A viewing stone is a rock that has been selected and displayed for the purpose of aesthetic appreciation. The relocation of a stone from its natural habitat changes the found object from an ordinary rock to a viewing stone that invites close examination and perhaps contemplation.
In this essay, I will examine the act of "re-grounding" rocks that have been removed from nature and resettled in the soil of culture. Using examples from my collection of viewing stones, I will consider the recontextualization process in the light of our ambiguous relationship with the natural world.
In Ming Dynasty China (1573–1620) catalogues of viewing stones were illustrated with woodblock prints derived from brush-and-ink drawings. Some of the drawings were based on direct observation of a stone; others were copies of earlier sketches, while other illustrations were idealized versions of stones that may have been inspired by written descriptions or depictions of stones in landscape paintings. With the intent of reintroducing a slow-time appreciation of the viewing stone, the print edition of this essay is illustrated by high contrast black and white images derived from photographs but manipulated in Photoshop to a degree of abstraction shared by the Ming Dynasty woodblock prints. The online version of the essay is illustrated with full-color photographs of the same stones. [End Page 59]
Stones in Chinese gardens or natural settings that are so distinct as to seem out of place are sometimes referred to as Stones That Flew Here. This designation references an obscure Buddhist myth about stones that were magically transported from India to China, landing in unlikely locations where they were incompatible with the local geology. The myth is most likely a way of explaining stones that have been moved by glaciers great distances from their places of origin. The Stone That Flew Here is, as well, a fitting appellation for the above piece of malachite (and any number of other stones as well) that were flown from their country of origin to the United States. Hand-carried by ardent connoisseurs, stones from China, Japan, Southeast Asia and elsewhere have been flown into American collections for decades. Air travel has accelerated the spread of viewing stone appreciation, with American collectors flying trans-Pacific routes to participate in exhibitions in China and Japan, and Asian experts and dealers traveling eastward to spread the lithic gospel in North America.
I have mounted this stone so that it overhangs the left side of the base in order to give the idea that it is coming in for a landing. The base, which was carved in China for another stone, has been redesigned to suggest the mountain range in which the stone might touch down.
This sculpture gently reminds us of our troubled relationship with planet Earth. The stone is from China. The base is a cradle for a cordless telephone. We extract millions of tons of minerals from the earth annually for the manufacture of computers, mobile phones, television sets and other electronics. When these products become obsolete, they are returned to the earth in the form of e-waste, which often pollutes the earth and can be a significant health hazard for workers involved in processing the e-waste. China is one of the main countries that process hazardous electronic waste. Joining this Chinese stone with a repurposed cordless-phone base calls our attention to both the problem and a partial solution. [End Page 60]
Collecting viewing stones typically involves arduous forays into the desert or mountains, wading cold streams, walking dry gulches and climbing windblown slopes. An often-overlooked resource for the suburban collector is the local building-supply store. This cut piece of limestone was purchased at just such an establishment. The top surface of the stone is reminiscent of a rugged desert landscape seen from high above. The rough sides of the piece, seen on a different scale...