This morning, Pierre Jardin took his slow time exercise in Liu Fang Yuan, The Garden of Flowing Fragrance, at the Huntington Library and Gardens. The tranquility of the garden in morning light, before other visitors arrive, creates a feeling of stillness that lulls time into an empty state of suspension—a void in direct tension with the density of detail, the sensual saturation, the energetic fullness of the place.
This scene, this slender slice carved out of the space of the garden, is a study in contrasts. The rock is bathed in light and shadow, its whole foraminate form forms a play of voids and volume, its holey-ness accentuated by the blue sky and bright bridge the recesses reveal. This Taihu limestone looks light, as if floating on the water, or drifting like a cloud; yet its mass provides a solid foreground, against the ethereal ephemerality of shimmering reflections.
Taihu rocks have been placed in emperors’ and scholar-officials’ gardens since at least the 3rd century BCE, and smaller stones sometimes having similar shapes, gōngshí or scholar rocks, have been mounted by literati on stands for contemplation. In the Daoist tradition, taihu rocks are valued for being concentrated configurations of qi, the breathing energy of the cosmos. The taihu stone, composed of limestone deposits formed in an ancient sea and then sculpted into distinctive shapes by water, suggests balanced oppositions between yang and yin, masculine strength and feminine moisture, material and mental stolidity versus yielding and following the path of least resistance, stillness and motion. When situated in gardens, taihu rocks, individually situated or piled into rockeries, were designed to evoke mountains.
Here, the rock rises up as if emerging out of the lake, embodying the landscape of rocks and water, for Daoists, the bones and blood/breath of the earth, respectively. Green water is prized for being “cloudy like jade,” and the semi-circular bridge completes itself in reflection, the round shape evoking the moon and perfection. The lotus flower is an emblem of one of the Daoist immortals (Ho Hsien-ku); its qualities make it a model of character: it rests modestly on the surface of the water; its pure white flowers emerge from mud; its subtle perfume spreads through the air; its purity it is to be appreciated at a respectful distance.
These are the “Taihu loomings” that passed through Pierre Jardin’s drifting mind–“loomings” meant as an echo of Melville’s title for chapter one of Moby-Dick, where the word evokes loomings in the mist, loomings of reflections in water, portentous hints of the white whale to come, loomings as weavings of words and ideas…. The Taihu stone looms large in the lake, and reverberates in Jardin’s watery brain.