Cultural Technique in Creative Practice: Exploring Cultural Embodiment in the Movement of the Body in a Studio Space

Peng Liu

Abstract



Figure 1: Peng Liu, Body Techniques. Photograph. (2014).

As an academic researcher as well as practicing artist, I am interested in my bodily movement/techniques in the actions of painting which inevitably reflects the institutions enacted upon my body as representation of Chinese culture/society, and also highlight my individual practice as an artist in response to the world. According to Shilling (10-12), Turner (197), Douglas (68-78) and Mauss (75), the body is historically inherited and culturally embodied. My bodily experience of wandering in the space of the Forbidden City is mediated by its historical and cultural formations, as Turner notes that human beings “are simultaneously part of nature and part of culture […] and culture shapes and mediates nature…nature constitutes a limit in human agency” (197). Specifically, my body is affected by the concept of grand unification which is reflected in its actions and reactions. It is interested in the Confucian conditions of the limits to what is possible in the techniques of painting and how the techniques of painting rely upon and resist the grand unification promised by Confucian thought. Every action, as Douglas notes, “always sustaining a particular set of cultural meanings, a particular social order” (68).

The concept of grand unification is apparent in the space of the Forbidden City in that the design of every courtyard is in hierarchical relation to each other, not only physically connected and distinguished through hidden doorways, corridors, and verandas, but also the styles and plants suggesting their coherency within/to the city as the head of the hierarchical society. My body responds to the architectural space in certain ways whereby visual perception and tactile experience of touching surfaces of wooden columns, cornerstones, and fallen roof tiles consolidate the interactions of my body with the space under the concept, as my body is forming its techniques to approach corners and details.

The Forbidden City represents a dynamic fusion or hybrid setting. It is an eastern historical and cultural precinct as much as a symbol of western economic and technological exchange. Because of its particularity as the continued power centre of the nation, the Forbidden City becomes a material form of memory, like a portal to access the past. As much as immaterial form, the Forbidden City generates viewers’ affective and intuitive responses allowing the viewers to imagine ancient time and space even though they are physically in present time and space.

My everyday bodily actions, embodied with historical thought and culture means as being a “cultural men” (Merleau-Ponty 7), or a cultural meme, may obtain rich sensations and experience through multiple senses in the space of the Forbidden City; however the everyday body and its actions may inadequate in expressing the bodily experience in studio. While Merleau-Ponty describes the relationship between lived object and post-impressionist painter: “The lived object (in nature) is not rediscovered or constructed on the basis of the contributions of the (human) senses; rather, it presents itself to us from the start” (5), his words imply the actions of expression in painting may require different techniques from everyday life. And Frenhofer notes the role of hand as bodily technique in studio: “A hand is not simply part of the body (in everyday perspective), but the expression and continuation of a thought which must be captured and conveyed” (Frenhofer cited in Merleau-Ponty 7), and result in brushstrokes.

Apart from being social and cultural, therefore, my everyday habitual actions are re-thought and expanded to form a new series of bodily techniques in studio in order to express my bodily experience in the space. Body techniques in studio are not only cultural embodied as representation of social contexts, but also artistic – being individual in response to the world.

And paint (painting) is the documentation of my body movement/techniques in studio space, as James Elkins notes: “Paint is a cast made of the painter’s movements, a portrait of the painter’s body and thoughts […] (it) records the most delicate gesture and the most tense (tensest) […] (and) tells whether the painter sat or stood or crouched in front of the canvas” (5). Each brushstroke reflects particular bodily techniques formed in studio which is the combination of both cultural embodiment and artistic expression that would barely appeared in everyday life.

As a practicing artist who was trained under the influence of the concept of the grand unification, I was taught to paint relationships on canvas as one of many ways to handle the medium. Every colours and brushstrokes, painted in terms of tones, perspectives, and size of brushstrokes build the relationships in between in order to construct a coherent system which balances positive and negative shapes. There is no such “right or wrong” colour/brushstrokes. There are only appropriate or inappropriate colour/brushstrokes. The dynamics of the painting is reshuffled with every colour/brushstrokes painted on canvas at a time. Painting is a process of constant balancing. As Bernard said, “each stroke must ‘contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style.’ Expressing what exists is an endless task” (Bernard cited in Maurice Merleau-Ponty 5). And the task of expressing on canvas is not the showcase of our visual ability in capture shapes and colours from nature or memories, but is to see how my next brushstroke interacts with the existing marks on canvas. The photos taken in the space, may help to recall memories at first place, would have little to do with the actions to painting in studio as soon as the first brushstroke is laid.

