On the Theory of Space: Between Heidegger and Chinese Landscape Painting

ZIYUE LIU (M.ArchI 2018′)

In November 2011, Wang Shu was invited as the Kenzo Tange Chair Lecturer to give a talk at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Titled ‘Geometry and Narrative of Natural Form’, the first half of the lecture was devoted to a lengthy discussion on the relationship between traditional Chinese painting and guiding principles for Chinese space-making. Wang Shu’s idea of space is two-fold, there are a real half that plays the role of an objective reflection of the environment and an imaginary half that is a subjective projection of the painter’s inner experience. This dualistic division of subject and object relates closely to Heidegger’s theory of space presented in Building Dwelling Thinking.

Heidegger’s theory of space is directly linked to Plato’s theory of form. Plato’s view of the world involves a world of permanence perceived through the mind and a world of change perceived through the senses. The opposition of reality and appearance becomes the source of binaries,  such as universal and particular, cause and effect, solid and void, presence and absence, mind and body. One of its most significant articulations is the duality of subject and object which has fueled the critical development of the theory of space.Heidegger proposes an alternative theory of space questioning the philosophical foundation of the dichotomy of subject and object. Following Kant, he embraces the role of space as an inner condition of experience, while, adding to this view, he suggests that space is defined by man’s action of reaching out for things that exist in the objective world. On this account, space stops being a permanent entity that floats above all beings, and human inner experience is projected onto the objective world through practical means. Existence is attributed to interactive activity and empirical involvement with the objective world. Space is functional. He distinguishes between three types of spaces: world-space as the external objective spaces, regions as the imposition of human inner conditions, and Dasein’s spatiality which describes a mode of human existence through activity which mediates between the previous two types of space. Such view does not deny objectivity or subjectivity altogether but provides a synthesis of the two instead. The function of thinking out spreads subjective consciousness. As we act, we become spatial.

In his Four Key Terms in the History of Chinese Garden, Prof. Stanislaus Fung explains contradictory views of the world between Western canon and classical Chinese philosophy. He demonstrates this contrast between a dualistic theory rooted in the Western ontology and the single continuous worldview in classic Chinese thinking. Fung’s point about classic Chinese worldview is explained through discussing the absence of binaries in the terminology of Chinese garden design. Since, in the context of classical Chinese philosophy, the world cannot be conceived as binaries, therefore, the ‘world of truth’ is absent, knowledge is not understood in terms of fixed ideals but as ‘pattern and process in the world of flux and change, things and events are mutually shaping and being shaped’. This, however, does not exclude words of opposite meanings in the Chinese language. Because they exist in pairs, Chinese terms become plastic in their interpretation. In these terms, contradictory concepts are articulated reciprocally, such that one is becoming the other. Like classic Chinese worldview, these terms require incorporation of both sides of the concepts for proper interpretation.

Countering the participatory roles of opposing ideas, Wang Shu’s subjective distance that separates the real and the imaginary part of the painting is a problematic consequence of self-reference. Elements in the painting operate on their own set of premises without establishing a clear sense of order. The white spaces between and around the two parts are physical barriers which do not participate in the conveying of meaning. The very top edge of the Hermetic Sages becomes essentially the same as the white space occupied by the inscription immediately to its right. They are both spoken of as generic sky due to a lack of reference to the rest of the painting. Alternatively, the space occupied by the inscription could be understood as part of a water system which is relatively inconspicuous in the composition. It is hinted first by the small pond right in front of the pavilion, extending next to a river suggested by a patch of coarse texture below the small low mountains located under the text, and finally reaching the sea represented by the blank surface above the low mountains. The subtle hint of water communicates between the contracted space in the foreground and the endless vast space beyond. Therefore, the termination of landscape is not at the steep mountains which is assumed by Wang Shu but at the infinite sea to its right. Or rather, there is no termination. Wang Shu’s speculation would deny this possibility altogether because the indifferent separation of the upper and low parts makes them inaccessible to each other such that the continuation of water system seems conceptually absurd.

Given the increasingly complex landscape of scholarship across many disciplines and cultural context, it is difficult and perhaps even dangerous to align oneself with any polarized ideas and concepts. However, there is a growing will to define an absolute ‘Chinese-ness’. When Wang Shu was given the power to represent a group of scholars and architects whose works are still neglected by the West it seemed important for him to locate the collective effort of Chinese architects in the ever-accelerating currency of architecture scholarship through a unifying impression. Mediating space serves as an opportunity to dissolve such universal monarchy and to provide a place for resistance and liberation. In discussing the mediating space, the ends must stay open, as every moment passes by a whole new world unfolds before us.