Qing Dynasty: Art of stone

An exhibition of naturally sculpted rocks from China's Qing Dynasty makes for the most mysterious show in Britain, says Tom Lubbock

What would you call it, if you had to call it something? An especially unruly, indeed, a raving, cabbage? A storm-riven sky, baroque clouds rolling with thunder? Or simply an explosion, with an upthrusting blast beneath, and an outburst spreading above? This object is about half-a-metre high, and it's made of black Lingbi stone, though "made of" may not be quite the right phrase. It's supported on a smooth wooden base, which has a bubbly surface, and five neat feet. What on earth is it?

You don't see that many of them in Western galleries, but their generic name is scholars' rocks, or sometimes viewing stones. They come from China and they may be from the 17th century or later. The idea is that they're natural rocks, of a particular quality, acquired by members of the intelligentsia, to be displayed on tables, for purposes that are enigmatic. Recently, they have started to be collected in the West. The British Museum has one – only one – and it's among the eight now showing in a small exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds: Objects of Contemplation – Natural Sculptures from the Qing Dynasty. It's the most mysterious show I've seen in months.

Natural sculptures? They're all grouped together under the same glass box, like zoo or circus animals, bits of found nature on plinths. Some of them are stones with a wriggling, jagged, puckered texture. Some have more fluid bodies. Some of these so-called rocks are pieces of wood. One looks like a richly veined pebble, for example, but is actually petrified wood. Two were clearly branches. But whichever, the relationship between nature and sculpture – and between rocks and their bases – is complicated.

The rocks (or "rocks") are all authentic natural objects. It's important that they are. They're valued for forms that are not handmade. On the other hand, they are not random pickings. They're chosen according to human standards. They qualify as "fantastic rocks": something strange, special. And often, having been chosen, they're "completed" by human hand too, with a little improving carving. And finally – a further complication – the hand-finished object may be soaked in water to soften and renaturalise its surface. The desired effect is a combination of the irregular and regular, happy accident and hidden design.

Most of the rocks also have these dark wooden pedestals or settings, which add another level or two. They are clearly created objects, carved and smoothed. They're shaped into forms that you'd call organic, but it can be very stylised organic. The base of that stormy rock is bubbly, ie its surface suggests a hot spring or a bog, with bubbles swelling and occasionally popping. But it might equally be only a pattern. The rock from the British Museum itself has a quite chaotic shape. But its base has a curling carving that is heraldic in its formality. It represents apparently a fungus.

So we have a rich dialogue of nature and sculpture, a dialogue conducted between the rock and the base, and within each element. The rock is essentially a natural object that is being drawn towards being a sculpture. Meanwhile, the base is a carving that is imitating – to greater or lesser degree – the forms of nature. The two realms are nearly meeting in the middle. Though we shouldn't forget that the hard wood base was originally a bit of raw nature too.

Beyond that, it's clear that some rocks are being valued for their abstract character. A standard list of excellences names four desirable qualities: "thinness", "transparency", "perforations", "wrinkles". Transparency really means lightness, airiness, hollowness. A piece of Qilian stone here is admirably transparent – it has a great hole in the middle of it. Other rocks, on the other hand, have been picked for their figurative tendencies. Though originally unfashioned, they happen to resemble something. Another piece here – the rock-plus-base – is titled Goose Sitting on a Nest.

The base is used there to affirm the likeness. And it's natural to wonder if in every case there's some connection between base and rock. There's another Lingbi stone, for example, which looks like the rising flames of a roaring fire, and perhaps the found natural likeness has been sculpted up a little to emphasis it more. Seeing it that way, you could go on to see its base as a bit of ground on which some twigs have been laid (an abstractish version, anyway). The whole piece is a campfire?

By this point, you may be getting inklings of familiarity. Since the show is in the Henry Moore Institute, you may think of how some Modernist British artists were drawn to the beauties of the beach, picked up pebbles and took them back to the studio. That was nature as sculpture? Up to a point. But the aesthetics were remote. Flint pebbles were loved for their rounded solidity, nature as pure simplicity. By comparison the scholars' rocks are a rarity, a kind of luxury, nature as sophistication. The Modernists wouldn't have dreamt of "completing" its found stones. As for giving them an elegant base – as the pseudo-pebble here has – it would be an outrage.

But try another parallel: think of the man in his shed, with his lathe and his plane, his rasp and his chisel. He looks out for interesting pieces of wood, seasons them, and lops and buffs them up into, say, a lampstand. (I got one as a wedding present.) This shed man is certainly starting from authentic natural beauty. But he has no compunction about making improvements. He probably adds a base.

If the comparison seems a bit undignifed, it also seems more accurate. There's a piece here, Jichimu Wood Sculpture in the Shape of an Eagle on a Rock, which is essentially a classy version of what the hobbyist makes. The Chinese craftsman has found a likeness, and worked the likeness up a bit into a nice bit of polished wood. Equally though, with no craft at all, arising simply from perception, there are countless mountains around the world named after what their shapes suggest.

Or if you want to get back up into higher art, think of Leonardo. He recommends artists to ponder on random damp patches on a wall, so as to get new ideas for compositions. Perhaps this is how the scholars' rocks can work. They needn't hold any specific lucky likeness. Rather, they could be opportunities for the free play of imagination. They're a 3D version of pictures in clouds and flames. You're to dwell on them, let the mind open.

With scholars' rocks, who knows? We may suspect that any sense of familiarity is misleading – or again, that that suspicion is itself misleading. These pieces enact a drama between nature and the human. Where it stands in the drama is hard to tell. (That's what makes it so fascinating.) Perhaps they display the amity between natural form and what the human hand can make. Perhaps these fantastic bits of stone and wood are points where nature shows itself in perfect tune with our tastes and imaginations.

Or is nature an alien? Is the point of these pieces a blank paradox, a category mistake? Nature is shown as if it were sculpture so we can see the difference between the meaningful and the meaningless. That was certainly the first impression: wild objects in captivity, tamed on pedestals, but beyond our ken.

Objects of Contemplation: Natural Sculptures from the Qing Dynasty, Henry Moore Institute, the Headrow, Leeds (0113 246 7467) to 7 March, free admission