Teng Pu-Chun’s Transforming Rock Landscape: Allegorical Scenes of Illusion
Text by Xia Ke-Jun
Rocks can be mountain rocks, obstinate rocks, spiritual rocks, fossil rocks, cloud rocks; these are all names used in the case of making examples and allegories. They are, in truth, nameless objects; they are objects of illusion. They allow one to see the spiritual realm and possess an illusory vision; in short, they are objects that reveal one’s inner world. Rocks, or mountain rocks, are a tricky combination of cosmic crystallization and spirituality. They are mysterious symbols used to make one’s thoughts explicit to others; they form the secret method to represent an idea with forms in Chinese art; they reveal an artist’s code of life after the artist has forged his or her own solitude and embraced the essence of existence. The artists, who are allowed into this game, must have been given a certain unique talent that enables them to perceive heaven’s secrets. Viewing Teng Pu-Chun’s rocks of infinite forms, which constitute the basic vocabulary of the psyche, makes me so curious that I attempt to look into his visual logic that he has employed to create such a fantastic world in the style of the Babel Tower—the indestructible Babel Tower that embodies one’s dreams.
The realms or scenes of illusory landscape delineated by Teng are not representations of the verdant, emerald forests of the south or the chiseled, majestic rocky mountains of the north in traditional ink landscape. Instead, they are another topographical manifestation of life stemmed from the artist’s personal experience of growing up on an island—whether the rocky seashore or the ravines and valleys, they are all portrayed without nature’s seasonal growth and decay but are imbued with the depopulated silence of the ancient time. They are the landscape existed before humanity, but symbolize the miraculous aspect of the great nature, which is its indestructibility, demonstrating the earth’s solidness and original force, the makeup and frame of life as well as nature’s permanence. For Teng, rocks do not merely represent the structure of mountains and valleys; they are also the embodiment of time and space. Rocks can be created by the chaos of the world’s beginning or by the tumbling waves under a clear sky; rocks reveal the dynamics of towering sea waves, and display a sense of momentum in stillness. Rocks are also where ethereal fog comes into existence, which can sometimes display a state of continuous change and is also the source of clouds surrounding steep mountain peaks. In nature, Teng has rediscovered an illusory vision that enables the formation of illusion without religious sentiments—a type of illusory realm that recaptures the void; a type of illusory scenes that manifest life’s other shore that does not seem to concern human beings yet always surface in human’s dreams; a kind of approximation of deep ecological art; and a kind of transformed land of fantasies, through which one ponders the issue of life and death.
Teng’s landscape conveys cultural memories. In his work, we can detect the ethereal realms depicted in murals from the Tang dynasty. This line of cultural imagination began with Pavilions in the Land of Immortals painted with vibrant colors, and continued by the representation of the theme by Chao Po-Chu in the Song dynasty, by Qiu Ying’s and Wang Shi-Min’s paintings of the same title, by Wang Jian’s A Scene of Dream, and by Yuan Jiang’s and Yuan Yao’s series of paintings. It has formed a genealogy of “chora-topia” that refers to the illusory and ethereal realm; and the most outstanding inheritor of this tradition in the contemporary era is unquestionably Teng Pu-Chun! He not only inherits the grand tradition of landscape painting but also continues the perspective of Chinese potted landscape, which aims to mirror macrocosm with microcosm and vice versa. His works simultaneously communicate humanity and the heavenly law as well as integrate the three-dimensionality of sculpture and the planarity of painting. The handcrafted potted landscape in Teng’s work also looks like a planetary model of the universe or a transformed version of the spiritual vision in Buddhism. The momentum and vigor delineated by ink dots and lines are still growing vibrantly into a majestic, otherworldly realm that can be embraced and entrusted by a pure mind.
It goes without saying that Teng has achieved a certain magical, transforming approach to delineate the hazy glow and glistening aura of mountain rocks, which he represents within a context posited between cultural memory and natural geography, imitation and nature, perspective and decorativeness, microcosm and macrocosm, structural combination and dissipating blocks, as well as illusory fantasies and realistic tangibility. This is similar to what Walter Benjamin has phrased a game of “reversal” between the close environs and the remote places. Teng has transformed mountain rocks and bestowed on them a spiritual color; whether created in fantastic forms or painted with splendid colors, these rocks are representations of the psyche. Admiring the rocks, therefore, becomes a cultivation of the ability to concentrate on the mind and psyche. The rocks are objects entrusted with the illusory dreams as well as the spiritual wisdom imparted by nature.
