Introduction to some Basic Taoist concepts
talking about Taoism in general, to a western audience , it is essential recognise
that linear Greek style logic is restrictive to understanding Taoist concepts.
Until recent years Platonic/Aristotle type Greek philosophy has been the dominate
influence in the western world. It informs the foundation of much what we
know as, Classical science. Classical science is now in the process of being
replaced by thinking informed by quantum mechanics. It would appear (1)the
Greek Stoics, are more compatible some of the concepts found in Taoism. The
rediscovery of the Stoics by Derrida and Deleuze informs Post-modernist theory(2).
It is the Post-Modernist interest in dealing with the restrictions of linguistics
that it has in common with Taoism. We are conditioned to think using labels
and names to describe, and in doing so inadvertently give more importance
to the name than the 'thing' which the name has been used to describe. Taoism
is about directing our attention to the essence, rather than the label.
The language of Taoism is written in a more analogue or holistic range of thought, which is something inherent to Chinese linguistics, where one character can have multiple meanings and it's intended meaning is gained by it's context in the sentence. This gives you all the associated meanings at the same time. Lao Tzu in D.C Lau, translation says
"The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way. The name that can be named is not the constant name." (3)
It is suggesting, that "language is a corruption of thought"(4). Thought is pure and language is a representation of an original, rather than the original itself. This sort of 'non claimature' of language helps to change the interpretation of language from the literal to the empherical. For example. If I hold sacred the my understanding of what the Tao is, and rather than the actual traditional text use to describe it, then what becomes important is the the idea,and not the language. By taking this attitude we avoid problems, like complete discrediting of other faiths, when there text are different to ours, but share similar ideas. Has the concept of God could been seen as similar to what some call the Tao. Clearly this applies to faiths, that have more complex concept of God. If the word God is perceived, as a universal force that permeates everything and is in inside of us, as well as being an entity, then it would be in accord with Taoism and Sufism among others. The compatibility of ideas ends when people think of God as man with a bread living in the Haven. The Tao is universal it naturally manifest everywhere. Divisions into this and that, us and them labels and names is a human way of making order and identity of our world. While it could argued that this been successful in achieving order, it could also argued that it has been also successful at giving raise to conflict, which creates dis-order.
Lao Tzu suggest In nature there are no divisions each field runs into the next.
Consequently you often do not get consistent Taoism, it is always influenced by other faiths and ideas depending on the geographical location of the temple and what available to them. Taoism in its organise religious form can descend like Christianity churches, into dogmas of the original faith, but this is more about the nature of organised religion in general. Taoism at it heart is un-dogmatic. To my knowledge there is no school of Taoism that does not use Lao Tzu as central text. Studying Lao Tzu and Chung Tzu, is a good idea for anyone interested in Taoism who has not already done so. These esoteric texts are hard to understand and vary in translation and do not talk about practical specifics.
There are some explanations of concepts that should help those interested in Taoism to gain more access to Taoist ideas. Wu Wei is probably the most essential, which I will speak about in my art theory text later. Yin /yang is another useful practical conceptual tool, that I probably came to more fully understand through practising internal Kung Fu. I will use the our everyday concepts of big and small to illustrate how we might understand Yin and yang. Big and small define each, there is no big without small and vicer versa. They are relative terms because something is bigger by comparison to something which is smaller. These also have the capacity to change their relative meaning. The same object which in one context was considered big may be changed to be considered smaller if placed in another context, or comparison. You must not think of Yin/Yang as two separate words, but more as a relationship, or transforming set of scales. Opposites that are just polar and have no symbiotic relationship are not yin and yang, it is essential that the poles have a an inherent symbiotic relationship between poles. Although traditionally yin and yang are associated with the colours Black and White, there no reason why the relationship of yin/Yang cannot be used to describe the polarity in other colours relationships. Understanding the pattern of yin/Yang in the real world, is were it becomes useful and practical. For example Musical scales, Painting black/white, yellow/purple, Drawing thick and thin lines, 0,1 binary code. Applied to macro environments as well, black,white/connecting greys and so on. be If a pattern is found to be both symbiotic and polar, then can be described this yin/Yang terminology.
