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A finely rendered work in black ink of a large mass of craggy rock at right, smaller rocks floating near it, in a vaporous environment with shapes evoking bodies of water.

Water, Rocks, and the Transcendence of Matter

Inside the Exhibition


Colin C. Mackenzie
March 16, 2021

“In the miniature is manifest the vast.”
—Dong Qichang, Ming dynasty

China’s Song dynasty (960–1279) has rightly been recognized as the world’s first renaissance, anticipating that of Europe by over 300 years. It was during this period that realistic and convincing depictions of landscapes first matured, as painters devised techniques to convey the visual effects of distance and relative scale, the solidity of objects and soil, and the lightness of atmosphere. The landscapes—the Chinese word is shan-shui, or “mountains and waters”—were often monumental, showing tiny figures among vast, almost infinite vistas. Sometimes they offered the opposite perspective through intimate vignettes of nature. Among the latter, an album of 12 leaves by Ma Yuan (about 1160/65–1225) is unique in focusing exclusively on water and waves.

It is this album that inspired the contemporary Chinese artist Tai Xiangzhou to create Cosmic Symphonies, a set of 36 small, album-sized paintings and a highlight of the exhibition Cosmoscapes: Ink Paintings of Tai Xiangzhou. Tai grew up in the arid region of present-day Ningxia in northwest China, a place watered only by the upper reaches of the Yellow River. As a child he would accompany his grandfather to collect water from a spring and was entranced by the seasonal changes he observed to the flow of water. In his teenage years he encountered a reproduction of Ma Yuan’s album, and later he was able to view the original at the Palace Museum in Beijing. It left an indelible impression.

Upon first encountering Tai’s work a decade ago in China, I was struck by his remarkable command of Song landscape techniques, and in recent years I have been impressed by his development of more abstract landscapes. Although I have admired Ma Yuan’s water paintings in reproduction for many years, I have not had the good fortune to view them in person, and I was excited when Tai suggested we include his own homage to the Song master’s water album in Cosmoscapes: Ink Paintings by Tai Xiangzhou.

In this work, Tai used the same materials as the Song dynasty master—brush and ink on silk—but his aim was far more ambitious in conception and scope. Whereas Ma’s scenes are basically illustrative, even decorative, simplifying the chaotic nature of waves into regular patterns, Tai’s are influenced by modern scientific theories and grounded in neo-Confucian and Daoist metaphysics. They are, as he himself has acknowledged, attempts to portray not merely the landscapes of our planet but the majesty of the cosmos itself.

Cosmic Symphonies ranges in style and content from views that are quite close to Song landscapes to visions of extraterrestrial space that sometimes verge on the abstract. In some, water is the main focus, while in others, rocks and mountains predominate. However, these are not fundamentally oppositional themes, as one work, titled Water and Rock Emanate from Each Other, makes clear.

A finely rendered work in black ink of a large mass of craggy rock at right, smaller rocks floating near it, in a vaporous environment with shapes evoking bodies of water.

Water and Rock Emanate from Each Other, 2017

Tai Xiangzhou. One of a set of 36 paintings titled Cosmic Symphonies. Collection of Tai Xiangzhou

A master of light and luminescence, Tai endows Cosmic Symphonies with an ethereal light that suffuses its views with rarely any suggestion of source. Like the landscapes of the Song masters, this light seems immanent rather than external. In Flowers Reflect in a Mirror and the Moon Reflects in Water, a silvery light permeates the scene. Maybe the moon can be glimpsed at upper right, and its reflection is perhaps the white patch towards the lower left, but the viewer is left unsure.

Tai also explores the connection between sky and water, the interchange between fluid and gas. In one painting from Cosmic Symphonies, a dark column evokes a waterspout or a sudden squall, while in The Milky Way Pours Down from Heaven, it is light that forms the link.

Meanwhile, in Hidden Dragons Frolicking in Water, the dragon, a creature both of water and the sky, seems to coalesce out of both environments.

Elsewhere in Cosmic Symphonies, Tai invites us to leave the terrestrial world and enter an ethereal realm of rocks floating in space. The rocks that he portrays are not inanimate, but “spirit rocks”—strange rocks known as qi shi, appreciated by traditional Chinese connoisseurs for their convoluted shapes containing multiple cavities and perforations.

Painting of rocks floating in space amid vapors, rendered in fine black ink.

Spirit Rocks Floating in Space, 2017

Tai Xiangzhou. One of a set of 36 paintings titled Cosmic Symphonies. Collection of Tai Xiangzhou

Such rocks were viewed as being both solid and empty—xu and shi. Whether small or large in scale, they were thought to be not just inert matter, zhi, but infused with vital energy, qi. It is in these images of rocks that Tai’s title, Cosmic Symphonies, becomes most explicit: the floating rocks seem to be orchestrated by some underlying universal force or principle, the li of neo-Confucian metaphysics.

With Cosmic Symphonies, Tai offers not merely a new vision of shan-shui painting, in which shui (waters) rather than shan (mountains) takes center stage, but a sublime vision of the universe in all its mystery and majesty—and all on compact silk leaves. This ambitious work joins 13 other monochromatic works by Tai, ranging from larger scrolls and screens to smaller album-sized paintings like these, in Cosmoscapes: Ink Paintings by Tai Xiangzhou. Seen up close, the 36 views of Cosmic Symphonies evoke and capture—perhaps better than any other Chinese painting—the celebrated phrase coined by Ming dynasty master Dong Qichang (1555–1636): “In the miniature is manifest the vast.”

—Colin C. Mackenzie, curator of Chinese art


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