Out of space and silence

by Terence MacNamee

Westerners find a certain Oriental art, notably Zen-inspired art, to be strikingly minimal. There is so little of it there, it is over so soon. Think of a Japanese garden with almost nothing in it. Whereas in the West the artist creates a monumental work full of detail, and rejoices in the resistance of the medium to his tools:

Chisel and carve and file,
Till thy vague dream imprint
Its smile
On the unyielding flint

as George Santayana says in his translation of Gautier’s poem L’Art.  The Oriental artist, the Zen artist, on the other hand, contents himself with a quick calligram, a landscape made up of a few suggestive strokes.

You can just imagine the artist doing it. So much the better if you see him do it. You can see the flickering strokes of the brush, the form taking shape. Jean-François Billeter, the Swiss sinologist, has said that the Chinese ideogram seems to emerge from the white space of the paper; the space is more than two-dimensional, it is full of potentiality, it is ready to receive just this character, and the result looks three-dimensional, as if it somehow had depth.

The white space of the paper is like Plato’s chora, the receptacle, the mother of all things, in which ideas germ to become their copies, the things of this earth. It is not just empty space, an empty surface stretching in all directions, it is a living body that vibrates in response to what it receives from above.

So too voice is powerful when we hear it against a background of silence, when we hear the silence around the words, in fact when we hear the sound emerging from silence – like it does when you hear a poem read by a gifted actor. The emergence of the voice from the silence is like the emergence of the calligraphic ideogram from the empty space of the blank page. Sound is to silence as ideogram is to white space. We can see both sides of this at work in language – for language is both spoken sound and written character.

Zen art tends to be minimal, because it is always emerging from nothingness. It comes out of the nothingness of space, or out of the nothingness of silence, and as it does so before our very eyes, as it were, it is still full of its background of nothingness and points back to it.

It seems to be saying to us: “I come from nothing. I go back to nothing. That is how it has to be. Nothing to lament about. It is good so.”