Through a Chinese friend, I had the luck to discover the remarkable “Dali Dreamstone” exhibition this week at TK Asian Antiquities in New York City.

Dali Dreamstones are marble slabs of smaller or larger size, which are mined, cut and polished by stone masters to reveal extraordinary patterns that resemble traditional Chinese or Japanese paintings, or indeed Western abstract art depictions of natural phenomena—a landscape comprised of mountain, forest and lake—or else a stylized human figure—an old man, for example. In exhibiting this collection of a few dozen pieces, TK Antiquities brings this special, little known art form to the attention of Americans interested in Chinese/Asian culture and to provide a buying opportunity that will extend the reputation of this Chinese art form among American collectors.

My friend, Ms. Ping Wang, who helped organize the show, has an unusually personal connection to the Dali exhibition, things in her own past I hadn’t known. Dali is an ancient town in Yunnan Province, about 400 kilometers from Kunming. During the Maoist Cultural Revolution her father, a military man, was transferred from Beijing to Dali where she spent spent part of her youth in the early 1970s. One could walk from one end of the place to the other in fifteen minutes. Dali was deep rural China then (and still is) but today, because of its cultural aura, has attracted a certain number of contemporary artists (producing a ‘coffee house culture,’ she says) that made me think, perhaps erroneously, of Taos, New Mexico.

The raw marble slabs for Dali objects are mined from a massif called Cangshan, whose stone, a congenial enterprise of Nature, embodies highly unusual, evocative striations and colors. After selecting, cutting and polishing the marble, its revealed designs are categorized into three basic types: yunhui (grey clouds), moshi or baishi (white jade), and caihua (colored flowers). Today there’s a renewed interest in this work, but appreciation of Dali marble as art goes back to at least the early Tang Dynasty (618-907). During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) a portion of the Dali Kingdom’s annual tribute to the Song Court had to be paid in Dali marble. It was even used in construction of the Forbidden City. In more recent times, Dali marble has more recently been used in building luxurious residences and resorts. Its growing reputation has led to increased production of which the current exhibition is an example.

To this observer there seem to be two ways to appreciate Dali Dreamstones. A first is to see them as nature-depicting-nature, coincidences of content of one part of our environment with another, ravishing intimations of connection. They are like paintings, only nobody made them. Comparison—seeing similarities and differences at the same time—is an intrinsic mode of the brain’s intellectual understanding of the world. There can be great beauty in scientific observation—phenomena that are seen, and whose laws are investigated and codified—in addition to the practical knowledge and applications. The second way, which this writer prefers, is purely aesthetic, to see and to experience nature without trying to make any particular sense of it. Dreamstones are simply beautiful, a source of emotional satisfaction and a sense of belonging, of feeling oneself to be what we are: literally a part of the world, with our own special qualities, differences and uniqueness (indeed, some of us are quite beautiful, others less so). In this regard, dealing with Cangshan Mountain marble resembles how we deal with music: one way is close study of composition, the other is not trying to understand it at all, only to enjoy it. Sometimes one encounters a painting or a piece of driftwood or a flower and thinks, I could live with that, in fact I’d like to live with that.

Exhibition February 2016
Prices range from about $1800-$70,000
Catalog available
TK Asian Antiquities
The Fuller Building, suite 1125
41 East 57th St.
New York, NY 10022