The Concept of Grand Unification in Everyday Embodied Body Movement and My Body Techniques in Studio Space

The concept of grand unification is understood as Dao, which originated from Laozi founder of Daoism and has variable interpretations one of which appeared as communality in some English translations. The grand unification was advocated by major ancient philosophies such as: Confucianism, Daoism, Mohism, and in processes like Legalism, in China to reflect the philosophers’ understanding about the world. For example, Confucius points out: 天下有道,则礼乐征伐自天子出 (“if the nation is unified under one centre, the nation is in good shape”). This implication of the concept of grand unification in politics encouraged centralization, which is fulfilling god’s will according to Daoism.

Liu Che, the Wu emperor in Han dynasty, adopted Dong Zhongshu’s suggestion in Interactions between Heaven and Mankind, to 罢黜百家,独尊儒术  (“venerate Confucianism, meanwhile, ban the rest of philosophies and ideologies inherited from the Warring state period”). This political move established Confucianism as the only official ideology in China, which applied the grand unification in cultural/ideological perspective.

The idea of the grand unification is interpreted and embedded in daily life, forming a set of body techniques in relation to the hierarchical society, for example, the mid-autumn festival which is one of the two most important festivals in China. By using the astronomical phenomena of the full moon as both a symbol and a metaphor, moon in full, represent the nation in unification as well as a family reunion.

In terms of Confucian values, every common person should reunite with their family to celebrate the festival by having a family feast. The feast not only gathers the family, but also suggests the nation which is seen as a big family that shall be unified too, for example many poems from the Tang and Song Dynasty are themed on the full moon to express their nostalgia as well as the wish of a unified nation. Such as poet Li Bai wrote in Tang dynasty: 举头望明月,低头思故乡 (“I raised my head and looked out on the mountain moon; I bowed my head and thought of my far-off home”). Moon cake is one of the festival foods made in the shape of full moon as a symbol of perfection in family reunion.

Even for those people who do trading far away from home all year round, they must make their way back home in time for the family feast to celebrate and express their filial piety, which is one of essentials in Confucianism. The very first evidence of body technique occurs when the family members literally step across the doorsill back from business trip when they greet parents straight way in the principal room. A well educated person under the value of Confucianism would salute his parents with formal/full ketou in expressing filial piety. This form of address was considered “rituals of abject servitude” (181) by James L. Hevia. There were nine types of ketou which, as body techniques, were applied in everyday life and highlighted the hierarchical society orientated by the centralization.

The actions of ketou involve everyone’s physical participation and cultural engagement with the idea of centralization so that the philosophical content of the idea behind the phenomenon is inscribed into common bodies. The everyday accumulated bodily memories and experience of participating in the idea drives the bodies to behave accordingly and technically and impacts upon the bodies to reinforce the ideology over and over again. The concept of grand unification is widely accepted and implemented in the nation as cultural reference, which discipline every body into a fixed role in the hierarchical society, as Michel Foucault describes culture “a hierarchical organization of values, accessible to everybody, (and) at the same time the occasion of a mechanism of selection and exclusion” (173). The senses of grand unification in the hierarchical society became a part of the national identity in centuries, not only as abstract concept but also as concrete culture embodiment in every action of everybody on daily base.

