Experiencing Alternative Aesthetics and Philosophy in the Classic of Mountains and Seas through Body and Action
Ma Jing Ruoshui
The global pandemic of the past three years has been a life-and-death struggle for everyone. Many public spaces closed, confining individuals to their homes, leading to a state of physical and mental confinement, along with extreme panic and distress. In the best way possible, I arranged to meet friends for outdoor hikes in the wilderness, embracing art amidst the companionship of the mountains, seas, and skies.
Islands, beaches, cliffs, mountaintops, forests, caves, ruins… these became our academic platforms and artistic experimental fields. Unable to visit nearby Hong Kong and Macau, let alone travel abroad, we found ourselves wandering in the mountains and seas. The banks of the Pearl River and the myriad islands have witnessed the extensive footprints of me and my artistic companions. Through bodily engagement and active participation, we are experiencing the alternative aesthetics and philosophy of the “Shan Hai Jing.”
On both sides of the Pearl River estuary and on the islands, there are many abandoned air-raid shelters that have been vacant for years. Together with friends, I have explored dozens of these caves. Illuminated by flashlights, we traverse these dreamlike caverns. Sometimes, we come across bats taking flight, and water flows through the grooves in the ground. Adjacent to the main cave, there are smaller chambers about 20 meters apart, resembling ears of a cat. Dark blobs bounce on the ground, and upon closer inspection, they reveal themselves to be frogs.
A single large cave typically has 3 to 4 entrances, with some opening out to the sea, like telescopes suspended on 100-meter cliffs. We pause near the entrances, sipping water, eating bread, and replenishing our energy. Then, each of us draws, takes photographs, or engages in dancing and drinking. These cave locations are precarious and hidden, abandoned and uncared for decades. Accumulated sediment and blockages obstruct the entrances, requiring us to crawl in. Some entrances have been completely sealed off.
Inside the caves, pitch darkness prevails, darker than the night. Entering for the first time feels like descending into an ancient tomb, evoking extreme fear. Our portable flashlights are like feeble stars. The caves stand about 5 to 6 meters in height, spacious enough for a vehicle to pass through. The interiors remain clean, except for some temporary fishermen’s items near the entrances, as well as charcoal and small aluminum pots.
Unlike Spain’s La Ràpita caves, these were artificially carved by modern humans. From a psychological standpoint, they could facilitate a dialogue across time and space. From religion to philosophy, from the witchcraft recorded in “Shan Hai Jing” to contemporary stage dramas and folk rituals, literature, text, sculpture, and theater manifest a non-material spiritual dimension, reflecting diverse cultural landscapes across time and space.
On the summit of Fenghuang Mountain in Zhuhai, there’s an unfinished cave. Entering from one end leads to an exit from another entrance. The cave holds a water pool with small frogs. One of my fellow explorers who joined me suffered from nightmares for half a year until he visited a temple and prayed, after which the nightmares ceased. Exploring this cave is laborious, taking 7 to 8 hours, ascending from East Pit and descending to Meili Bay, necessitating sufficient drinking water and provisions.
On the islands of the Pearl River estuary, there are around ten large caves. I have entered some of these caves multiple times. Regrettably, on a recent visit to one cave, it was blocked by debris, and I couldn’t enter. I wonder, if another 100 years pass, due to natural changes in the geographical landscape, these caves might be forever buried underground?
2. Tree Art Museum
I often traverse through woodlands and bamboo groves in the wilderness, gazing up at the treetops where the sky lies beyond. In Guangdong, there’s a type of tree called the banyan tree, with twisted branches intertwining and taking root whenever a small branch touches the ground. Over decades or even centuries, a single banyan tree can flourish into an entire forest. Climbing onto a banyan tree introduces an entirely new artistic space, elevated 10 meters above the ground. With emptiness surrounding and the sky above, I experience what emptiness truly means. I hang my Chinese character totem on the tree, thus inaugurating a tree-top art gallery. It embodies a purely aesthetic tree-top art space.
