Suiseki is an art wherein naturally occurring small rocks are placed in low bonsai dishes that are filled with sand. The pleasure derived from Suiseki is almost akin to the enjoyment from classical music. Like a Beethoven symphony may not be liked by everyone, Suiseki is also appreciated only by a small number of audience. In fact, one needs to develop a taste for Suiseki in order to appreciate it.
Precisely speaking, Suiseki is a Japanese term denoting “water stone”. Previously, the term Suiseki was used to denote the Japanese tradition of collecting stones and appreciating them. It also referred to the stone itself. In fact, Suiseki is one of the several Japanese traditional visual arts and one can find Suiseki displays in various places in Japan, including homes, gardens as well as museums. Several communities outside Japan also practice this aesthetic art. In such places, Suiseki exhibitions are organized with a view to expose people to this traditional art form. At the same time, many artists also travel abroad with their Suiseki collections and exhibit them in various well-known cultural centers and museums.
Though very popular in Japan, it appears that this art form has its origin in China. In fact, people in this country have been appreciating the aesthetic splendour of these naturally occurring and well-formed rocks for more than 2,000 years now. People in China continue to value these aesthetic rocks known as Gongshi or Scholar’s Rocks. As a result, many people display them in their gardens. Usually, Suiseki as well as Gongshi are exhibited on their own, in the form of standalone items. It is very natural that they attract appreciation, exploration as well as commentary.
While the stones/ rocks used in Suiseki are formed naturally, usually many people wash them. However, these stones are never treated or carved. The main objective is to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of these naturally formed stones and not to try and change their shapes with a view to fit them in any particular artistic ideal. Some of these stones are placed on wooden blocks and this style of mounting stones is known as Suiseki daiza. In fact, it has been seen that people practicing the traditional Suiseki art have a preference for dark, since these stones have rich visual details, such as veining as well as color variations. Often stones collected from exotic locales are valued in Suiseki, provided their shape is aesthetically pleasing. Nevertheless, only the exotic quality or character of the stones is not sufficient for them to be eligible for a Suiseki exhibition.
A number of stones are chosen just because nature has cast them into a particular shape or form. For instance, landscape stones are especially highly admired by practitioners of Suiseki as well as those who appreciate this ancient form of art. This is primarily because people look for stones whose appearance resembles mountain ranges, waterfalls and various natural features. Often, landscape Suiseki is used in bonsai in the form of decorative items. Nevertheless, even abstract stones are highly appreciated, while there may be some stones resembling the shapes of animals, plants as well as other figures.
Similar to various other traditional Japanese art forms, masters in Japan also offer training in the craft of Suiseki. While it is possible for people living outside Japan to learn the art from masters, there are many people who try to learn this traditional craft with the help of books on the subject and by visiting Suiseki exhibitions. In order to be an expert in this art form, one needs to study as well as work with Suiseki stones for several years. In fact, learning other traditional aesthetic Japanese art forms simultaneously can prove to be very useful, because this lets a student to think about it within the arrangement of a greater aesthetic tradition.
Origins of Suiseki
Available documents show that the Chinese have been appreciating beautiful rocks since the ancient days. For the Chinese, the rocks were a symbol of mountains, which were the personification of practically all aesthetic and mystical experiences that one can imagine. The rocks were extensively used by the Chinese in their landscape gardens to symbolize mountains. Irrespective of whether in the perspective of gardening or painting, the Chinese term for landscape is San Sui, which denotes “mountain and water”. Similarly, the rocks that the Chinese used in their compositions were called San Sui-sek, denoting “stones utilized for landscape”. In due course, this complete expression San Sui-sek has become abridged and is now known as Sui-Sek, which means “water stone”.
In the early days of Suiseki, the Chinese collected stones of various shapes and sizes, including large and small one. They collected these rock for their inherent attractiveness, or just because it happened to be the fashion in those days. In fact, the actual tradition of Suiseki developed from this passion for rocks.
The admiration for rocks owing to their inherent beauty is relatively new in Japan. Precisely speaking, this art form arrived in Japan only five or six centuries back. However, as in the instance of several other Oriental art forms that were copied from the Chinese, the Japanese soon outclassed the original practitioners of Suiseki. While the Chinese mainly used the rocks to embody mountains in their landscape gardens, over the years, the Japanese were successful in developing a further inventive approach. In due course, the Japanese have discovered the art of interpreting attractive stones in several different ways, for instance tortoises, bridges, islands, and waterfalls.
In very recent times, the Japanese have pioneered a new style of viewing a stone called “Kikka-seki” or the “chrysanthemum stone”. These are actually big and extremely smooth rocks possessing striking chrysanthemum patterns entrenched in them. This type of stones is appreciated greatly and also valued extremely.
The quality of a genuine viewing stone is more or less abstract. Therefore, it is left to the viewers to use their imagination to construe as well as understand its complete connotation. On the other hand, the approach of the Chinese is not as subtle as the Japanese. The rocks collected by them have a close resemblance to the forms as well as texture of the mountains that we see in nature.
It is seen that people who practice the art of Gongshi or Scholar’s Rocks in China use slates extensively. In fact, slates represent the mountains found in the western and central regions of China. The height of such mountain stones can vary from only a few cm to one or two meters (3 feet to 6 feet). In addition, these stones also come in an assortment of colors, including white, grey and pink. If you wish to use the locally available material optimally, it is advisable that you opt for rocks that have a very close resemblance to the ones that are generally used by the Chinese as well as the Japanese.
There are several rocks that offer wonderful scope for using as viewing stones. However, most of them are thrown away because many think that they are either very large or extremely unsafe for exhibition. You can overcome these shortcomings by two means. Firstly, you may set the rock in the position you desire using synthetic glue or cement. In addition, epoxy resin (also called car filler paste), which is a sort of fiberglass resin, is wonderful to serve this purpose, because it cements very quickly. On the other hand, you may set large rock pieces in a concrete bed and these can later be positioned in a bonsai pot.
If you do not find the second method appealing, you may think of creating a flat base using a cutting disk or a grinding wheel. It is rather easy to give the desired shapes to sandstone and slate using a cutting disk. However, in the case of rocks that are relatively hard, for instance marble or granite, it is suggest that you use tools meant for cutting diamond.
There are two basic techniques of exhibiting Suiseki. The first method involves displaying the aesthetic beauty of these rocks in depthless bonsai dishes that are either filled with sand, gravel and sometimes even water. Another way of exhibiting Suiseki is to display the rocks on a stand that has been carved with special attention to fit the stones appropriately. Like in the case of bonsai trees, people practicing this art will require establishing the best viewing side for every rock with a view to displaying it to its most excellent advantage.
The easiest way to display the stones for viewing is to position them in depthless bonsai trays that are packed with sand or gravel. If it is possible to get a shallow tray with no drainage holes (such trays are called sui-ban or “water basin”), you can use it to fill with water and place the Suiseki in it. On the other hand, if you happen to be skilled in wood carving or you know someone who is an expert wood carver, you may even think of creating an individual stand. Placing the rock on an individual stand will enhance its grace.
While it is best to display large viewing stones individually in the form of a standalone stone, Suiseki goes well along with large variety of bonsai trees in the same manner that one uses accent plants with a view to distinguish them from specimen trees.