Lao Tzu 's idea's are highly condensed, and written in poetical form, where Chung Tzu is sometimes slightly more detestable because it is written in prose story format. I will tell the story of the Vinegar Tasters, which my father a scholar in the field of early Chinese history, told me. I have know idea where in Chinese literature it comes from, as I was not told myself. The story illustrates the philosophical perspectives of the three major schools of thought in China. Confucianism , Buddhism, and Taoism.
The vinegar in the story represents Life, and acts as a symbol of life. The three tasters are Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, and how they react to tasting vinegar reveals their philosophical out look on life.
When Confucius drinks the vinegar his winces as he continues to swallow the vinegar, which is to say that life is bitter but it can be made more bearable with rules and regulations, social contracts and ethical standards of behaviour. For example: Though social contact you are required to work hard and be a good employee, while your boss is supposed to be fair and provide humane employment.
When the Buddha drinks the vinegar he spits it out, which is to say life is bitter, but we must learn to transcend it, to raise above the illusionary nature of life, because all life is suffering. Attachment to life is attachment to suffering.
When Lao Tzu drinks the vinegar he drinks it and laughs which is to say life is bitter, but you have to learn how to enjoy the bitterness.
Edwin Kenjiro Gardiner.
(1) Carl Looper correspondence on my theoretical writings. Information on Greek Stoics.
(2) Carl Looper correspondence on my theoretical writings. Information on how Greek stoics informed Derrida and Deleuze.
(3)Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, Translation D.C Lua, Penguin, 1976 .p.57
(4)This interpretation of this particular verse of Lao Tzu " language is a corruption of thought" comes from my first Kung fu teacher Chris Bishop.
My perspective on the practise of art making, or just general creativity for that matter continues to change, as I change. Recently come back from a financially enforced break from creative making. During my exile so to speak, I read a lot more Taoist history and theory as well as deepen and adding to various formal physical practices.
The practise of Taoism and my art making, both start from the same point. Wu wei, or what is often translated into the expression "Original nature", also associated with the expression "The uncarved Block". The term will be condensed to just "nature" at times. First we have to try and define the term original nature.
Original nature is the personality you were born with, and has a fundamental quality, that was not the product of later external influence. Individuals do not chose their own natures. The one that the Tao provides, is the one you are must work with. People of differing faiths can think of these ideas in their on terminology and replace the word "God" or "universe" when Tao is being used. These ideas are not exclusive to Taoism, but exist in many other faiths and the in secular world. I cannot claim to represent Taoism either, this theorisation is my interpretation of Taoism. When I use terms like 'following your nature', it's practical meaning applies in very similar way, to common terms like 'making work which is true to your self '. This is in opposition to people who making work they feel they should make, because of some external pressure. Original nature may be enhanced, but it's fundamental structure does not change. How we perceive the process of enhancing nature is more like polishing a stone, or chemical distillation, where the essential ingredient is gather together in a concentrated form. The continual process of discovering and concentrating your original nature is a very large part of the Taoist central tenant of 'following the way'. However each individuals nature is different and unique, and consequently the path individuals take to enhance their nature is particular to the demands of this uniqueness. Taoism provides useful principals and a conceptual frame work that people may, or may not follow depending on what is inherently appropriate to each individual. Hence what is good for one, is not necessarily good for the many. Original nature has a closer relationship with our gut instincts, than it does with our rational conscious mind. Sayings like "follow your heart" are synonymous with the saying "follow your nature". The common every day uses or terms like, follow your heart, not your head. illustrates how my definitions of original nature and intellect personified within the local community. The intellect can be used to diverge away from the desires of original nature, but doing this will only decrease a person connection with the Tao. Following your heart you should feel comfortable and natural, and not contrived. There should be an easiness about it. When Lao Tzu say's
Let your wheels move only along old ruts.(1)
