Chen + Miller : East - West | Nick Miller

First published in "Chen + Miller : East - West" by The Model, Sligo. 2002.

S-Chen-carving-b_w S_Diamond-Sutra(w)
Chen ZhongSen Carving in Meditation & The Diamond Sutra, 40 x 50 mm. Microcarving. Collection of Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

East -West

For a painter any attempt to explain the origin of work or an exhibition is often unwise. In this case, it is also as difficult as explaining how or why my co-exhibitor, Chen Zhongsen can carve poems down the length of a single strand of silver hair taken from his wife’s head. Words will not add to or take away from the peculiar experience of engaging one of his meditative micro carvings nor can they elucidate my surprise at the figurative watercolours I made in response to some eastern learning. Despite this, I am compelled towards some account, to clear my head and to point the curious viewer in directions that they can explore alone.1 However, as I am neither an academic or oriental specialist, I am thinking aloud: it is the bias of my curiosity and thirst for learning in relation to painting that has brought our two worlds together and led to these shows.

Trying to understand eastern thought and what it offers is more an attitude to being than an accumulation of information with answers at the end. Defying de-construction, it stands and falls on human nature, not an external God as creator or the analytical and logical reasoning that are the foundations of western thought. It centres on an individual’s ‘practice’ at ‘being’ to generate meaning. While this is hard for the western scientific mind to comprehend, many artists can recognise this relationship between practice and meaning. This attitude is the very heart of difference between East and West.

A similar difficulty of comprehension and illusive quality resides at the centre of great art in the western tradition. That is where we have guarded that energy, separate and focused in the internal dynamics of painting, novel or symphony because it defies the prevailing logic of linear progress. Great art in the Chinese tradition is functionally different, inseparable from philosophy, part of the ‘art of living’. So while traditional Chinese art may appear exotic to the western eye, it reflects thousands of years of ‘non-linear’ wisdom emerging from Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, all fundamental to Chinese civilisation and culture.2

Scholars tell us that the oriental mind is characterised by a symbolic imagination. It is rooted in the visual nature of the written language, where word characters are derived from symbolic depictions of the idea they represent. The resulting calligraphy is as much a visual art as a conceptual communication. Chinese thought is spherical or synthetic; no one part can be analytically progressed as a separate to the whole (not so different from the act of painting itself). This is the foundation of Taoism and the principle of polarity without opposition.3 In Chinese, the poles are known as Yang (positive) and Yin (negative). In other cultures, good is seen to be at war with evil, life with death, and the positive with the negative, aiming to cultivate the former to eliminate the latter. In Taoist thought this does not make sense, for as with an electric current you must have both positive and negative poles to function, different aspects of one system. Eliminating one would mean the end of both. The universe is understood in terms of the mutually responsive movement between polarities, the masculine in the feminine, and the feminine in the masculine. Being emerges from non-being, action from non-action, like sound from silence. ‘Non-action’ or ‘Wu Wei’ is a core concept of Taoism, described here by Martin Buber as:

“The teaching that genuine effecting is not interfering, not giving vent to power, but remaining within one’s self. This is the powerful existence that does not yield historical success, that is, the success that can be exploited and registered in this hour, but only yields that effecting that at first appears insignificant, indeed invisible, yet endures across generations and there at times becomes perceptible in another form”. 4

I believe that the power of the Chinese knowledge that is central to understanding Chen’s work is in the practical paths it offers to endlessly cultivate human potential with nothing other than the self. Disciplines of meditation and movement aimed at achieving full ‘awakening’ are focused on the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. For the artist in any culture, consciously or not, this is the daily ground of activity - the transformation of material and energy through human action in response to the world. So while there are chasm gaps between Chen and I in our respective worlds and intentions; our strongest link is in the primacy of our concerns with human energy - painting, carving or drawing with a brush or simple tool as a direct extension of the body and mind.