With such cultural means inherited, my bodily movement in action to painting dedicatedly place and adjust every brushstroke in relation to the existing marks in order to construct a collective and systematic world. My brushstrokes, as James Elkins notes, are “the evidence of the artist’s manual devotion to his image” (3) which provide the balance between the sense of stability created by the composition and the sense of infinite possibilities created by the subtlety of the colour. (Figure 2) There is neither strong contrast in using colours, nor sharp edges painted, as the air I painted not only has softened every object, but also has integrated every object into the holistic atmosphere. The world is “a mass without gaps” (Merleau-Ponty 5) and the ultimate purpose of grand unification underneath its hierarchical structure is in ever pursuit of a virtuous circle – a mystical interpretation and expectation about the world in order in terms of Chinese ancient philosophy. The scene of painting “is not just one of my visual perceptions recalled from memory but a bodily experience as participant in the scene” (Liu 25) and my cultural embodiment which are expressed and translated through body techniques into the language of painting in studio. The constantly moving body perceives the colour of the space as infinite, and it seems as though the space itself vibrates.

 

Figure 2: Peng Liu, The Forbidden City Study Series Two. Oil on canvas, 100cm x 170cm. Photo: Peng Liu (2010).

While I physically explores and forms my very own techniques (as the language of painting), the intention on applying certain body techniques to ensure the painters’ understanding and to create an appropriate artwork is historical inherited. For example, in early tenth century, Jing Hao firstly theorized types of brushstrokes, called 笔法记 (The Theory of Brushstrokes in Chinese Landscape Painting), for depicting different objects accordingly. The theorized brushstrokes specify particular bodily movements for depicting certain objects, such as the fingers in variable ways of holding Chinese brushes and the pressure of hand’s strength put into each brushstroke. The theorized bodily movements/techniques would create sufficient communication and establish a hierarchical relation in between depicted objects, which translate the painter’s cultural understanding of the grand unification into the expression of Chinese landscape painting.

Certainly, the sense of grand unification in Chinese landscape painting can be achieved in many methods and different techniques according to each individual artist. For instance, Guo Xi’s painting techniques, called “the angle of totality” or “floating perspective” which displaces the static eye of viewers by producing multiple perspectives in two-dimensional scroll painting, as his artistic interpretation of the sense of grand unification. (Figure 3) Guo, cited in R. M. Barnhart (372), describes the objects relation realized in his techniques: 山以水为血脉,以草木为毛发,以烟云为神采,故山得水而活 […] 水得山而媚 (“Mountain and water come alive through the mutual endorsement on each other. Water makes mountain vibrant; and mountain makes water vigorous”).

Figure 3: Guo Xi. Early Spring. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk. 158.3 x 108.1. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (1072).

And Guo's paper “Mountains and Waters”, cited in Grousset, notes: “The clouds and the vapours of real landscapes are not the same at the four seasons. In spring they are light and diffused, in summer rich and dense, in autumn scattered and thin, and in winter dark and solitary. When such effects can be seen in pictures, the clouds and vapours have an air of life” (195). Every lived object become full of vigour by the interaction with other lived object depicted together to create a sense of coherence as whole. The vibrant communications between depicted objects reinforce the aliveness of individuals within the atmosphere of the painting. The virtuous circle appears. Moreover, his painting express double meanings that not only eulogize the dynamic scene created by the relationship between every depicted object, but also imply the concept of grand unification that every object is supposed to play their own part, to be appropriate in the centralized atmosphere.

Under the influence of the concept and with the awareness of body techniques in terms of Chinese painting, my body has brought its cultural habits into the studio while interrogate its own process of translation of the bodily experience into the language of painting through bodily movement. In particular, by depicting in paint the colour of the light, temperature, and atmosphere of spaces that are shaped by buildings, and how bodies interact with these affects, it is like unfolding communications on the canvas about what happens between my body and the space of the Forbidden City. My body, when making paintings, then, becomes a vehicle for expressing my remembered bodily responses to the resonances of the space. And through the compositional construction of the image, I am, or my body is able to find the best combination between colours, lines and forms to interpret those experiences/stories all under the unified voice. In the process of translating, from idea to object, the movement/techniques of my body help me to revive those bodily experiences from the space of the Forbidden City. During the constant movement of my arm and my hand, holding the brushes, I look for the best moment to leave a brushstroke on the canvas in the most appropriate angle. Every move of my body along with every colour left on the canvas is the representation of the ideology that my cultural embodied body from history creates the painting.