He is referring to travelling with a wagon here, and the ruts are indentations on the road worn in by other wagons. These ruts make the process of travelling much easier. This can be interpreted as: When we stay away from what fulfils our nature it is not a comfortable feeling, so an easiness indicates a correct path. The rational intellect does not automatically work against original nature. However it should not take a leadership role. Nature is the compass, which decides the direction and the intellect assist to help implement the travelling process. Of-coarse the are practical problems for each individual reconciling the relationship between their own nature and intellect. Often we do not immediately know what our natures are. Developing an understanding of your nature is helped by connecting with things that hold a deep resonance for you. Clearly, it must evoke an significant emotional response, rather than be just a "like". However even if it is only a "like", and the rational mind is used to discover what is the essence of this like, then that like, might led you to something else, which you might "really like" and so on. The idea being; you may start with leaves of the tree, but by listening to your nature and applying intellect arrive at the trunk, which it closer to the root source and hence more beneficial. The foundation of this thinking is; qualities in things that touch you, reflect qualities in your own nature, and so act like a mirror. Looking at Fine art can be useful, because it has already gone through a process of another persons distillation. The artist has absorbed things from their environment, that are meaningful to them, and then reassembled the data into a physical objects that recodes meaning. This is one example of how a person might go about discovering more about there nature. There are, of coarse many other ways.
Art is more a language of the poetical, rather than the literal. If art making were a more weighted towards a cerebral rational process you would get more academics making good art ? History shows us, this not the case. From my own experience, I considered that made anything really decent in terms of art until I allowed myself to do what I really wanted to do. I had to learn, to turn off my intellect and just play without really knowing what I was doing, in order to get enough quality content come out in sufficient quantity. Only after this occurred, would I apply my intellect, to analysis what the essence was of what I had made and where it was going.(2) It is important at the birth of art work to learn to turn off all those rational voices in your head telling you should be doing, and just do what makes you the most happy. When Picasso suggest he had to learn, how to paint like a child, we can interpret that he really means is, how to paint without inhibition, or rational editor. It is likely, that the attractive quality of 'freshness' and immediacy produced by children, and by some people with intellectual disability is due because it's less inhibited. Picasso makes better art than children, but still recognises a inherent quality, which is useful to enhance the direction of his own work.
Successful and unsuccessful art is determined by the amount of communication . When looking at work we need to ask the question; does this work really touch me, or does it not ? Work that does not communicate to an audience is not art. The function of Art is to communicate. The idea art can be something that never really attempts to communicate to it's audience, because it is simply too radical of such traditional considerations must be completely rejected. Different natures can impact on how much a person can connect with art. Clearly there is a relationship between personality and taste. An art education, particularly a understanding of technique, does help expand an individuals ability to access art work that they might not have related to, without such an education.
The best art teaching
practises at the tertiary level in early to mid 1990's involved drawing out
what was already there in the student and enhancing it. Linking qualities
in students art with similar qualities in established artist so that students
have an example of how an ideas might progress. The worse teaching practices
involve transplanting a foreign agenda that is not compliable with that person
nature. It is excusable expand peoples visual understanding, my making them
learn technical skills, as well as giving them analytical skills in order
disassemble art into there component parts. This in contrast to teaching methods
that require people to prescribe to a style of making irrespective to who
they are as an individual and giving people the barest minimum skills so choices
of paths they can easily take become limited. Art begins from the intangible
concepts of heart, and the intellect comes later. For example: You make, you
analyse what you have made and how it is communicating, and where it is going
to relation to where you want to go. Then you make again and attempt to remove
the things that you feel are wrong or are uncomfortable with, and to you enhance
the qualities that excite you. It becomes a on going process of distillation,
or separating the wheat from the chaff. You can only be the artist that you
are inherently are, because you must follow original nature to be able to
make the work at the level of potentacy for the work to be considered Art.
