During the 19th century, Britain's colonial expansion headed east, beyond Terra Australis and deeper into the Pacific. At both Tahiti and the Sandwich Islands - later named Hawaii - crew men on British vessels encountered surfing. There, ship artists would visually document what they saw and those sketches and paintings exist to this day. In many instances, it was the first time the artist had seen surfing or looked at a breaking wave in a particular way. The surviving illustrations are testament to that foreign nature. The waves look peculiar; misshapen surges that suggest an artist trying to make sense of something alien to them.
Working at roughly the same time, in the same ocean basin yet within a different civilzation, Mori Yuzan also depicted waves in his art. However, Mori was familiar with the wave form, studying it intently, and in turn creating stylised renditions of a wave's many shapes.
Surf exploration can take on two dimensions. The first is horizontal, made up of travels and spots, the second is vertical, made up of artworks and ‘places of the spirit’. In the last three years the latter is the path I have traveled most often, following it through art, literary genres, and history books.
I'm certainly not the first to get lost in the vast expanse of surf culture. Waves have been admired, studied, and of course ridden since prehistoric times. In this short piece I want to show you one of my favourite ‘vertical secret spots’, a rarely seen wave breaking along the coasts of Japan in the early 1900 and depicted by artist Mori Yuzan.
Even if an indigenous form of wave riding called Itako (recently researched by archeo-shaper Tom Wegener) is attested in Japan around that time, Mori was, most likely, not a surfer. But he understood wave energy better than most of us.
I came across his obscure work while editing my book Children of the Tide, in which I explored wave riding tradition in dynastic China. I was looking for graphic patterns to use as chapters’ headers. The drawings contained in his 'Hamonshu 波紋集' (loosely translatable as The Book of Waves and Ripples) were exactly what I needed. Lyrical, monochromatic and free from copyright.
Mori is not known in the West. His fame pales in comparison to Katsushika Hokusai (author of The Great Wave off Kanagawa) the superstar of Japanese visual art. Original prints of his three volumes can be bought on Amazon for reasonable prices and even downloaded for free in digital form.
Date of birth unknown, he died in 1917 and was an exponent of the Nihonga style, an aesthetic trend that stood against influences from the west, focusing on traditional themes and techniques. His art, actually, sums up two thousand years of Japanese and Chinese wave-voyeurism, analysing every ripple, backwash, closeout, surge and even perfect barrel the ocean can throw at us.
And it is almost useless to look for symbolism or deep meanings behind his drawings: The Book of Waves and Ripples was mainly intended for internal use; a handy manual for artists of all sorts, faced with the challenge of depicting moving water. His geometrical designs successively appeared on swords, religious books and miniature sculptures.
I have been so deeply touched by his prints that I started using them as inspiration for my own photography. I’m an avid wave-voyeur. I can spend hours contemplating a pointbreak, trying to decipher the obscure equation behind a messy sand-bank, or simply enjoying the ephemeral geometry of a zippy backwash. Mori's sketches speak a language any surfer can understand, a language that doesn’t rely on words but that is capable of conveying emotions to anyone who has admired or ridden a wave, regardless of the culture of origin.
So in between surf sessions I can be spotted running up and down the shallows, with my iPhone in my hands, trying to replicate Mori’s work. Surfers often ask me what I’m up to. I do not have a word for this activity, I just tell them I’m studying ‘liquid geometry’.
// NIK ZANELLA
Surf explorer, coach, and Sinologist, Nik Zanella has been living on Hainan island (China) for the past ten years, working at several levels of the surf development project and researching China’s untold wave-riding past. His acclaimed book, ‘Children of the Tide’ tells the surprising story of a wave riding community active from the 9th to the 13th century that left traces in art, poetry and dynastic chronicles.