Figure 2 Ju Ming, figures from the Taichi Series, late 20th cent. CE, various mediums
There are no available images of the work entitled Taichi on display at the Seattle Art Museum so I have included images of other pieces in the series that are similar in form, though different in size and material.
I found contradiction in the form of Taichi. The human figure is seemingly hacked out of a large block of wood; every segment of the body is a cube-ish mass that could easily be separate pieces attached to one another. The linear marks of the carving knife, opposing each other from chunk to chunk, add to the effect. Yet it is a whole, not only carved from one piece of wood but the energy, or the spirit, or the life-force so obvious in it, inhabits the entire form. The sculpture captures the gesture of human movement through a spiraling latticework of diagonals. The supporting leg leans gently outward to the hip opposing the angle of the hipline, which in turn opposes the angle of the torso, at the top of which is a more dynamic diagonal of the extended arms, again opposing the previous line and all striking an active balance. Looking from above, the outstretched arms reach slightly forward creating a shallow "v" shape which is echoed in the highly simplified face that is created by regularly carved, downward sloping lines meeting at the corner of the block that represents the head. The figure's right knee is raised, again in a series of diagonals that carry the movement across, in front of the torso creating a twist. This contrapposto, combined with the surprisingly gentle curve that starts at the hipline and swings up over the figure's right hip then over the thigh and the amazing "s" curve that travels from the top of one arm, across the torso to the bottom of the other arm frees the sculpture from a clunky stasis. Instead, the form conveys the feeling of a brief pause in a fluid, dance-like motion. Ju Ming's skillful ability to compliment flow with naturally stationary forms leads me, as the little branch did, to contemplate the above quote again. Flow is the subject for the clunky wood. Clunky wood is the object for the flow. But flow and clunky wood relate to one another through the emptiness, or perhaps, openness of the viewer. Well this Taichi figure looked at me, or through me, with that typical martial arts gaze and offered its own challenge, "Find one more."
I had one more piece to find, something that tied in with the commonalities of warm, brown color and wood as subject or material and something that could stand beside the other two works in engage-ability. As I circled around into another room I saw in the corner of my eye another human form, about eight inches high, carved of wood and finished with a similar warm sheen as the other two. It was created in 17th century CE China. Entitled Damo, it was a carving of Da Mo or Bodhidharma, a monk who became the First Patriarch of the Chinese School of Zen. Bodhidharma, or Da Mo, as legend has it, came from India, arriving in China in the year 527. After his message fell on deaf ears, he entered a cave at a Shao-lin temple and began a meditation known as "wall-gazing." He stayed there nine years before the first student arrived.
Compared to the little branch and Taichi, this sculpture is much more narrative. It is a carving of a well-known figure in Chinese tradition and as such it requires certain visual cues that identify it as Da Mo. Most depictions of Da Mo show a roundish, petulant, scruffily-bearded man wrapped in a robe or blanket, peering out at the viewer with wide, sometimes fierce eyes. This carving, however, diverges from that convention and shows Da Mo in serene meditation. In fact, the only thing that strongly links this sculpture with the legend is its base, which is in the form of a miniature cave. The figure is emaciated, every stylized bone and joint shows through the paper-thin skin and he seems to have too many ribs. The carving is linear and geometric because of the skeletal dominance of the form. He sits erect, one leg crossed under, the other knee is up with crossed wrists resting on it, all creating a framework of open triangles. The carving is full of delicate detail. The carefully carved fingers that rest on the leg end in long, neat nails. The only just perceptible beard and mustache is neatly stylized and the hair is rendered in minute detail as small, spiraling tufts that cover the entire head. The minimal draping of the figure enhances the effect of frailty and the vulnerability of the physical body. The face is gaunt and the wear of years is evident, yet the serenely closed eyes, upward turned mouth and upward arching brows evoke timelessness and an unending life-force.
Contrasting with the smoothly polished figure is the base which is rendered so differently from the figure it appears as a separate piece of wood but it is not. It represents the natural world of plant forms and rock and is darker and rougher than the figure. The "nest" of grasses that Da Mo sits on is rendered as long, thin leaves that radiate out from under him. The figure and his cushion of grasses are raised up and supported by a cleverly arranged group of stalactites and stalagmites that form a miniature cave system, open on all sides, which links the sculpture with the tradition of Da Mo.