Proposition of calm: The work of Chen Zhongsen

Chen’s landscape paintings propose art as nature. All artifice, art, and human action are felt to be the same as a natural or spontaneous action. The technique is one of no technique, a discipline of the “controlled accident”, of doing exactly the right thing without force or self-conscious intention at the right moment. Our senses receive endless impressions and in response, we experience continual desires and confusion. It is Chen’s view from the Buddhist tradition that you can’t see a true reflection in turbulent water and that you need to cultivate your energy and train your heart for an internal stillness, peace and calm, so that all reality can be clearly reflected. Painting emerges from this stillness, more a natural emission than effort at control or wilful construction: A proposition of calm.

In Chen’s paintings, the classical visual grammar of mountains, rivers, bamboo boats, clouds and small animal or human presence reflect the philosophy of Taoism, the natural flow of Yin and Yang as The Tao (way/guide) for man to follow. They also reflect a real, if partial, iconography of rural China where he paints. As an artist, he wishes to create images of beauty, offerings, in which your mind can find peace. Despite these strong roots, his work is evolving in its use of paint and colour away from the strictly traditional, slowly absorbing his experiences of the west and seeking ways to extend the boundaries of his painting.

The extraordinary micro carvings represent polar opposites to the technological logic board of our most advanced microcomputer: ‘Hand made’, they rely not on leaps forward in science and technology, but on leaps into the interior world of human activity. They are executed with eyes closed, using a fine steel engraver; there are no tricks, lenses, or mechanics. It is an art, based in Buddhist meditation and ancient Chinese breathing and energy cultivation exercises known collectively as ‘Qigong’. These allow the practitioner to follow and direct ‘Qi’ (breath/energy) along the paths described by Chinese physiology (in Traditional Chinese Medicine).5 Chen Zhongsen was introduced to Qigong early, by a traditional doctor, an uncle, who taught him exercises to cure a serious liver complaint. After regaining health, he continued practising Qigong, finding a mental and physiological state of extreme calm - slowing his heart rate and breathing to almost nothing, so giving him the unique level of control he has at this microscopic scale of activity. The nearest technological equivalent would be a laser surgeon visualising his work on a computer screen as he controls microscopic laser tools inside the human body. For Chen however, the laser is his own energy channelled through the body to the tip of steel, and the screen, is the text or image he visualises during meditation.

Chen carves major Taoist, Buddhist texts and classical poems on an incomprehensibly small scale so as to be almost invisible to the naked eye and certainly unreadable without strong magnification, even if you read Chinese. This suggests both the power and intangibility of the content, and reminds us that reading is only a small part of a process of understanding that is simultaneously physical, mental, and spiritual. On stones measuring only a few centimetres, he has carved full versions of major texts including: The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu,6 containing over 5,300 Chinese characters, The Diamond Sutra7 with 5,200 characters and The Art of War by Sun Tzu8 has over 7,000 characters [plates 12, 6, & 14]. Other works such as the remarkable Tang Dynasty poems carved on a human hair [plate 1] remind us with a sense of awe how little we know of human potential. Seen enlarged, they are flawless calligraphy and images of great intensity and strength. The carvings of are not like miniatures, they operate as if the space was immaterial, their intensity giving them an opposing sense of the monumental. They speak with a purity that is oddly unacceptable to contemporary art, in which we are still largely bound to notions of progress and historical success.

Innocence: Tai Ji watercolours (1999-2000)

As a teenager in London, I bought a book on Tai Ji Quan (Tai Chi Chuan) which is a Chinese martial art - type of meditation and practice for energy cultivation.9I was fascinated by the faded black and white photographs of elderly men in the poses that make up these ancient sets of movement. At fifteen, trying to decipher the complex indications of weight, angle, and balance, I could briefly imagine Bruce Lee before losing the plot in favour of the attractions of more ready stimulation.