I have noticed change in my perception of art, as I learnt more observational drawing to a higher academic level. Life drawing involves and intense amount of looking and visual memory and as a result your, eye becomes far more sensitised than the average person. This looking acuity is very useful tool when examining art, unfortunately as most curators have not done the work in observational drawing and typically lack an ability to see well. Curators almost always have less skills than artist. The current situation in art school, is to de-emphasis skills training and so art students commonly have very low skills, and as a consequence the new generation of curators have have almost no skills, often resulting in a sort visual illiteracy. The similar things can said for other formal knowledge other than drawing, like colour theory. Deeper understanding of how colour theory can be applied in painting changes your perception of how painting operates. These technical changes in my abilities have increased my ability to access to art works with a more profound appreciation than I would have otherwise would have had, earlier in my career.
While it useful
to talk about general theory just using words, it is far better to look at
specific examples and show reasoning behind decisions.
I pursue the practise Life Drawing, but do not exhibit it it has my main body of work. My attitude towards it is much playing musical scales. It sharpens my ability execute proportional relationships and my control of mark making to construct images. If we make a comparison to the traditions found in Chinese painting, where it is desirable to train calligraphy before studying painting, because it enhances a person ability to control brush strokes. In Chinese calligraphy a great deal of time is spent refining the quality of energy in the brush mark. Particularly at the what might be considered by us to be at the fine art level. Even the simplest of strokes, like the character for numerical one for example, has a slight bulbous bit at it end of the stroke, where the writer has turn around the point of the brush to fold back on it's self to contain the energy of the stroke. With this character it not appropriate for the stroke to be un-contained. The slight back stroke would be considered the yin part, and acts to balance what is mostly a yang stroke.
Another useful thing about life drawing is it can help tap into your unconscious mind. This can be achieved by make lots of very quick drawings(1, 2 minutes). The pressure of making a drawing of a complicated structure in such a short space of time tends to shut off your intellect, as you have no time to think, just act. The qualities of the marks from these drawings can then be examined and an indication of nature can be derived. It is not the only way, or the best method to access the an internal source without the editing influence from the rational mind, but it is simple and easy to implement.
I noticed that
my drawing had a expressionistic quality. Looking at Expressionist works like
from the Brucke group. In particular looking at Ernst Ludwig Kirchners work
there were qualities which delighted me and characteristics that I felt were
Even though the examples used are paintings, it is the drawing component in them that I am referring to. In this case, the works that interest me the most are based from a observed experience.
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
'Two nudes with Bath tub and stove' 1911
The marks become symbols that describe form seen in the real world. There are interesting things happening with the colour, but we not into colour at this stage. Kirchners work that I find far less convincing such as:
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
'Stepping Gingerly into the Sea', 1912.
The way the figures are depicted is quite contrived. You get the sense that instead of drawing from directly from a real figure, that pre-rehearsed symbol being use to describe the figures. The figures appear almost like static like cut-out paper dolls. There no sense of them actually being real people. We can still enjoy a simplified modernist style, but because the anatomy is contrived the figures lack life. The subject matter for Brucke is very much about life as well forging new stylistic expressions. Their whole life style of swimming, picnicking, shagging and making art with their girls friends in the landscape is a indication of where interest's living were. My thinking is the quality of liveliness in their art is essential to convey the exuberance of this type of living.
I examined my life drawing, I wanted to eliminate characteristics that distracted
away from a sense of life and enhance the qualities that made my figures more
Life Drawing sample 1. (above).
Here a quite observed Life Drawing of mine that still has a sense of Life, even though focusing a lot on observation. This is achieved partly by continuing to use fast lines. I quickly drawn line has more energy liveliness than one which drawn slowly. There are other things happening to make the drawing more alive like an understanding of the internal shapes within the body, but at the moment we just deal with the speed of the line.
