|one taste: (n)ever-changing
Essay by Tom Normand
Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.
The Heart Sutra
David Williams has recently travelled in Japan where he has photographed trees and garden spaces within the ancient Buddhist temples. The resulting series of photographs one taste (n)ever changing delivers a meditation on nature, time and change, that evokes the esoteric koans of Buddhist teaching. Simultaneously, they echo the sometimes discrete and often subtle themes in Williams’ extensive catalogue of photographic work.
The precise location of these particular triptychs is a tree-lined pathway that runs alongside the walls of the Tofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto. The temple remains, today, the principle shrine for the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. Established in 1236 it became one of the Five Great Temples of Kyoto and survived centuries of turmoil to be recognised as a national treasure. The many gardens within the temple complex, formal spaces of raked stone set against asymmetric plantings of moss and shrub, are archetypes of Zen cosmography.
Something of this character is reflected in Williams’ photographs. Formally, the series of eight triptychs respect a precise and elegant structure. The central image in each triptych shows the trunk of a tree. Not the flame-leafed maple trees that Tofuku-ji is famed form but a tree of the cedar genus. Cryptmeria Japonica. The trunk rises, imperiously, in he exact centre of the photograph. Cropped at the base, and again before the first branches define the tree’s canopy, the trunk forms an axis for the drama of light and shade that unfolds through the series of triptychs. For, in this sequence, each photograph is taken at a different point in time and the passing sun reflects the dappled shadow of branch and leaf onto the garden wall of the temple.
This ghost image is the only evidence of the chaos of nature that exists outside of the picture frame. Internally, there is a fusion of austere regular patterns; the strict vertical tree trunk, the ordered horizontal striations of the garden wall, the authoritative line of the foundation kerb. This last generates a compositional centre, for, combined with the vertical of the tree trunk, it creates a perfectly symmetrical cross. Each central panel, then, is divided into four exact quarters. Such a strict formal geometry might appear to contradict the core subject in these photographs; the profoundly natural symbol of a tree shooting upwards from the marbled scree and moss of the desiccated earth. In fact, the rigid formalisation of these images is designed to connote the dialogue between nature and culture, permanence and change, form and emptiness, which sits at the heart of these photographs.
These themes are presented, at many levels, throughout the series of eight triptychs. Read as a linear narrative the images unfold as a passage in time. From the cool blue light of the morning the photographs brighten in the rising sun, and subtle shades of yellow and orange colour the scene. As darkness falls a softer blue light tints the image, a light infused with the red of the sunset. Here, the shadow pattern of leaves meld into a uniform darkening silhouette. This linear reading is contradicted, however, in the manipulation of the triptych panels. Williams has created these triptychs by isolating the sections of each image to the left and to the right of the tree trunk and reproducing these scenes as the flanking panels. But, in each case, the section that sits to the right of the trunk is reproduced as the left hand panel while the section to the left of the trunk is presented as the right hand panel. The linear progression, the sense of time unfolding, is made to turn back on itself so that present, past, and future become one ‘(n)ever-changing’ thing.
The conundrum of this dualistic idea is echoed throughout these images. Not only in the juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical framing, but in the contrast of patterned earth and tree-trunk with the uniform flattened wall. Less explicitly, though more powerfully, the material shadow play of sunlight and leaves. Here, the thing that is not represented in the photograph is conjured as an echo, or more properly as a spectre. In this sense, absence and presence co-exist simultaneously.
Evidently, throughout this series of pictures Williams is focussing on those mysterious Zen-inspired themes that emerge within the context of his experience of the temple gardens. In summary he presents a meditation upon the idea that a thing may be both itself and its other, that the material and the immaterial are one, that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. This interpretation is no mere fancy for any reading of Williams’ photographic archive will see these themes surface time upon time. His recent suite of photographs titled Stillness and Occurrence offers a sensual, and profoundly beautiful, exploration of the moment when the physical world can be seen to dissolve. In these works the real becomes ethereal. Earlier projects, like the brooding and melancholy series “Is”: Ecstasies I-XXII presents a darkened world constantly on the edge of becoming an empty void. Even the early ‘documentary’ projects continually offered juxtapositions of youth and age, idealism and cynicism, joy and sorrow, which conjured with dialectical oppositions. The synthesis of events in all these projects was the sense of things always changing, and always being the same. This is the synthesis so completely expressed in the ‘(n)ever changing’ variations in these most recent garden images.
