Kaikodo Journal, March 2015

New Primordial Chaos  2014
Photograph, ink on mitsumata washi paper
Mounted as a handscroll

29.7 x 86.2 cm. (11 3/4 x 34 in.)


When Zhu Derun (1294-1365), a Yuan-period calligrapher, painter and poet from Henan province, created his Hunlun tu, variously translated as "Primordial Chaos" or the "Cosmic Circle," in the mid-14th century, he took inspiration for the rocks and tree, loamy banks and streaming vines from his 10th and 11th century predecessors, Li Cheng and Guo Xi, from whom a style of painting had evolved known as the Li-Guo school and of which Zhu Derun was a brilliant advocate (fig. 1 (top image)).  In this painting, Zhu appears to push the style to an extreme, particularly with the meandering calligraphic tendrils streaming from the landscape elements, unfurling, casting out into space, playfully, teasingly, abstractly, mysteriously, and there looming beneath this unharnessed line, is a perfect circle, likely drawn with a compass, and perfectly empty or perfectly full; the enigma begins.

Zhu had stepped out of the traditional Chinese painter's zone with these additions to a familiar composition.  "Additions" is actually a misleading term since the circle, the hunlun, is indeed the primary subject of the painting.   And it is that circle that was the inspiration for and raison d'etre behind the photograph here by the contemporary artist Michael Cherney.  Zhu had a vision in the 14th century; Michael was able to complete it in the 21st when he gave that vision contemporary form and meaning through a contemporary medium, photography.  Michael superimposed a photograph of the sun precisely within the perimeter of Zhu's circle:  ".. I overlaid my negative in order to make the sizes and proportions exact.  So New Primordial Chaos will be the exact same dimensions as Zhu Derunís Primordial Chaos (29.7 x 86.2 cm), with the circle being the same size and in the same location in both" (fig. 2 (bottom image)).

But what really is this subject? What does it all mean?  We turn to James Cahill, whom Michael and others quote in reference to the 14th-century masterwork:  "Hunlun, the title of the painting--refers to the great undifferentiated matter out of which the cosmos was formed, and the philosophical  intent of the work is stated in Zhu's inscription which takes the form of a brief essay on this Daoist cosmological concept:

'Primordial chaos is not square but round, not round but square. Before the appearance of heaven and earth there were no forms; yet forms existed.  After the appearance of heaven and earth forms existed but became undefined, their constant expansion and contraction, furling and unfurling making them beyond measure. '"1

To quote Cahill further:  "The work, in keeping with this theme, is part picture, part cosmic diagram.  The objects in it represent, among other things, states of transformation or rates of growth and decay: very slow  in the earth and rock, somewhat faster in the pine, faster still in the wind-blown, 'unfurling' vines.  One might be tempted to read the circle at the right as another symbol of change, the inconstant moon, or its reflection in the water, but it is too large and too abstract to encourage that reading and must in some way represent the circular hunlun itself."2

If Zhu's circle represents "primordial chaos," out of which existence emerged, appeared, took form, Michael's "New Primordial Chaos," expresses the chaos revisited upon creation, a man-made, human-generated chaos that is so overwhelming and toxic that it can cloud the sun, deform it, make it in fact look not even like itself, but like its dark sister, the moon. In actuality the photograph is of the sun: "Dear Mary Ann, you have my personal guarantee that it is indeed the sun!  Though the Beijing days are bad, they are only occasionally as Ďapocalypticí as the day the photograph was taken (the Air Quality Index was reading 517 at the time; for reference, I have been told that spending the day outside on a day with a reading of 300 would be equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes).  Because of the constant shifts in atmosphere, and given that it was film photography (not able to see the results until after the film is developed), I shot several rolls.  Out of all of the resulting shots, the image chosen for XHLT did most resemble the moon, because I purposefully wanted to create that sense of confusion, the first impression being that one is looking at the moon, when in actuality it is the sun.  James Cahill specifically mentioned that the circle in Zhu Derunís painting did not represent either the moon or the sun; rather it is Primordial Chaos.  So I was trying to preserve that aspect."