Life Drawing sample 2 (Above)
In the second drawing the lines in the torso are much slower and the drawing is not as alive as a consequence. It may be more accurately observed, but that quality does not automatically engender it with more life. Life Drawing sample 1 has more variation in thick and thin-less and tonal variation in the quality of the line, which acts to give the drawing more depth of field. Where as Life Drawing sample 2 thin line is constant thickness and tone, which act to flatten the drawing. These spatial considerations affect the aliveness of the drawing in this case. In sample 2 the expression of the internal shapes is not, as developed either. There are some quicker lines were used in the face in an attempt to redeem and otherwise boring drawing.
we go back to the examples of Kirchner's work and focus just on the drawing
components. You will notice that 'Stepping Gingerly into the Sea' figures
have a more less constant thickness of line around them. In 'Two nudes with
Bath tub and stove' the figure in the seated position, has thicker line describing
anatomy that are further away from the viewer and thinner lines to describe
areas which are closer to the viewer. This is an example of the polar relationships
between small and big, which I have spoken about before in past theorisations.
You can make the small go back, or come forward depending the logical context
of how you set up the relationship. Granted both Kirchner's works are paintings,
and there a lot of complex spacial relationships happening through the agency
of colour as well.
Life Drawing sample 3 (Above)
The above is a drawing more the direction I hoping to achieve in my drawing, but it does rely on getting basic portions of right, otherwise the drawing lacks creditability as a human figure. My interest in the expression is more about kinetic energy and it is about just about expressing emotions. In this particular example I was also concentrating on holding the feeling of gentleness in my mind while drawing in the hope that this emotive quality would translate into the marks. People often associate aggressiveness, or passionate emotive qualities expressionistic manner of art making, but this not necessary need to be the case. In this case the expression of energy is more obvious because of the speed and immediacy of the line, which is laid over the top of a proportional structure. This is very different from Life Drawing sample 1 we get a sense of energy expanding from within the figure and pushing to the outer surface. You do not see the whole force of the elliptical shapes, but there presence is made felt with the convex and concave quality to the lines. In this case my interest was the power these vectors of force, or ellipses, that can found in the constructs of the human figure. Specifically the generation of force through finding and following vectors or ellipses is central to all forms of martial arts categorised as 'Internal styles', by the Chinese. This Renaissance like, technique taught to me by Patrick Moss, while in fascinating in terms of its potential to express life, is so stylistically locked into the period of the Renaissance, is hard to see how it could be used, if you did not automatically want to refer to the Renaissance.
I have always been interested in colour, which why I took up painting because it is of it is the adaptable of manipulation of colour. I looked at painting in art history specifically at artist you use of colour in sophisticated manner irrespective of style. I learnt from the work of people like Vuillard who I consider the best colourist of the Nabis. He was really good at using both complementary and Warm/cool colour relationships.
Landscape-House of the left', 1900
Edouard Vuillard (Above)
'Interior with work table' also know as the 'The suitor'
While I not interested in Vuillard's use of decorative patterns. I am excited by the flattening off of colour into planes and blocks. In Vuillard we get the visual potentacy of contrasts, but connected with the restraint in the chromatic greys. While the chromatic greys are not, as visually exciting as the purer colour, they set the stage for the bright colour relationships. The grey's allow you to see the colour more intensely in a similar way that white and black increase each others visual impact. Grey is the yin to warm/cool and complementary colour contrast yang. I only really like Vuillard on this technical level, because the most of his subject matter I find a little mundane. Maurice Denis who is not quite as consistently as clever with colour as Vuillard, but does sometimes have a spiritual intent, or subject to his works, which for me makes him more interesting artist on a conceptual level.
Below is an example of my own use of colour contrasts.
Oil on Broad.
Although this painting depicts a landscape the subject is matter is not about landscape. The painting is about evoking a mystical/magical kind of feeling, that you would often find in Odilon Radons work. Redon uses colour well, but his use of colour is much more intuitive, and not the product of a formal understanding colour.
The analysts of other artist, individual works serves as an example of how people might gain from works in art history. It also, hopes to show how we might think about the language of art, in how it communicates. I am not afraid at looking like a modernist. I rather use a language that has a default aesthetic level of appreciation, as well as a conceptual one. Communication is more important to me, than appearing to follow contemporary art fashion.
(1)Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, Translation D.C Lua, Penguin, 1976 .p.57
(2)I wish to thank and acknowledge Tim Mathieson for discussions held at Parslow street studio's, where we agreed that the understanding of what you are making comes after you have made it and not before.