While it is appropriate to view these photographs within the context of Williams’ internal development as an artist, it is also important to see them as a continuum within the traditions of photography. As a photographer Williams has produced work that is markedly in the ‘fine art’ tradition. Take, for example, the colour-field abstraction of his series Findings…Bitter-Sweet, these all point to a fine art aesthetic working within the photographic medium. In consequence it might be said he is creating a contemporary Pictorialism, and resurrecting the unresolved ambitions of those eminent photographers working at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.
There is a deeper coincidence here. There existed a profound influence of a Japanese aesthetic upon the first generation of Pictorialists. The finest of the Scottish Pictorialists, James Craig Annan, produced a host of images that were rooted in a love of Eastern mysticism and the fashionable Japonisme of his time. More particularly the anglophile American. Alvin Langdon Coburn, sourced many of his finest photographs on a Zen-inspired Japanese aesthetic taught him by his countryman, the influential Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow had introduced Coburn to the woodblock prints of the Japanese priest Sesshu, and Coburn’s refined and subtle Pictorialism has its roots in this learning.
In Japan, Williams was to visit Tokyo and Yamaguchi as well as the temples in Kyoto. Yamaguchi, a modern city, is close to the site of the Joei-ji Temple with its famous garden. The garden was designed and created by the fifteenth century Zen master Sesshu, a priest, an artist, and a mystic. Consequently, the series one-taste (n)ever changing has, as a companion piece, two related triptych images. These each show a single young, willowy, sapling surrounded by a dark mass of shrub and foliage. These triptychs, works in progress really, were taken in Sesshu’s garden, and they correspond with the series of eight triptychs. These represent, as it were, the ‘form’ of nature, chaotic and mysterious. They provide the perfect counterpoint to the strict formal geometries of ‘one-taste’ and complete the dialectic of oppositions established in the core project. Oppositions, of course, which meld into one unique and esoteric synthesis.
Significantly, the type of synthesis proposed in Williams’ current project lay, also, at the centre of the holistic world-view promoted by the radical Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes. Geddes; holistic vision would incorporate not only the installation of a panoramic camera obscura in his designated sociological laboratory. The Outlook Tower on Edinburgh’s Castle Hill, but would extend to the production of the symbolist journal Evergreen which ran to four editions from 1895-96. Here he was to promote a Japonisme in illustration allied to a philosophical synergism; specifically the notion of a organic unity in natural and human life. In consequence the cover of Geddes’ Evergreen would be decorated with a symbolic tree of life motif, an image echoed in Williams’ current work. And, Geddes would introduce the extraordinary koan ‘by leaves we live’ into his farewell addess as Dundee University’s first Professor of Botany (2). This mysterious idea reverberates through Williams’ latest project where it is discretely expressed as the intimate connections of nature and life realised in the synergy of process and being.
These new works by David Williams, then, move some way towards completing a journey he began with his earliest photographs. They help realise the essential mysticism at the core of his vision. Their formal cohesion, dark spirituality, and lyrical symbolism, conjure with those essential enigmas at the very heart of modern life. Simultaneously, for all their connections to fifteenth century Japan and nineteenth century Europe, they provoke an insight that is entirely contemporary. Their mood is ethereal, open, infinite, and inviting. In this way they present and re-present the puzzle of their title ‘one taste: (n)ever-changing’.
1. See Mike Weaver, Alvin Langdon Coburn: Symbolist Photographer, New York, 1986.
2. See Amelia Defries, The Interpreter Geddes: the Man and His Gospel, London, 1927. P 175
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