Nihilism and Chan Aesthetics

Nihilism and Chan (Zen) Aesthetics


by shilan [li chevalier]



It is received fact that western art in the modern era is strongly influenced by nihilistic thought. Although the art of the Dada movement is considered the most directly inspired by nihilism, many schools of art (futurism, surrealism, even pop art) are considered to reflect nihilistic elements. That is to say they share a common disdain for tradition, a will to destroy the ossified, backwards and conservative past, and an obsession with bludgeoning the public with shock and sensational effect.


However, since WWII, against the overwhelmingly noisy, speedy, rebellious backdrop of western culture, there can be seen an increasing interest in Zen aesthetics, not least in the modern day popularity of Zen inspired interior design. Searching the word Zen in the cyber space, one finds a series of Zen inspired products like Zen bathroom, Zen toilet, Zen bathtub. It often costs a fortune to buy these products as if there is a premium to be paid for a private space in which to immerse ourselves in an environment of tranquility and silence, and to take the chance to shake a concealed hand with life.


Who among the “bathers" would imagine that by inviting Zen into their bathroom, they will be plunging into a daily nihilistic bath?


No other word delves so directly into the core notion of nihilism than "nothingness". Nihilism showcases a vision of world without sense. Human existence is as insignificant as its history. From a metaphysical standpoint, nothingness is a direct refutation of the concepts of “being” in ontology, “God” in Christianity, “absolute truth” in Plato's philosophy. The root of nihilism is the Latin word “nihil” while its corresponding word in Chinese are the characters “Wu”, nothingness or "Kong", vacuity. Wu and Kong are respectively fundamental notions of Taoism and Buddhism. Despite the difference in expression, a strong line could be thus drawn between western nihilism and the two pillars of oriental thought; none of them give credit to the ideas of the existence of God or an intrinsic meaning to life.


Schopenhauer, one of the most eminent figures of the nihilistic West, noted a great similarity between his doctrines and Buddhism and even proclaimed himself Buddhist of the West. A profound atheist, he described a vision of life that has no creator at origin, no paradise at the end, and in-between, sterility of blind will and desire that leads mankind to endless suffering. "Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom".


As a somewhat recent historical vintage of an ancient thought that could be traced back to the Greeks, Nihilism resurfaced in the western modern history only after a ferocious battle of ideas. Being nursed during centuries by the idea of a loving God and of life in paradise, the eruption of nothingness created an authentic post partum depression and gloom. Nothingness is a source of existential horror and emotional anguish. Nothingness reveals each individual as a lost being in an unresponsive universe, a world of silence that is “barred forever from knowledge” (E. Kant).


Contrary to such trauma in the West, the absences of God and any intrinsic meaning of life are diluted with a "Chan” touch of serenity in the eastern mind. The latter shows an eternal easy-going acceptance of the notion that nothingness precedes life and follows death. The absence of a monotheist religion born in China no doubt provides a major explanation thereto.


In his book "The nihilist temptation" French philosopher Roland Jacquard brought out a legendary tale of Master Tao, showing a radical vision of oriental relativism: Two neighboring landlords fight over a propriety right on a piece of land. A Tao apprentice brought the case to his master with the hope of getting a final sentence. The first landlord presented his arguments, Tao said: “You are right”. Then the second one expressed his, Tao said “You are right”.


The apprentice was puzzled. “They can’t both be right!” to which Tao replied: "You too, you are right”. One could legitimately conclude that in this value system, there is no space for justice. However, in my eyes, the suspension of sentence by Tao should be understood as stemming from a deep commitment to prudence. It advocates in its own poetic way the virtue of doubt. Here appears in a Chinese mythological language, the same ancient epistemological question by Xenophane: “May we seize the truth or are there all just opinions?”


“Since human beings participate in only an infinitesimal part of the whole, they are unable to grasp anything with certainty”. By those words, Jacques Derrida restated con brio an old Chinese metaphor. We are like the "the frog at the bottom of a well". As such, claiming to answer such serious questions as the origin of the world or the intrinsic meaning of life without being qualified equals to an infantile lack of maturity.




After my Western art adventures started in the 90s, I made a radical return to my "mother tongue" by choosing ink as my medium. Through the use of mixed media, including Chinese ink on canvas, I try to transcend the classical ink-on-paper model and hope to convey my passion and understanding of Chan aesthetics, which exercises even stronger fascination on me as it appears far off and unreachable.


To prepare the dissertation for my fine arts post graduate diploma at London Central Saint Martin’s College of Art, I conducted a discreet inquiry among students on the Chan concept. Most of the responses I got were related to the ideas of "peace, balance and quietude". While one student mentioned the concept of nothingness, nobody pronounced the word suffering: Buddha teaches suffering and the end of suffering by enlightenment. Zen no doubt conveys the state of enlightened mind.


Peace and balance are words that remind me of my Japanese experience in the 90s. In the Japanese aesthetics, I felt the elegance of ancient China, but Japan's peculiar predilection for simplicity, sobriety and quietude, which transpire in its architecture, garden design and interior decoration, left me with a long lasting "visual shock". It offered me a rare visual experience of what I would call Chan aesthetics.


Chan as a spiritual school in China has both Taoist and Buddhist origins. Zen, as it is better known in the West, is the Japanese pronunciation of Chan. Chan aesthetics, a merger of both influences, carries a strong philosophical connotation. Painting, as the most venerated art medium in China, has actually never played an important historical role in representing the visual reality of the material world. It has always been considered as the best medium to reveal a cosmological vision or philosophical claim.


Unlike some Western values like greatness, eternity and the absolute, the Zen spirit conveys different qualities, namely the transient, the illusory, ambiguity and modesty in our continually shifting reality. It depicts a hermit realm of self imposed isolation, a universe of literati that crave spiritual retirement. Translated into art,.


Thus on canvas my choice of forms and shades is reduced to its simplest expression, to subtle tones rather than convulsive explosions of color, to naturally curved shapes rather than hard edges. The transparent grey and fluid brush strokes suggestive of cascading water, which is simultaneously controlled and uncontrollable, can be seen as a metaphorical language for fate, the paint becoming a veil covering our world with delicate modesty.


Landscape is a major theme in my works. Unlike the geometric harmony of the French garden, the Zen-inspired nature faithful to Chinese tradition does not appear to have been arranged. The French philosopher Luc Ferry suggests that the French Garden is a rationalist expression of abstract mathematical reason by which one reaches the truth and the divine order. Zen-inspired nature however could be compared to the virginal nature of the Payne spirit cherished by Western romanticism. Intuition is preferred to intellectual order, spontaneous vital energy prevails over geometric forms.


Allusion, speaking silence, acting emptiness, solitary spleen, endless nights, dreary days, infinite spaces, lingering dangers and unexpected charms, all shape my canvases, always suggested, never imposed.




At one of my exhibition openings in 2008, a reporter came to me and said: "Despite the atmosphere of your painting, you do not seem to be a Chan-like person". What a keen observer! My feet are deeply rooted in the overwhelming noisy and speedy modern world. My heart is filled with one gram of patience and tons of passion. My body is torn apart by desire and anguish. I often have the sensation of hanging on Schopenhauer's pendulum, swinging from desire to despair. All this has little to do with the state of impassability and quietude of a Chan hermit. In front of the Chan realm, I'd rather consider myself an outsider, an observer, an admirer. As I have no way of escaping from the pain and contingency of secular life, I can only offer myself the luxury of a creative space to depict a world of silence, contemplating the peaceful realm of Chan from far away. To free ourselves from earthly gravitation, apart from religious enlightenment, there remains aesthetic elevation.


October 2010, Beijing

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