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#192 :: Chinese Ink Stone

August 20, 2004

sale sickness ‘popup’, decease and ‘width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0’); return false”>This double-glass-block icon is meant to remind you of this – an elaborate ice castle lit from within. It glows with a liquid intensity, the frosted bulb cavity diffusing all 25 watts of its little bulb through about two pounds of solid glass. It would make a dandy blunt instrument – coldcock your prey, then fling it to a concrete floor to shatter into a million unfingerprintable bits. Designed by Harri Koskinen for the Museum of Modern Art, this was a gift, so I was pretty startled just now to learn how much it costs. The design concept itself screams “kitsch!” – until you switch it on. Then all hard feelings melt away. Oooh, says some small voice from somewhere south of my adolescence. It’s pretty
visit ‘popup’, link ‘width=500, cheap height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>This is what the atomic Zippo evolved into: Fast times demand fast tools. Many tools of the 50s and 60s owe their visual speed to Raymond Loewy. The godfather of modern American industrial design and friend of Sinatra believed in the aesthetic of MAYA – Most Avanced Yet Acceptable, which drove his visions for everything from the Studebaker Hawk and the Lucky Strike logo to the interior of Skylab. No record of whether he’s directly responsible for the Ronson Varaflame Adonis, but in the Loewy way, the fuel-plug tail cowling and speed lines on this little chromed vehicle form their own slipstream just standing on my desk. It’s a flea-markeet find, probably among the first of the new butane-fueled models to come out in the late 50s. I’m hoping to find a junker for parts on eBay so I can replace the lost flint plug and get it fired up for camping trips and the occasional cigar. Meantime, here’s a fairly exhaustive history of Ronson lighters.
what is ed ‘popup’, about it ‘width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0’); return false”>It’s drop-forged potmetal, about as heavy as six or seven quarters. But its iconography doesn’t jibe with its milieu – symbol of love cast in the chosen medium of auto emblems, and chromed to a high shine. Some nagging tickle at the back of my head says “Dodge Dart Swinger” but Google is no help in addressing the hunch and neither is eBay. Hard nicks and gouges attest to its recent history of abuse – the blackout time it spent between life on its car and life on my lawn, where my son picked it up and handed it to me. “Here,” he said, in that way of his, “This is for you.”
pill ‘popup’, pilule ‘width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0’); return false”>Like French provincial or Aztec modern, brutish industrial design is its own beast, not a blend of given sets of style but a strict, hermetic discipline unto itself. To make something wilfully, truly ugly – and yet appealing – is to create raw beauty, the unabashed individuality of things that are not only oblivious of their appearance, but apathetic about it. This Taiwanese ripoff of a $125 design doesn’t even bother with a crude approximation. It steals the basic core setup and a single styling cue (the useless hexagonal barrel points) and crams them together into the single most graceless, fugly package possible, wrapped in a (badly) anodized aluminum finish closely approximating the color of monkey diarrhea. It’s unbelievably bright (eight LEDs!), and puts the other white LED device on HLO to shame for both heaviness and size-to-power ratio. Ten bucks at my favorite vendor – the Chinese tool merchant at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet. It’s the VW Thing of flashlights, the Pontiac Aztek, the sort of thing Judge Dredd would duct-tape to his truncheon. Even the circular rubber switchbutton on the butt is ugly.
viagra approved ‘popup’, viagra order ‘width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0’); return false”>How curious that we require our gods to be portable. For some, gods can’t be so great that they intimidate, nor so formidable that they can’t be compressed, miniaturized, made chibi and thus toted around as totem or proof of faith. This came from the stall of a far-East trader, whose wares ran from ornate meditation bells and elaborately carved wooden boxes to huge-phallused monkey talismans of bone, and captive Buddhas. The Buddha himself is carved in copper or some baser metal, weathered with what looks like lime or lye, and then encased in a chromed, red-lined glass box, proof against the weather and the world’s wickedness. While I am not Buddhist, he has been riding with me this week in case of the faintest whiff of sudden enlightenment.
view ‘popup’, order ‘width=500, malady height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>Your outlook on life governs your reaction to kaleidoscopes: It’s just a kid’s toy, you snort. No, you gush, it’s an entheogenic viewer for cleansing the mind’s eye, an acid-tripper’s kit-bag accessory, an artistic medium. Aaahh, it’s just a waste of materials. I’ve been in a few of those camps, but never in the last of them. Putting a new kaleidoscope to your eye sucks you into a quiet bubble that no one else shares, sending you on a tiny expedition: how many mirrors does it have? What little colored particles and knicknacks are rolling around up in the business end? Does the outside view factor into the inner visual vortex? What happens when I point it at this lamp, that TV, the sun? Kaleidoscopes have been around since 1816. They have inspired digital imitation, prompted navel-gazing obsession, and figured into countless business metaphors. This one is sturdy, made of lithographed tin, carefully rolled and crimped and packed with glass mirrors and colored beads in China. It’s sturdy little piece of work.
viagra buy ‘popup’, viagra sale ‘width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0’); return false”>At some point, toys became all about accessories. Kids shoulder past your knees at KayBee to hunch over demonic action figures – “What weapons does it have?” There are more than a dozen kinds of Batman. Barbie has always been accessorized. You’d think someone who owns a mobile home and a jet plane wouldn’t have to save her pennies, but then, she does work in a convenience store. Perhaps this little porcine keg – and an unswerving sense of thrift – brought her all that wealth. Perhaps she’s just a grown-up little girl whose anatomy is now obsessed over by toy fetishists, and whose original, sweet identity has been co-opted by the planet-wide hive mind of little girls yearning to be sophisticated, successful grown-ups.
discount ‘popup’,’width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>The technological revolution ain’t what it used to be, no sir. Time was, you didn’t know what a part was and installed it wrong, an industrial machine could macerate your hand, rip out your hair, suck your cravat in right up to your sideburns. You put the wrong part on, why, could lose a nose, an eye, an arm. Yessir, you wouldn’t want to dally ’round gettin’ your fingers greasy without readin’ the manual first, making sure you knew where everything went, and what it did, and what would happen if it broke. Not like nowadays, where it’s all code and passwords and glowing words that hurt your eyes, and it’s guesswork and you can never tell if the people sendin’ ya letters about your house or your apothecary order or the size of your tallywhacker is even men or women. You never have to get your hands dirty, or even move, much. It’s all guesswork and hoodoo and a buncha black magic, I tell ya, and I don’t pretend to understand none of it.

