Mountains and Water
Mountains and Water
Surfers' dreams feed on images of empty waves. One, dated 1200, has raised my curiosity for years. It is a bird-eye view of a Chinese coastline at sunset, a roaring wave approaches the shore and cuts the composition in two, the vegetation in the foreground tells about where and when the action is taking place, a pagoda on the shore puts swell size in a context, five dots on a barge, the only human presence.
Lineups are archetypal images; an art within the art of surf photography. From the first issue of ‘The Surfer’ in 1960 to the present, generations have grown up mind-surfing them. They speak of the moment of contemplation that precedes the rite, that last glance we give before losing ourselves in the ocean. It is a moment we share with fishermen, sailors and migrants since the dawn of time, but which got very rarely celebrated in art.
For most human cultures, the shoreline is nothing ‘fun’ nor ‘inspiring’. People work, fight and often die on the beach, swallowed by rogue waves, lost to the abysses without a proper burial. The love for the beach is a taste we acquired only recently, thanks to Romanticism, in the 1800s.
It comes to no surprise that the artists embedded in James Cook’s expeditions, able to depict plants and animals to incredible details of realism, miserably failed to portrait waves and the Kanaks riding them during their first encounters in the 1770s. Their attempts at Polynesian seascapes are clumsy, to say the least. They had most likely never seen a painted wave, nor tried to reproduce one.
Waves are a rarity in Western art. They make a fleeting appearance in a painting by Claude Monet (Waves Breaking, 1881) in the shape of unsurfable froth.
William Turner (1775 - 1881) uses them to instil pathos in his marinas, but he sees terror not ecstasy. Frenchman Gustave Courbet was possibly the first to look into a four foot barrel (along the coast of Brittany) and find it appealing. His ‘La Vague’, dated 1870, is not a mouth-watering lineup, but at least shows some curiosity.
Things are different in China. On this second trip through my 'vertical' secret spots (read previous instalment here) I’m taking you to Hangzhou, Chinese capital under the glorious Song Dynasty (960 - 1279). We are on the northern bank of the Qiantang River, where the world’s largest and most constant tidal bore breaks. The Silver Dragon is the Mount Everest of riverine waves, breaking for over 100 days per year, up to three metres in height.
The author of the opening leaf is Xia Gui (1195 - 1224), court painter and art celebrity of the era. The image was brushed in the autumn, replicating the view of the spot from the imperial palace.
It is a silk fan, 30cm per side, designed to take part, in the hands of a noble lady, during the Tide Watching Festival, a spectacle held during the autumn equinox when the waves are at their peak. The celebration included wave-riding competition and military parade witnessed by the emperor, and pretty much everyone in a town of 1.5 million souls.
Hangzhou was also the epicentre of a pre-contact surf scene that left traces in chronicles, poetry, and art. As the historian Zhou Mi (1231 - 1298) recounts:
"Young fishermen from Wu, with unfastened hair and tattoos […] gather in a group of a hundred and compete in treading waves. […] Moreover, there’s some who tread on drifting wood, tossed around by the water like puppets, performing hundreds of water tricks, having fun, each displaying great mastery".
Curiosity for waves was not limited to pulled-out views, Song artists went into details, from ripples to breakers, such as in this shore pound (see following image), sketched by an anonymous artist, again during the late Song, or in Ma Yuan’s 'Studies on Water' (1160 - 1225), twelve tables investigating ripples, currents, and breaking waves, with a lyricism and curiosity non-existent in Western art of the time.
The first tide table (1056) and the first documented wave-riding competition (circa 1150) were conceived here, so it is not surprising if an artistic vision of the waves existed in this context, with almost antithetical assumptions compared to Western art.
Chinese call this genre 山水 shanshui, which stands for 'mountains and water', inspired by the naturalism of Taoist philosophy. As in the lineup photos dear to surfers, human beings are reduced to insignificant specks, at the mercy of natural forces. The focus is on mountains, clouds, water, and the way they interact with each other.
Ante litteram lineups. Action shots without manoeuvres. Gleams of a lost surf culture, preserved in art books and museums.
// 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.