Much later, living in rural Co Sligo, I felt challenged by the unavoidable implications of facing nature. My accidental re-discovery of Tai Ji fitted like a strange old glove, uncovering a system of knowledge that strengthened and renewed my experience of living and painting. Like painting, the learning is as much physical as philosophical and cultural, a daily practice with occasional quantum leaps of enlightenment. It has many other similarities: unforced self-discipline, endless return to the beginning, awareness of flow and use of energy, and, the intuitive adjustment of external form to accord with internal truth.

I have often asserted my need to paint in response to a direct encounter with the ‘other’, working only in the presence of the subject (be it a person or tree). In this process, I sometimes find an intense reality or ‘wholeness’ that gives meaning to life.10Tai Ji teaches that living this connection can be practiced. This kind of intuitive knowledge that is felt rather than thought is often the most exciting, It has a parallel in sexual union, one of the few times we intuitively melt into a unity with the world beyond the self, and are as nature.11It is no coincidence that Taoism, by recognising “Jing” (sexual essence or body) as our vital and creative energy, focuses on its cultivation and transformation through “Qi” (energy or breath) training for higher purposes of “Shen” (mind - spirit).12

These watercolours owe many debts to others, not least those people who, as ‘sitters’, endured their making. However, the strongly visual teaching of Chungliang Al Huang,13with whom I have intermittently studied Tai Ji (and its energetic relationship to calligraphy), was seminal. The ‘one-stroke’ circle and various other Taoist symbolic forms which unexpectedly found their way into these paintings come directly from his teaching and my learning [see opposite, p 12]. These works were my first attempts at a practiced relationship between embodied energy and fluid line- a kind of ‘do-it-yourself’ figurative calligraphy.

In Chinese there is no separate word-character for ‘drawing’ or ‘painting’, the actions and meaning are one and the same. Moving in that direction, these watercolours took me completely by surprise as radically different, oblique progressions of earlier work concerned with drawing in close physical proximity to the human figure.14 While following my normal observational dynamic, these attempt a crossing East to an openness and ‘natural’ response achieved through the ‘play’ of Tai Ji with the person prior to the execution of the watercolours, a different way to achieve a ‘closer’ perspective.15 The form of energy interplay between two people in Tai Ji Quan is known as ‘Push Hands’ or ‘Tui Shou’ and, although in the studio the parallel is not perfect, engaging the ‘other’ in a circle of learning had a similar intention. These works flowed without reservation with an ‘innocence’ (‘Wu Wang’)16 and spontaneity unlike anything I had experienced before. They go to the heart of my interest in the masculine and the feminine, in the implications of energy inside and outside the human body.

The human coin

In the many discussions Chen and I had in the preludes to this show, the similarities are more striking than the differences. Both of us live in remote rural areas: Chen paints somewhere (that I don’t think I could find again if I tried) in Fujian province in southern China, and I on the western edge of Europe in Co Sligo, Ireland. Yet when looking at a landscape in China, Chen will see the philosophical strength of a bamboo boat crossing a river as I point out my excitement at the powerlines receding in perspective across a mountain range. Our different conceptions of beauty and art are not mutually exclusive, but parallel certain polarities that exist within and between East and West; the internal and the external - two sides of the same human coin.

The long journey towards this exhibition began in 1998 at a Tai Ji workshop I attended in Urbana, Illinois in the USA, where Chungliang Al Huang first showed me a small Chinese chop (seal) carved by Chen Zhongsen with the full 81 chapters of the Tao Te Ching.17 It was like nothing I had ever seen or could imagine possible. My curiosity and excitement to understand its genesis led me deeper into Chinese culture than I ever intended going. I made all the ‘Tai Ji’ watercolours in its wake between 1999 and August 2000, when I travelled to meet Chen Zhongsen for the first time. We met at the ‘Lan Ting’ Institute in Oregon, USA, where he was teaching calligraphy under the auspices of the Living Tao Foundation.18 There we both met Brian Flaherty, who, living in Beijing, has been a bridge across the vast language, geographical and cultural barriers. None of these events would have been possible without his insight, support, and subtle attention. In November 2001 I travelled to China to finalise details for these exhibitions and meet Chen on his own ground in Fuzhou city where he carves and in Yang Jia Xi, the remote northern area of Fujian province, where he paints. In the realities of China, it is easy to wonder about the illusive Tao or absent Buddha, until you recall the third, Confucian strand of influence where the political mind holds court. Historical success is largely a matter of survival, but in China it is measured in centuries, always aware of the dynasties that come and go. When a Chinese philosopher is asked what he thinks about democracy and the French Revolution, he replies... “It is just too soon to tell.” I remind myself as I fly home from Beijing, that while there is a profound simplicity to eastern thought - nothing is straightforward.

