The Japanese Art of Suiseki 

Unearthed at the Oakland Museum of California showcases a traditional practice of collecting stones and sculptures.

A suiseki piece by Robert Gould.

Courtesy Oakland Museum of California

A suiseki piece by Robert Gould.

Most of the artworks in Unearthed: Found + Made were plucked from a riverbed. The exhibit, currently on view at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St.), showcases local suiseki, the traditional Japanese art of stone collecting. Inside glass cases, smooth, richly colored rocks perch gloriously on hand-carved wooden daiza (settings), looking as magnificent as any ancient marble figure.

Usually, in a science museum, rocks would be presented as geological artifacts. But in Unearthed, they are matter-of-factly displayed as aesthetic objects, comfortably coalescing notions of art and nature.

Northern California is one of few places in the world where suiseki is popularly practiced. The tie is geological — many stones that can be found in certain areas of the region are finely suited for the art form. Unearthed features work from two Bay Area amateur suiseki clubs, the California Suiseki Society (based in Oakland) and San Francisco Suiseki Kai (which meets in both San Francisco and Oakland). According to the show curator Christina Linden, when the San Francisco club was founded in 1981, most Bay Area suiseki practitioners were aging Japanese immigrants, but today the membership varies widely and the classes are taught in English.

The practice of suiseki, as performed by these clubs, begins with a trip to a riverbed. There, members wade in the water, looking for stones that call out to them. The goal is to find rocks that resemble miniature landscapes, such as mountain ranges or waterfalls. Then comes the critique — clubs meet again to examine the stones, questioning what makes each worthy (or unworthy) of collecting. Next, the stone must go through a secondary aging process. For up to a decade, collectors appreciate their stones, placing them in their yards to weather and rubbing them every day. Finally, when the collector feels it's time, he or she carefully carves a wooden mount that perfectly cradles the stone's curvature. Then, it is suiseki, ready to be displayed indoors.

click to enlarge Work by Jedediah Caesar. - COURTESY OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA
  • Courtesy Oakland Museum of California
  • Work by Jedediah Caesar.

The suiseki pieces constitute the "found" portion of Unearthed, but the "made" portion is composed of new works by Oakland-born Los Angeles-based artist Jedediah Caesar. If suiseki were to be considered nature imitating art, then Caesar's sculptures are art imitating nature. Caesar collects objects to create his own sped-up sedimentary processes — anything from personal mementos to trash will do. For his pieces Green(gre-y?) prologue:1–6, Caesar stacked such objects in a square vat and filled it with resin. After the concoction hardened, he had it sawed into sections exposing dark, muddy surfaces filled with unrecognizable cross sections, like a slice of heavily polluted earth. But the more stunning piece is one Caesar made with turmeric. He found that when the spice is mixed with resin, it expands violently, creating a frothy surface that's magma-like and textured by movement. The massive, golden cube sits at the entrance to the gallery, introducing the show with a contemporary edge.

Unearthed inevitably prompts the question of what constitutes art — one that's notoriously impossible to answer. Even the suiseki club memberships are undecided. While most practitioners consider themselves hobbyists, some are sure they're artists, said Linden. Like the museum's concurrent show Yo-Yos & Half Squares: Contemporary California Quilts (see "Jazz Seams," 9/16), Unearthed maneuvers around prescribed notions of craft, hobby, and fine art, to insist that creative practices rooted in cultural tradition can be challenging and relevant. According to Linden, the museum will continue this trend of thought next year with a series of shows that, like Unearthed, pair a local cultural creative practice with a contemporary artist whose work is in someway similar.


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