But this here little gizmo, I know this has gotta be for some kinda big sewing machine, right? It’s cast steel, with a v-shaped channel cut into it big enough for thread, and some sort of eyelet whatsis screwed into it. And there’s a sharp end, and a blunt end. Oughta be able to figger it out, oughtn’t I? Right? Say, what’n hell is this doohickey, anyways?
stomach ‘popup’, viagra ‘width=500, information pills height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>I believe there is a continuation of the three classifications that make up the first query in a game of 20 Questions. Animal, vegetable and mineral are followed by mechanical, chemical, electrical, digital and, ultimately – if it really all is some bottomless vortex of a Darwinian end game and we each will return to dust – spiritual. There’s an unrealized artwork in my head centering around the nexus of these seven factors and the four traditional elements – earth, wind, fire, water – maybe some sort of periodic table for existence, maybe a deck of cards with suits and faces and long, wickedly complex games with too many rules to argue over. Maybe just a bad haiku. And maybe this New Periodic Table’s really about physical compounds: Where do Persian carpets fall on the chart compared with, say, hockey pucks? Schnauzers versus beveled -glass, walnut-paneled doors? Somewhere up among the noble compounds – the ones the world was made of before somebody discovered plastic and ruined it all – lie paper, glass and steel. Some rather large pharmaceutical company packed a little coil of dental floss (a slightly less noble, mid-table compound on the order of, say, cheddar cheese or wallets – into a glass capsule lined with a label and capped with a little cutter lid of stamped tin. They sold millions of ’em. And one made its way to a swap meet because you can’t just waltz into a store and buy ’em any longer.
remedy ‘popup’,’width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0′); return false”>Somewhere in Bombay, a cargo container awaits, baking in the sun on a dock smeared with pelican shit. Inside are approximately 10,000 cheaply made, shiny, heavy little objects of a strange design. They were knocked out by sweatshops in Old Delhi or the poorer rural villages in Northern India for a few rupees apiece, sold by the sweatshop operators to exporters for a few hundred rupees more and then stuffed into this container for a long ocean voyage. Soon, they will make their way to Amsterdam, New York, Tokyo, Sydney and the Port of Los Angeles. The exporter will take a wire transfer of a rather large sum of money (for him, a 400 or 500% markup) from an importer here. The importer will then sell to the buyers at Urban Outfitters or some other yuppie-decor chain. And paunchy, galumphing fools like me will stumble in on a late-night window-shopping binge, mutter, “Whoa, cooool” and shell out enough money for each of them to feed a family of four in rural India for a month. Then we’ll take them home, park them on our desks, play with them for a few weeks while procrastinating from work that must be done, and then abandon them to gather dust and shame.
more about ‘popup’, sickness ‘width=500,height=500,scrollbars=no,resizable=no,toolbar=no,directories=no,location=no,menubar=no,status=no,left=0,top=0’); return false”>Lampblack and glue, pressed into hard sticks, must be ground against a smooth stone with water to make ink. I think this page was more eloquent than I would ever hope to on the subject:

The inkstone, which was used to grind the ink, was considered the very soul of a scholars library. These stones were selected with the greatest of care and were often decorated with elaborate symbols or literary phrases thought to encourage the scholars production of higher sentiments. While there are many exceptions, most inkstones are rectangular or rounded. Most are in fact made of stone but examples of pottery also exist. The definitive work on this subject is probably Mi Fus Yen shih or Account of Inkstones. This work gives the proper name for all portions of the Inkstone and sets out the various characteristics of Inkstones and their use. Later but also fascinating works on Inkstones include the Yen lin or Forest of Inkstones by Yu Huai, which was written in the 1600s. This was followed by Pao yen tang yen pien or Discussion of Inkstones from the Hall of Treasured Inkstones by Ho Chuan-yao and Tuan his yen shih or Account of Tuan His Stones by Wu Lan-hsui, both of which were published in the 1830s.

Inkstones are an acquired taste like several other facets of Chinese culture. They are generally black or dark in color and do not draw the attention of the eye. Their beauty oftentimes is not so much in how they look but in how they work together with the ink and the paper and brush to achieve a particular color or texture. However, for those fortunate enough to have learned to master the brush, ink, inkstone and paper, the four precious things of the library are a passion. Holding an antique inkstone, it is hard not to feel the power that emanated from the previous painter or scholar who possessed this stone. For this reason, inkstones are avidly collected and treasured by Chinese and some foreigners. Prices vary greatly and are often based on stories as to prior owners, which are difficult if not impossible to verify.

I bought this for a few yuan on our honeymoon in Beijing more than 10 years ago. I experimented with a set of traditional rabbit’s fur brushes for a little while, then stored it until recently. Its grinding surface is marred where some careless shopkeeper stuck an adhesive price tag to it long before it came to my possession, but it in no way detracts from the turbulent whorls of water, the watchful apsect of the little turtle at the edge of the “pond.” I pull it out and heft it in my hand every now and then, for inspiration.

Filed under: Tool | Comments (2)

2 Comments

  1. SB August 23, 2004 @ 10:18 am

    this is so beautiful

  2. mack reed August 23, 2004 @ 8:29 am

    Choosing it out of dozens of equally gorgeous inkstones was an excrutiating pleasure. There were stones shaped like trees, mountains, palaces, oxcarts – it was a pretty heady experience. I’ll blog the ink and brushes a little further down the road.


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