Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 30, 2012
Jonathan Hay Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China London: Reaktion Books, 2010. 440 pp.; 223 color ills.; 6 b/w ills. Cloth £35.00 (9781861894083)

In Sensuous Surfaces: The Decorative Object in Early Modern China, Jonathan Hay strives to understand how the human body senses and interacts with ornament, or “pleasurable things,” as the essayist and comic writer Li Yu (1610–1680) put it. Hay imagines how the hand and eye connected with the shape and texture of a decorated cup or figurine, how a moving body experienced an “object landscape” in a residential interior where luxury goods were displayed and used. Moving outside conventional studies in connoisseurship and technology, Hay juxtaposes objects made from a variety of materials, ranging from ceramics and paintings to textiles and furniture, from inkstones and rocks to carvings in rhinoceros horn and jade. Turning nearly every page of this book reveals an object of astonishing craft. And among the hundreds of objects chosen for publication, many are unfamiliar, culled from auction catalogues, an effort for which Hay must be commended. The only restriction to which he adheres is chronological, for he concentrates on objects produced from the late sixteenth through mid-eighteenth centuries.

Hay divides Sensuous Surfaces into three interrelated parts. In part 1, he establishes the theoretical structures that will inform his narrative. He notes that the objects with which he is concerned embody three different systems of taste, which sometimes overlap, but coincide for the most part with successive historical periods: an ostentatious “urban” taste for spectacle characterized the late sixteenth through late seventeenth centuries (27), and encouraged a proclivity for the display of accumulated goods (309); a concurrent scholarly taste for understatement embraced pleasures “previously associated with women” (32) and “ostensibly eschewed expensive materials” (310); and a taste for display that emerged in the 1690s at the Qing court reworked the “urban spectacle,” adding a new emphasis on technology and technique (39), as well as an interest in framing objects and experiences (312). Hay also asserts that these systems of taste exhibited an “effort of self-fashioning,” which he considers a sign of modernity. Thus, both the consumers and the producers of “novel” (qi) luxury goods in Ming-Qing China, who were “expert in psychophysical experience and non-verbal communication of pleasure,” expanded the “realm of interiority” (40–42) on which self-fashioning, in his view, was predicated.

Equally important is Hay’s affinity with the political theorist and philosopher Brian Massumi. Imagining how the human body connects with a decorative object through sensory perception and visceral awareness, Hay proposes that the object’s ornamented surface draws the viewer-handler into a separate space, where she or he experiences the artisanal work that produced the affective surface (77–78). The craftsman thus worked and thought on a par with the elite viewer-handler for whom the objects were produced. Juxtaposing two views of a gilt bronze vessel, for instance, Hay demonstrates how the double-handled wine cup invited the hands to hold it and lift it to the mouth, while the eye was seduced to look closely at its pictorial surface (62–63). Regarding a jade paperweight carved in the shape of a tiger, Hay asserts that the tiger “asks, as certain pebbles do, to be enclosed and turned in the hand” (62, 64). Using language derived from Massumi’s writings, Hay emphasizes that the “mesoperceptive” awareness of the surface of an object—its skin—transcends visual perception and rational thought (78–80). However, Hay also argues that the affective surfaces of things evoked states of mind, such as stillness and decorum, which are surely bound with specific cultural practices (95–99).

Hay’s theoretical approach will delight or bewilder. Whichever the case, Hay seems bound to contradict himself, for Massumi, unlike Hay, engages questions that surround new media art and technology. (Hay later disputes this point on page 382.) Can it be that Hay’s theoretical model in Deleuzian notions of connection almost forced him to claim that the “implicit epistemology” of decoration fits contemporary notions of virtual movement and change (380)? Furthermore, Hay does not distance himself from social history and other standard modes of thinking, such as periodization and semiotics, which are not wholly compatible with affect theory. (Compare the questions raised by James Elkins in “Response: The Mottled Discourse of Chinese Studies,” The Art Bulletin 89, no. 3 [Fall 2007]: 482–86.) Is not the difficulty of Hay’s enterprise well represented in the ekphrases that accompany each object in his book? The eye strains to re-create a physical encounter with the pictured object, but the distant, mechanical language in the captions tends to dampen the affective response that is celebrated in the primary text.