The movement of my physical body in studio enacts my cultural body in the sense of provoking memories of the inscribed experience and embodied knowledge from the space of the Forbidden City to colonize the studio. The dynamics of the studio assimilate into the space of the Forbidden City, not through some display objects such as printed photos taken in the space, but through my body’s physical and cultural presence in actions to painting. Apart from interacting with brushstrokes, the bodily movement also involve the rest of the studio into actions, such as wall, lights, tables, palette, little things placed behind easels, and the air around my bodies which are inevitably caught in my sight as background while travelling between canvas and palette. The bodily actions in studio, as Merleau-Ponty notes, “is a process of expression […] to grasp the nature of what appears to us in a confused way and to place it (on canvas) before us as a recognizable object” (6). Such bodily movement and techniques housed within, which may be differentiated from everyday actions, are culturally embodied and individual artistic. Therefore, as result of it, the painting, as a technique, becomes a post-colonial, which indicates the embodied knowledge and experience colonized in, as a material form of memory at the same time as an immaterial form to generate viewers’ affective and intuitive responses by allowing the viewers to imagine.

To continually consider the painting as the techniques of my bodily movement in studio, the rhythm of my painting (constructed by composition, colour, and brush marks) is connected with my variable perceptions sensed in the space, reflecting my bodily experience, and affecting my viewers through its pictorial depiction. My use of colour is subtle, vivid and individualized, as the original colours of the buildings merely serves as a reference point. (Figure 4) Specifically, the colours shown in my paintings display a collection of colours that my body perceives while moving in the space at a particular time; rather than the actual colour of the paint on the building itself perceived through a fixed geometric or photographic perspective. This is called “the lived perspective” (Cezanne cited in Merleau-Ponty 4), emphasising on expressing the colours perceived by my body constantly changing in subtle ways with every step my body taken in the space over a period of time. And “this visual rhythm is the translation of my bodily experience in the space, not only representing a still scene at a specific moment, but also visualizing a set of body movements/techniques accumulated in the space over a period of time” (Liu 25-26); as well as in studio.

Figure 4: Peng Liu. The Forbidden City Study Series Three. Oil on canvas. 170cm x 300cm. Photo: Peng Liu (2013).

Conclusion

Acknowledging my body is historically inherited and culturally embodied as the result of participating in different societies and my bodily experience is perceived “through the mediation of cultural categories” (Douglas 68); “it is certain that a person’s life does not explain his (art) work” (Merleau-Ponty 8). My body techniques in dealing with everyday society are re-thought and expanded in studio space, which highlight my bodily movement not only representing my body as cultural embodied being, but also exposing my individual as an artist in response to the world.

References

Barnhart, R.M., et al. Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Confucius. The Analects of Confucius. Trans. P, Liu. No. 16. Written 770-476BC.

Dong, Zhongshu. 天人策 [Interactions between Heaven and Mankind]. Written 179-104BC.

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Elkins, James. What Painting Is. New York: Routledge, 1998. 3-5.

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Grousset, Rene. The Rise and Splendour of the Chinese Empire. Barnes & Noble Inc, 1995.

Guo, Xi. 林泉高致集 – 山水训 [Chinese Landscape]. 1020-1090AD.

Hevia, James L. “Sovereignty and Subject: Constituting Relations of Power in Qing Guest Ritual.” Body, Subject & Power in China. Eds. Angela Zito and Tani E. Barlow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Jing, Hao. 笔法记 [The Theory of Brushstrokes in Chinese Landscape Painting]. Written 923-936AD.

Li, Bai. 静夜思 [On a Quiet Night]. Trans. S. Obata.

Liu, Peng. “The Impact of Space upon the Body in the Forbidden City: From the Perspective of Art.” Body Tensions: Beyond Corporeality in Time and Space. UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2014. 22-34.

Mauss, Marcel. “Techniques of the Body.” The Body: A Reader. Edited by Mariam Fraser and Monica Greco, New York: Routledge, 2005.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “Cezanne’s Doubt.” Sense and Non-Sense. Trans. Hubert and Patricia Dreyfus. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964. 9-25.

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Turner, Bryan S. The Body & Society Second Edition. London: SAGE Publication, 1996.


Keywords


Body technique; Cultural embodiment; Creative practice



Copyright (c) 2015 Peng Liu

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