Essay for Kien Situ’s exhibition ‘Umbra’ at Yavuz Gallery

Black Jade: “That Surface and That Shadow” in Kien Situ’s ‘Umbra’ (2022) 

Written by Meng-Yu Yan 颜梦钰

In 1933 Jun’ichirō Tanizaki first published ‘In Praise of Shadows’, a work which would
subsequently become perhaps one of the central texts in understanding Eastern aesthetics and
its appreciation of darkness. To illustrate his point, Tanizaki compares the Western appreciation
of the brilliantly shining diamond to the Chinese appreciation of the softly gleaming jade with its
hidden layers of swirling mist. Writing about jade he says: 

“When we see that shadowy surface, we think how Chinese it is, we seem to find in its cloudiness the
accumulation of the long Chinese past, we think how appropriate it is that the Chinese should admire that surface and that shadow.” 

A key to unlocking the work of Kien Situ 司徒建 in his latest exhibition ‘Umbra’ lies in this
appreciation for darkness. Letting our eyes get used to the dark, we gaze into the surface of his
works as though we are masters of divination. We peer into the endless layers of shadow
contained within them as though looking into a piece of black jade.
Shadows are not simply black, rather they consist of layers or gradients of darkness. The shadow
itself can be divided into three distinct parts: the umbra, penumbra, and the antumbra. Taken
directly from the Latin word meaning shadow, the exhibition title Umbra is used to describe the
innermost, or darkest part of a shadow. This fascination for shadows can be traced to Situ’s
architectural practice in which he must constantly chase the shadows cast by the structures he
designs. Toeing the line between architect and artist, Situ casts both forms and shadows within
his pieces. 

To emulate such darkness as the title ‘Umbra’ suggests, Situ infuses his works with Chinese Mò
ink. His practice hearkens back to the long tradition of Chinese Shānshuǐ huà 山水畫, otherwise
known as Mountain Water painting. This tradition is permeated by Daoist philosophy and the
attempt to illustrate the interplay between Yin and Yang. Artists were encouraged to depict not
the reality they saw with their eyes, but rather an inner landscape seen through the artist’s mind.
It is a notion reflected within the alien, mountainous terrain of Situ’s works which are not
intended to be strictly realistic. Instead, they resemble an imagined landscape perhaps floating
in another galaxy. 

Mastering the art of ink and brush means mastering the five shades contained within the ink
itself: dark, light, dry, wet, and charred. Young painters are taught to make black from white, and
white from black, speaking to the balance between positive and negative space. Situ harmonises
these polarities and brings these shades to life. Within his abstract landscapes made of smooth
slabs of petrified ink, one can distinguish patterns swirling like clouds or crashing like waves. His
three-dimensional forms cannot be fixed to one state – hovering somewhere between
mountains and waves, hard and soft, darkness and light. 

Encompassing wall plates, sculptural works, and a central pillar, we enter a space that is
meditative and shrine-like. Evocative of the Rothko Chapel, the atmosphere is heavy with the
weight and density of the works. Each piece is carefully placed as though guided by ancient
Chinese practices of geomancy. A magnetism fills the empty spaces, vibrating with the flow of
Qi or energy. The works themselves exude a physical presence that calls to mind the following
lines from Ursula K. Le Guin’s version of Chapter Twenty-Six in Lao Tzu’s ‘Tao Te Ching’: 

“Heavy is the root of light. Still is the master of moving.” 

In the footnote to the text Le Guin connects this phrase to the practice of Tai Chi, and here in
reference to ‘Umbra’ it highlights the physicality of Situ’s works. Requiring an enormous amount
of physical strength, Situ’s own body plays a large part in the creation of these works through
the mixing, pouring, moulding, and even transporting of his sculptures. Likewise, our own bodies
respond to their sense of gravity as we traverse and fill the negative space surrounding his work.
The terms umbra, penumbra, and antumbra were originally used to describe the shadows cast
by celestial bodies. In the same vein, our bodies orbit the central pillar of ‘Umbra’ casting their
own shadows. The waves we see upon the surface of his works echo the waves moved by the
planetary pull of the moon. There is a connection here that Situ’s work touches upon – between
body and spirit, weight and magnetism, substance and emptiness. They resemble contemporary
Gongshi 供石, otherwise known as scholar’s rocks that Chinese literati once pondered over in
the privacy of their studios or gardens. These rocks were shaped by the elemental forces of wind
and water, revealing the power of softness over hardness. Each crevice, wave, or cloud we
recognise along the surface of Situ’s work reveals a microcosm of an imagined landscape
flickering with the shadows of immortal beings. And like those ancient scholars, we are led to
contemplate how the softness of the human body was able to form the hard pieces we see before
us in ‘Umbra’. 

Those dualities are further investigated in Situ’s choice of medium. From the use of modern-day
industrial materials such as concrete and plaster, the artist unearths primordial shapes that
possess an ancient quality. Again, this speaks to Tanizaki’s description of the jade, “with its
faintly muddy light, like the crystallized air of the centuries.” Each piece contains a yearning for
a long-forgotten past that speaks to Situ’s own experience of diaspora. His works are like
shadows of a history, culture, and ancestry that is largely unknown to the artist himself.
Furthermore, the word umbra connotes the mythological ‘shade’ used to describe a spirit, ghost,
or phantom. In this sense, the works reflect the obscure aspects of the artist’s personal history
and identity. Like a black mirror they capture the spectral traces of a past that continues to
haunt him. 

Using Format