‘The darkness is a universe’ Sea of Ink – Richard Weihe (Trans. Jamie Bulloch)

‘When you paint you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything. When it has learnt how to speak you will be a Master of the Great Ink.’

What is it that a picture communicates? How can a picture communicate anything? Is the greatest artist the one who can speak in a new way or with the most economy? The relationship between expression, depiction, formal skill, and creativity is one of the central concerns of Richard Weihe’s subtle and suggestive novella. In the course of fifty-one chapters, many less than a page long, the 17th Century Chinese prince Zhu Dha becomes the great painter Bada Shanren. As the Ming Dynasty falls and the Qing rise Dha seeks to render in ink the flux and fluidity of the world. As his skill develops so does Dha’s self-understanding, hence the different names he signs on the paper with each step forward, until he finally settles on Bada Shanren: ‘man on the mountain of the eight compass points’. He explains: ‘The points of the compass symbolize the eight directions of space which each painter worthy of the title must be capable opening up with a single brushstroke.’

At the heart of Shanren’s development and that of the novella is the expressive relationship between formal elements which relate and resolve into images on the page and in the mind of the viewer. It is an interesting question where that image actually resides – on the page or in the viewer?

‘A thing is a thing in relationship to itself, but also in relationship to other things. It is this as well as that. Even if we comprehend the thing only from the perspective of the this, it is nonetheless determined by both this and that.’

The resolution of elements into recognizable phenomena is expressive of the Zen (or ‘Ch’an’) Buddhist belief in impermanence. What in Japanese is called ‘Mūjo’ is reality conceived as flux, without permanent substance, where, as Steve Odin puts it, ‘each event in nature is understood as a concentrated focus point for the whole field of emptiness (ku)…a dynamic network of causal relationships…’

Such an understanding of events as foci within a broader field allows us to understand the significance of each brushstroke as one element within a network of elements and, crucially, as implying a whole field of significance and space in the whiteness surrounding each line. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the purely formal description of the process of composition Weihe provides for many of the eleven pictures in Sea of Ink. It is only after the picture is completed and Shanren steps back that the image resolves, and he discovers the field of interaction and its significance.

In one picture, Shanren has a fish gaze at his signature, thus dramatizing the reciprocal relationship between the artist, the viewer, and the viewed. The meaning of each painting, its communicative act, thus lies in the space between the two. At the height of his powers Bada Shanren calls as much into being with the absence of a brushstroke as he does with its presence. The ink structures but does not constitute the artwork. We might say much the same of the novel.

Ink is watered rendered visible, nothing more. The brush divides what is fluid from everything superfluous.

Of course, Weihe’s writing stands in a reciprocal relationship to its subject matter, for each chapter stands as a brushstroke: one element which both stands in a reciprocal relationship with every other chapter and which implies far more than it explicitly lays down. Both novella and drawing resolve as one steps back to grasp the whole. That Weihe grasps the philosophical, aesthetic, and practical issues at play in Shanren’s practice and development, and is able to express them in the style he adopts, makes Sea of Ink very impressive indeed.

When Shanren is called to take part in the Qing project to document the history of the Ming he is assigned to the highest category of scholarship: the Sea of Ink. He feigns madness to escape the project, but the image lingers and Bada dreams of being a fish swimming through ink and the images he has painted. In the dream he fears shrivelling under the gaze of a government commissar involved in the history project. It is as if the fixing of things, looking backwards, is deadly to the creative mind.

‘Originality!’ Bada laughed. ‘I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method, I do not think about originality, I am just me.’

As is suggested both by Shanren’s dream and his composition, it is in the nature of creativity is to be exploratory. The resistance of creativity to analysis is precisely in its necessarily exploratory nature. One can say what was creative, but what will be is rather more difficult. The nature of creativity and its relationship to originality is a key question in philosophical aesthetics. Theories differ in their details, but one recurrent them is that compete immersion in an artform is a prerequisite for true creativity and progress. The metaphor is obvious.

In another picture Shanren depicts a man on a mule riding into the mist. The mule seems to stare out at the viewer, apparently asking a question: a question which is at the heart of artistic progress, the space which surrounds each brushstroke, and Shanren’s lengthening years. It once again demonstrates the careful, expressive, and economical style of Weihe himself (and his translator), in that it contains the artistic, the philosophical, and the human in one succinct phrase.

‘what kind of dream are we are we riding into’?

Sea of Ink is out now from Peirene Press.

My thanks to Peirene Press for this review copy.