I have completed seven editions of this tree-top art gallery in various times and locations. In Zhuhai, near the coast, stands a banyan tree about 30 meters tall, resembling the tale of Nuwa mending the heavens. The tree forks around 2 meters from the ground, its branches extend in different directions like the outstretched arms of a giant. The trunk has numerous snake-like entwined branches. Scaling it with both hands and feet, I completed the first installment of the tree-top art gallery.
Across from the Eastern Square of Shenzhen North Railway Station, a large banyan tree grows within a park. I’ve rested, read, and written under this tree on several occasions. The dense branches and trunk create an independent, hidden world. There, I meditate, dream, listen to the birds’ chirps, and pedestrians pass beneath, oblivious to my presence.
The archaeological excavation of the Sanxingdui site unearthed a bronze divine tree, which resonates with the “Shan Hai Jing” account of the Constructed Tree. Trees serve as a ladder for communication between humans and deities. Ancient humans lived in two ways: underground dwellings and nests built on trees. From daily life to aesthetics, there’s a continuous transition between realism and surrealism. Seated at the junction of a tree’s forks, sipping whiskey, reading the “Shan Hai Jing,” I experience the alternative aesthetics and philosophy through body and action.
On the mountaintop of General’s Hill in Zhuhai, I established another installment of the tree-top art gallery. The treetops on the summit create a soaring sensation. Looking southward, the sea stretches before me, with Macau close at hand, almost within reach.
Through outdoor exploration, the tree-top art gallery emerged. Only through continuous practice can one grasp the art and craft of art. Art is the essence, and craft is the soul. Without craft, art remains lifeless, a mere shell.
In the wilderness and ruins beyond the confines of urban art museums, a new space for liberal art is carved out. Here, dreams converse with ancient human civilizations, and a return to the Stone Age seems possible. While trekking on Zhuhai’s Sanzao Island, I stumbled upon a ruin, its roof long collapsed, windows and doors vanished. From an elevated platform nearby, it resembled an extraterrestrial super-intelligence factory on the far side of the moon. A stream emerged from the depths of the mountain’s groove, infusing a touch of life to the ruins. Amidst the ruins, I felt a dance between the human and the otherworldly.
The walls, soaked by rain for decades, were peeling, revealing the red bricks beneath, embodying flesh, blood, and soul. The indigenous people of this desolate hillside are nowhere to be found. Occasionally, a small gecko would traverse the wall, guiding my thoughts through centuries and millennia. My companion and I cleared a spot, pitched a tent, and spent the night. Insects chirped, birds sang, and the sound of the stream accompanied our slumber. An early morning crash startled us – a neighboring wall had collapsed! Luckily, we were unharmed. Using charcoal as ink, I doodled on the wall before we left.
This ruin is approximately a 40-minute walk away from the main road, making it relatively accessible. After several visits, it transformed into our secret theater, a canvas for bizarre ideas. In this realm untouched by electricity and network signals, even KGB agents couldn’t trace us!
Similar ruins dot Zhuhai and Shenzhen, numbering in the teens. We continually abandon, rediscover, and discard, returning them to their ruined state. On an island amid the myriad islands, a colossal ruin, enormous beyond comprehension, used to be a factory of some sort. I stumbled upon it in disarray, oil stains everywhere. Doors and windows were seemingly sold off for scrap. With friends from Shenzhen, we explored, the roof soaring 6 to 8 meters high, feeling like a secret maritime studio from a Kurosawa samurai film. Two years later, accompanied by friends from Beijing, we returned to find the ruin undergoing transformation, supposedly into a maritime search and rescue center. A true ruin had been wasted!
Beaches, bestowed upon us by nature, are like carpets inviting us to walk barefoot, lie down, or sit, providing rich imagination and spiritual pleasure. Walking along the deserted shores and island beaches, the heart feels as if it were a soaring kite. In Zhuhai’s Yin Keng, a secluded beach, hidden and unmonitored, becomes a natural haven where people reconnect with nature. I used a short stick to draw characters on the soft sand, creating a colossal witch symbol, around 2 meters, bridging realms of mountains, seas, and skies, communicating with all spirits. Whenever I venture out, I carry a rope, a small knife, a hammock, mosquito repellent, and other essentials. By the beachside trees, I hang my hammock and rest, indulging in this peaceful haven.