In part 2, Hay explores eight forms of ornamentation, which he refers to as the “topography of sensuous surface,” or “surfacescape” for short (67). These include: “monochrome smoothness,” that is, fields of color, either glossy or soft, that suspend “the body’s proprioceptive impulse to move” (169); and the “fictive surface,” by which Hay refers to pictorial illusions, especially trompe l’oeil (216). Throughout, Hay juggles the diverse theoretical approaches with which he began. For instance, three details of stylized floral motifs, which exemplify the surfacescape of “formal pattern,” serve as a “sensitive barometer” of the changes in taste that occurred from the sixteenth through mid-eighteenth centuries (145, fig. 78). However, returning to Massumi, Hay proposes that a repetitive, abstract pattern “stages movement in an endless flux of dissolution, resolution, dissolution, etc.”; and this movement “allowed formal pattern to seduce the body into decorum” (145). Yet Hay insists that luxurious surfacescapes “always conveyed positive meanings and always had a relation to social status” (192). For the decorated surface addressed a “psycho-social need for coherence in the face of urban insecurity and uncertainty” (85; see also p. 193), a condition Hay has previously associated with modernity, but which remains ill defined.

In part 3, Hay turns his attention to the role of the owner in the display of decorative objects and the “ephemeral topographical interactions of object surfacescapes in residential interiors” (273). His discussion of the various aspects of interior architectural spaces is extensive, ranging from the hierarchical arrangement of rooms to different forms of display and the creation of atmosphere with flowers and animals. Throughout this part of the book, Hay cites narrative fictions, in addition to the commentaries of essayists such as Li Yu and Shen Fu (1763–1809?), to warrant his thesis that a furnished room connected with its inhabitants and resonated with their senses, creating a layer of space that separated the individual from the social hierarchies that structured the house as a whole (273, 316).

Hay concludes with a provocative chapter entitled “The Erotic Economy of Decoration.” Addressing how seventeenth-century writers, in particular, conceptualized the pleasure afforded by decorative objects, Hay asserts that “resonance” (yun) determined a surfacescape’s quality. He defines yun as the “over-determination of connection in a decorative object—its capacity to bring thoughts, feelings, surfaces, and things of different kinds into relation with each other through pleasure” (382–83). Putting aside the awkward use of a psychoanalytical term to explain the relationship between the viewer-handler and the decorative object, I question the aptness of translating yun as “resonance” in this context (415, n. 3). Although the primary sense of the word is harmonious sound, it also denotes “elegance” (ya). A collector is more likely to have used the word in the latter sense to describe a possession; pleasure does not seem to have played a role in the elegance of yun. Nonetheless, with a nod to environmental criticism, Hay further asserts that the means by which yun-induced pleasure lay in the appreciation of the human labor, the “purposeful waste” (383), that the decorative object evidenced. Earlier, following Massumi, Hay argued that pleasure also “undoes ideological framing and threatens power” (85) (which presumably allows pleasure to undo the conventions of art history as well (15)). With this claim, Hay drifts far from the Chinese texts with which he began.

The erotic aspect of connective thinking brings Hay to consider briefly the significance of the representation of attractive women (meiren) on the depictive surfaces of decorative objects (393–96). Asserting that the meiren functioned as a metaphor for the decorative object, Hay suggests, for instance, that a woman pictured at her boudoir, like the decorative object on which she might appear, both share a “capacity for thinking-with” the viewer-handler (396). Further, like a decorative object, a demure young woman shown looking at a love letter also “serves to focalize the pleasure-taking attention of the beholder” (396). Hay exemplifies the pleasure offered to the attentive beholder with an archaistic bronze incense burner highlighted with gold “splashing” (395, fig. 229): the lobed body, which gently swells out, evokes for him a “human posterior,” a surfacescape that “appeals to the hand’s touch” (395). Although Hay carefully avoids identifying the gender of the beholder who reaches out to caress the censer’s rounded body, it is difficult to disentangle his description of the censer from the adjacent text in which he presents his argument about the meiren depicted on decorative objects. This brings me to question whether the relation between the woman and the viewer-handler in Hay’s connective field can be understood as anything other than one of submission.

Perusing this remarkable book, I wondered whether the uncertain identity of the book’s readership contributed to the restlessness that is apparent not far beneath the surface of Hay’s writing. The number of illustrations stands in contrast with the brevity of the citations; the glossary of Chinese characters is slight. Who requires that the construction of a hand scroll be defined? (337) Would greater clarity on the point of readership have brought theoretical harmony to this densely written yet intensely decorative book-object?

Anne Burkus-Chasson
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign