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

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?