Nick Miller
January 2002


1. The references provided are links to texts that deal with concepts in much more depth than is possible in this essay. Clear bibliographical references are sometimes difficult due to different systems of translating of Chinese and difficulty in finding the originals.
2. “The Importance of Living", Lin Yutang, 1937, Quill/William Morrow & Company.
3. One of the most readable and clear writers on Taoism in the English language is Alan W Watts, whose many books: “Tao; the Watercourse Way", Arkana/Penguin 1992, which was completed after his death in 1973 by Chungliang Al Huang,[ see note 13]. "The Way of Zen", Arkana/Penguin, 1990. Recent edited lecture transcripts published by Eden Grove Editions include "Taoism, the way beyond seeking", 1998 and "Buddhism, the religion of no-religion", 1995. Also see the works and translations of Thomas Cleary including "The Spirit of Tao", Shambhala, 1998 and "Vitality, Energy, spirit: A Taoist Sourcebook", Shambhala, 1991.
4. From “The Way of Response" Martin Buber, Schocken Books, 1966, page 171.
5. Qigong can be dangerous to health without correct teaching. For a book in English see “Qigong empowerment: a guide to Medical, Taoist, Buddhist, Wushu energy cultivation", by Master Shou-Yu Liang & Wen-Ching Wu, Way of the Dragon publishing, 1997.
6. The “Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu is the primary text of Taoism and is second only to the bible in number of translations around the world each with different qualities.
7. “The Diamond Sutra”, The Vajracchedika-prajna-paramita sutra is a Buddhist text, translations of which can be found on the Internet.
8. “The Art of War", by Sun Tzu, is another major Taoist text to do with conflict resolution and strategy with many translations and versions to choose from, according to taste.
9. There are many books on the many styles and forms deriving from Ta’i Chi Ch’uan. It is also written as Tai Ji Quan or Taijiquan, Tai Ji or plain Ta’i Chi (see also notes 13 and 12).
10. See “I and Thou" by Martin Buber for a source for this in western thinking (see also note 4).
11. See “Nature, Man and Woman" by Alan W Watts, Vintage Books Edition, 1991.
12. A traditional and fascinating text is “Ta’i chi Ch’uan and meditation" by Da Liu, Shocken, 1986.
13. Chungliang Al Huang is a long time authority on East - West synthesis, based in the USA he is the founder of the Living Tao Foundation, a forum for learning, he teaches an evolving form of Tai Ji that developed as a response to both worlds. He is the author of many books, including, “Embrace Tiger, Return to Mountain: the essence of Tai Ji” , Celestial Arts 1973; “Mentoring”(with Jerry Lynch) , Harper Collins1995 and“Quantum Soup", Celestial Arts,1991.
14. “Closer: drawings before the End," Nick Miller, 1999, Rubicon press(Rubicon Gallery, Dublin).
15. As note 14.
16. In this context, I use ‘Innocence’ as a reference to ‘Wu Wang’ the 25th hexagram of the “I Ching or Book of Changes" with its emphasis on strength in naturalness and action without intention of gain. See Richard Wilhelm translation with foreword by C.G.Jung, Arkana Edition 1989
17. See notes 13 and 6
18. See note 13