Zhu Derun's world of flux, expressed in his paintings through the Li-Guo mode, derives from a nature not yet tarnished, one whose machinations and mysteries led to some cosmological deliberation ranging from the metaphysical and theological to the semi-scientific and scientific. In the hands of artists, images were created reflecting, whether intentional or not, these beliefs, paradigms, systems. Given Zhu Derun's viewpoint, it makes sense that he would be comfortable working in the Li-Guo manner of painting, where the earth and its "stuff"  are not stable, solidified and set, but in flux, taking form and then dissolving, with "constant expansion and contraction," and the brushwork not crisp and static, hard and sharp, but fluid, malleable, vacillating. It is also not surprising that Michael Cherney would find soul mates in this noble lineage, that Zhu would provide that link to creation and cosmic workings that also occupy Michael.

Returning to Cherney's work, which also must be considered independently from the handscroll by Zhu Derun, the black ground with bright orb is easily and immediately read as night sky and moon--the sun, after all, does not shine in the night sky.  As we know, it is not that simple.  The dark ground, then, might be read as the "Grand Emptiness" of ancient Chinese belief, out of which cosmic bodies emerged and evolved, or in Edward Schafer's words, "the matrix in which the celestial bodies are embedded, "the orb here, the sun-star, representing this evolution.3  Also, knowing that the orb is in fact the  sun, we might see the scroll as a representation of darkness prevailing despite the presence of the sun, and thus a comment on our current state of existence and predicament.  I am only sad that Jim Cahill is gone because he would have been deeply moved by this work: his two great passions, the art of the Chinese painter and the health of the earth, given new form and new meaning by a certain Michael Cherney, born in New York in 1969.


Michael Cherney, studied Chinese and East Asian history at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and studied further at the Beijing Language Institute  and is a self- taught photographer, perhaps inspired by his renowned grandfather, the award-winning photographer Charles Hoff. Michael's formal studies of Chinese and East Asian history, combined with his rigorous personal studies of China's religious and art historical past, have resulted in his abiding appreciation and even reverence for China's historical journey and its great classic tradition of painting, particularly landscape painting, a passion which resulted in the creation of the present work.. His relationship with China was deepened by residence in Beijing and for well over two decades extensive travelling in China where he was able to seek out the mysterious mountain haunts and specific sites that have historical or art historical relevance to his work, and to experience on a daily basis life in the modern city that is Beijing.  A carefully selected subject, a photograph, painstaking cropping and digital tooling and printing on a special paper, together result in the compelling images we associate with his work.

Rather than distracting from the mood and integrity of many of his works, Michael will affix one or more seals to the mounting rather than to the photograph itself, as in the present case, seals that he himself has designed and deftly carved. Through his background, creations and commitment, Michael has indeed earned a Chinese name, Qiu Mai, one by which he is widely known.  Included among the numerous formats that serve as the stages for his photography are books or albums, hanging scrolls, handscrolls, large-scale screens, round and folding fan shapes.  His works have caught the attention and garnered praise from many corners and representative works can be seen in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, at the University Museums at Princeton, Harvard and Yale, at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Chengdu Contemporary Art Museum


1. James Cahill in Richard Barnhart, et al., Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997, p. 163.

2. Ibid.  Even if we accept this interpretation, if we read the 'unfurling' tendrils or "line" in reverse, as we would play a film "backward,Ē we would see the line as furling into form, or as the coalescence of bits and particles, of atoms and molecules comprising original chaos, linking together and pouring into form, natural forms, which is also the painter's line creating pictorial forms.

3. Edward H. Schafer, Pacing the Void: T'ang Approaches to the Stars, Berkeley, 1977, p. 30.


Fig. 1: Zhu Derun (1294-1365), Hunlun tu, "Primordial Chaos," dated 1349 (29.7 x 86.2 cm.), Shanghai Museum, after

Fig. 2: Overlay of Primordial Chaos on New Primordial Chaos.