Echoes of One Hand Clapping: Picturing Sound in Asian Art

Sound cannot be seen, so how can it be pictured? Sound can be heard, felt as vibrations, and can move the spirit through music and memory. Such ways of experiencing allow the knowledge and presence of sound to be visualized in painting, calligraphy, poetry, and photography. Painters can depict actions or things that generate noise, such as a waterfall or a wartime explosion. Sometimes the very process of applying ink or color can be used to emulate sound, as in Li Huasheng's brooding grid, painted in a way that mimics a ritual chant. Calligraphy captures in brush and ink the sounds of languages, some almost forgotten. For example, Le Quoc Viet uses a barely remembered script to link Vietnam's past to its changing present. Married to painting and calligraphy, poetry can evoke or activate the echoes of sound, as in Wang Hong's Evening Bell from Mist-shrouded Temple and Shitao's Echo. The question of picturing sound also resonates in Minor White's photographic sequence The Sound of One Hand Clapping, derived from the artist pondering a Zen Buddhist riddle: "Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?"

Cary Y. Liu, Nancy and Peter Lee Curator of Asian Art