It is extremely difficult to invent a new type of texture stroke in the twentieth century. The ink landscape of the Song dynasty had established its own artistic language and fundamental look with its methods of texture stroke. Entering the modern era, from Huang Bin-Hong’s calligraphical brushwork in the late period of his career to Fu Bao-Shi’s “baoshi texture stroke,” the invention of a new style of texture stroke has revealed a new and unique experience—rediscovering nature or universe in a new perspective or returning to the texture of brush and ink. When viewing Teng’s painting in an intuitive way, we can see that the mountain mist, trees, rocks as well as the wind, rain, snow and fog in landscape painting eventually form an otherworldly view frozen in tranquility. The rocks, though piled up one layer after another and depicted in strange forms matched with treacherous water waves and clouds, are in a still state: the water leaves no traces of things passed by; the rocks remain the same throughout centuries, and their colors are unchanged as well. However, the rocks seem to be covered with a thin layer of iron rust – a distinctive mineral color – due to the fact that they have been laying still for a long time. These mountain rocks are delineated by Teng with his self-invented “rolled wrinkle stroke,” which might be inspired by the erosion of seashore rocks as well as his personal experience of being surrounded by the lush greenery of tropical mountains. It reminds us of what the painter Shitao
once stated in Friar Bitter-Melon on Painting: “Since mountains have numerous forms, their surfaces are also different….These are not the natural textures of the mountains themselves. The different names of mountain peaks indicate their real convolutions; the different forms have different surfaces of all kinds. Therefore, there are different kinds of texture strokes.” On the other hand, Teng’s unique texture stroke method has given the rocks a certain modern look of dilapidation – the subtle rusty color on the rocks’ surface – in addition to their original refine and elegant look and charm. The combination of the refined appearance and the rusty color create a sense of visual impact in the rather colorfully saturated image, rendering the simple, lonely look of rocks somewhat strange and unusual. Nevertheless, the most crucial point is still Teng’s spiritual vision that captures the dream-like quality; it reveals a different space-time, a dreamland constructed with hieroglyphs, a surreal world. It is simultaneously illusory and otherworldly as well as sturdy and solid like diamonds, demonstrating an unlikely combination of two textural extremes. Walls found in the modern life can be transformed into a wall of cloud in a misty environment, with crawling vines and a bright moon hanging above the wall. Such an intuitive observation of a view in real life can be projected in landscape painting in alternative form through imagination. Even a simple, unsurprising combination of modern geometric forms such as a brick wall can be transformed in a poetic way, offering modern individuals an outlet to quietly relax under the gentle moonlight. The painter has adopted a viewpoint that looks outwardly to calmly construct the landscape informed with narrow, small crevices formed between the rocks. The use of this unique perspective that conveys a sense of peeping is a clever design and arrangement that juxtapose the far and the near as well as the large and the small all on one point and embody a modern way to “portray the macrocosmic world with microcosmic representations.”
Is admiring the rocks not a way to admire the world? Classical landscape painting upholds the idea that one can “sojourn, travel, dwell, and lie down” in the landscape. This idea in Teng’s surreal world is converted into a blanket that is as magical as it is miraculous. When folded, it becomes a magnificent waterfall where water plummets a thousand feet, and the elements of classical landscape are arranged in various places in the image. What else can you do with this “blanket” of landscape? Perhaps one can refer to Zhuangzi who once talked about the use of a seemingly useless tree: “There you might saunter idly by its side, or in the enjoyment of untroubled ease sleep beneath it.” That is, Teng’s landscape is perfect for embracing a purposeless dream, which is the manifestation of the chora-topia.
Teng’s portrayal of this transformed and anachronistic dreamland culminates in his “potted landscape of the immortal realm.” If Teng’s Other Shore Series stems from his visual experience and techniques deeply rooted in the topography of an island, the potted landscape of the immortal realm probably originates from his imagining the remote places on the vast ocean. Such imagination coincides with “karesansui” (Japanese rock garden) that evolves from the image of sea and islands. Differing from Chinese landscape, karesansui aims for a minimalistic form and the contemplation on Zen. Teng’s “rock landscape” goes the opposite way, and is deliberately and elaborately depicted as unreachable and otherworldly. This might be a rather Chinese imagination of the remote, mysterious realm. Chinese classical literature also talks about the mythological, remotes places, such as the Baseless Cliff of Great Waste Mountain and Gushe Mountain. Teng’s paintings, including Useless Peak．Soliloquy, White Clouds Over Vermilion Rock．Water Flows Down and Star Picking Mountain reveals an array of steep, perilous mountains of an immortal realm. On the one hand, the arrangement of these mountains follows the artistic concept of traditional landscape that aims to naturally build up dynamic momentum with the topography—”cloud and mist arise from where mountains stop, and water comes out from where mountains meet.” The sublime mountains and profound water surely remove the burdens in one’s mind. On the other hand, the mountains stand erect and tall in an austere manner like Western gothic architecture, displaying a sculptural combination of structures, blocks and planes. This combination renders these “immortal mountains” that look like large landscapes to also resemble miniature and sculptural potted landscape, creating a disparity between visual representation and imagination. It is a peculiar combination of freely changing landscape at large and artificial, decorative landscape that is mainly two-dimensional. It shows a kind of bizarre tension between expansion and contraction through a series of surreal vocabulary. Teng’s approach allows viewers to mentally travel through the landscape and remain objective outside of the landscape at the same time. This is why Teng’s “potted landscape of the immortal realm” can demonstrate the tension and two extremes as it simultaneously serves as the manifestation of the subjective will and as the decorative object that the subjective will is projected on.
From his delicate brushstroke to the hollowness expressed by the artistic mood, from his reserved colors to the splendid ones, from the breathing rhythm and vital spirit of the mountain rocks, Teng’s mastery of the persistent transformation of mountain rocks conveys a sense of exactness as well as a dreamlike atmosphere, recapturing the spiritual realm where our dreams reside that is between universal memory and cultural memory.