This serene beach has witnessed my presence twice, construction eventually obstructed access. It is said that a major project requiring five years for completion is underway, an endeavor that, while appearing grand, actually disrupts the natural coastal environment.
The Seven Bay Beach at the mouth of the Pearl River, accessible after a trek of over an hour and a mountain ascent, remains rarely visited. It has been a canvas for numerous artistic endeavors with my friend and artist, He Junyan.
A beach, as a geographical emblem, serves as a nexus between land and sea. Unlike deserts, beaches carry different civilizations – deserts utilize camels as vehicles, while boats and ships ride the waves of beaches. A beach, tied to maritime culture, often harbors temples dedicated to sea goddesses like Mazu. These goddesses watch over fishermen and sea voyagers for safe passages. In the course of my walks along the sandy shores, I’ve encountered these temples, symbolizing the interplay between the human world and the mystical sea.
Macao’s black sand beach, with its unique black-colored sand, intrigued me. On my first visit, I collected a bottle filled with black sand as a keepsake. Adjacent to this beach lies a tent campsite where visitors can pitch tents or rent them for HKD 50 (Hong Kong dollars) per night. Night falls, and I indulge in seafood, Scotch whiskey, poetry, painting, and perhaps even a dance, accompanied by sea breeze and celestial companions.
Jiaochangwei, in Shenzhen, boasts an extensive beach drawing visitors nationwide during summers, akin to migrating birds. Since moving to Guangdong in 1990, I’ve wandered both sides of the Pearl River Delta for over three decades. Jiaochangwei has seen me year after year. The poster for my solo exhibition by Zhuhai Gallery features a picture of me drawing on Jiaochangwei’s sandy beach. During the 2021 Chinese New Year, I spent the night in a local guesthouse and witnessed the sunrise over the sea at 6 AM on the first day of the Lunar New Year. Watching the sunrise reminded me of the legendary tale of Kuafu chasing the sun in the “Shan Hai Jing.”
Adjacent to Jiaochangwei stands an ancient military fortress, Dapeng Suocheng, overlooking the sea, guarding the maritime safety of the Pearl River Delta. The city of Shenzhen, often referred to as “Peng City,” owes its name to Dapeng Suocheng. The philosophical text “Zhuangzi” mentions, “The great peng spreads its wings for nine thousand miles.”
In my personal aesthetic concept, beaches or ruins are dynamic and shifting spaces. While different spaces are independent and separate, they’re also interconnected, forming a unified cosmos. Any tree could serve as an arboreal gallery, while any cave could become a celestial dome of art. The sea connects and embraces the world, and the heart finds its solace, free from confines.
Ma Jing Ruoshui
was born in 1960 in Yumen City, Gansu Province, China. My ancestral home is Wubao in northern Shaanxi. Former retired soldier of the 139th Division of the 47th Army. I currently live and work in the Guangdong Hong Kong Macao Greater Bay Area (Shenzhen). He has liked pictographic characters since childhood. He has insisted on children’s graffiti of Chinese characters for decades. His Chinese character totem works have the natural wildness of primitive art and the cultural characteristics of oriental mysticism. His works absorb ancient cultural elements such as knot, rock paintings, witchcraft dances, divinations, geomantic omens, spells, pottery patterns, clay sculptures, Paper Cuttings, cave depictions, etc., and also draw on modern artists Bada Shanren, Shi Lu, Guo Fengyi, Inoue Youyi, white haired Yixiong Fu Jiayi, Bacon, Freud, Picasso, Van Gogh, Yayoi Kusama. My personal works have participated in several exhibitions or academic exchanges in China and overseas (Russia). In June 2018, we jointly launched the “Hundred Island Art Plan” with He Junyan (China’s Wanshan Islands/Guishan Island/Niutou Island). Ma Jing Ruoshui said, “Words are paintings,” and “My works are illusions in dreams.