible task.
Anthropomorphics: The visual process whereby suiseki seem to take on human forms is referred to as anthropomorphism. The Christian Madonna figure is especially popular in Japanese suiseki, a conundrum at best, when we realize that Japan is not a Christian country. Cognitive psychologists have explained this by postulating that the recognition of the human face and form is not a totally learned reaction. It seems to be originating from some inborn motivation in all of us.
Zoomorphics: Suiseki zoomorphics is just what we imagine it to be, the identification of animal forms in suiseki.
Suiseki and Our Personalities
Our personalities are unique. When we collect and exhibit suiseki we are collecting ourselves, our personalities. We select stones that we believe are of high quality, but, as has been already written, the definition of quality, all too often, is driven by our personalities. This is not a problem per se — on the contrary, it is what I call the suiseki artists’ style. I have written in past articles that I can identify many suiseki artists’ styles by the stones they exhibit. By the same token, other suiseki artists have told me that my style is obvious: large suiseki with a certain broad flair on one side of the mountain classification, define my style most of the time, and they are right. Maybe that is why the San Francisco Suiseki Kai, gave me my ceremonial name of Seki-yu, or the mystery of stones and the protector and collector of large stones! It is my style destiny.
The three most important elements that define our artistic sentiments and the way we perceive suiseki are: projection, introjection and confluence.
Projection: We reach out and project unto suiseki our feelings and thoughts. Our projections help us find the wooded areas in a stone, the coves, the glaciers when, for another viewer, these projections are absent; they have their own set of projections working for them. A rock climber friend of mine, upon seeing a particular suiseki of mine that has vertical walls, said it reminded him of the walls of El Capitan, in Yosemite Valley. He placed his finger tips on the verticalities, and “lifted” himself unto my suiseki as he “climbed” the monolith’s walls. This is projection at its best. This is what makes us feel comfortable with suiseki. Projection is especially effective when used with a vigorous imagination, for it unifies all our senses, and it could also serve as a window into the inner recesses and mysteries of the art.
Introjection: Our ability to look and listen; our ability to hear what our suiseki are telling us is introjection. Are they being shy? Showing off? All my suiseki have their personalities and I have to learn to live with them. Introjection is also the process of placing our newly found stones outside, but visible, on the patio or garden. We live with them, sometimes for months, waiting for the day when the stones tells us what its front, sides, etc. are.
Confluence: Confluence suggests a deep commitment to what is being collected. It helps develop a love, a bond, between us and the stones. The union created gives our suiseki life. There are some suiseki that are my family, and I will never part with them. Interestingly, my wife, who is not a collector but appreciates the art, also has her favorites. She too has experienced the confluence between herself and some of my suiseki. She has told me in no uncertain terms that there are some suiseki that I will never get rid of because they are “her” suiseki. So be it.
All too often our suiseki take on a familiar tone; we take them for granted, we do not dust them, we put them in a corner, ignored. This is wrong. I hope that by introducing some of the processes that go into “seeing” our suiseki, we will be better able to appreciate them, evaluate them, and look at them as the things that they are—powerful objects for meditation, joy, and love. We need to establish pure relationships with our suiseki.
D.H. Lawrence wrote “. . . our life consists in . . . achieving of a pure relationship between ourselves and the living universe about us. This is how I ‘save my soul’ by accomplishing a pure relationship between me and another person, me and other people, me and a nation, me and a race of men, me and the animals, me and the trees or flowers, me and the earth, me and the skies and sun and stars, me and the moon: an infinity of pure relations, big, and little.” I believe our suiseki fit into Lawrence’s sentiments quite comfortably.
Fritjof Capra, the author of The Tao of Physics, wrote “The experience of oneness with the surrounding environment is the main characteristic of the meditative state. It is a state of consciousness where every form of fragmentation has ceased, fading away into undifferentiated unity.” We need to maintain a passionate relationship with our suiseki so as to preserve the “undifferentiated unity” they give us.
Francis Crick and Christof Koch, “The Problem of Consciousness,” Scientific American, September 1992, p. 153.