While wandering the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was getting suspicious. I had asked numerous people to direct me to the Noguchi Water Stone, but no one seemed quite certain where it was. A woman at the information desk was able to direct me to the second floor, but then instructed me to “ask someone up there” for further directions. Two security guards quizzed each other, scratched their heads and pointed me down a corridor, probably just to get me to go away. I meandered through numerous exhibit halls, hoping I was getting closer when the art work on display took on a decidedly Japanese feel to it. But still I wasn’t finding what I had come to see. I began to wonder if perhaps my professor was sending me on some kind of Taoist wild goose chase. Perhaps there was no Water Stone. Maybe I was supposed to imagine it.
Then I asked a tour guide who was talking to several tourists. “Just go straight along that way,” she said, pointing through a set of glass doors, “and you’ll begin to hear it.”
“Excuse me,” I asked, “did you say I would hear it?”
“Yes,” she replied, “you can’t miss it.”
She was right. Beyond the glass doors, the hall was very quiet, hardly any museum-goers at all. After a short distance, I distinctly made out the sound of water splashing. I followed the sound until I came to what I immediately knew was Naguchi’s Water Stone. To the best of my knowledge, this is the museum’s only work that can be heard, because it is a fountain. That is to say that it can be categorized as a fountain. In truth, it is more along the lines of a Zen poem, or a haiku.
The Water Stone is approachable from two sides, one with a Plexiglas barrier, the other completely open. I took a seat on a bench on the open side and began to contemplate what I was seeing.
Nestled among a sort of riverbed of stones, the fountain seems like nothing very much at first. It is a thick, blocky sculpture, no more than waist-high, black and monolithic – a squat, battered-looking version of the object that keeps turning up in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Yet it is not rectangular or square – odd angles here and there indicate that pieces have splintered off somewhere, as if it were a meteorite that crashed through the roof. At its top, a deep, perfectly circular well issues water from deep inside, and the water pools, creating the illusion that it is not moving. It is smooth as a pane of glass. And yet I knew it must be moving, because I could make out rivulets trickling down the sides, and could hear a loud splashing sound as it flowed into the river rocks and disappeared. The fountain invites study as it confidently teems with water and symbolism.
When considering the work as a Taoist metaphor, many ideas began to surface. The first, strongest image that came to my mind was of Lao Tzu’s “uncarved block.” The fountain can easily be interpreted in this way, appearing as if had not been shaped by human hands and were still in its original state. If this were a human being, it would be a person who had transcended sorrow-filled attachments and was living in the world with a sort of “knowing innocence,” a person with no fear of death. Thinking of the fountain in this way lent it a human personality – I could picture a substantial old man sitting cross-legged on the ground, absolutely at one with his environment.
The Water Stone also serves as an example of “wu wei,” the Tao concept of “no extra action.” The water doesn’t jet up and splatter down, like a person struggling against the natural flow of life. This fountain accepts and fulfills its role in the universe almost imperceptibly, delivering water without apparent effort, suggesting a person who lives in harmony with the Tao.
The Taoist idea of power is conveyed by the water flowing over stone, a direct representation of a verse from Chapter Thirty-Six of the Tao Te Ching: “The gentle and soft overcomes the hard and aggressive.” Just as seemingly powerless water can erode mountains into canyons, a sensitive and vulnerable awareness can enlighten a person in ways that power and glory will not.
Finally, the Water Stone exhibits numerous dichotomies. It is a synthesis of nature’s creation and man’s invention, the ancient and modern, the outside-brought-inside. Some of its surfaces are smooth while others are coarse; irregular angles are countered by a perfect circle. The fountain’s apparent motionlessness is belied by a sound of great activity. The soft water coursing over hard stone is the coupling that gives the sculpture its name, as simple and powerful as the object itself. These pairings reminded me of the forces of Yin and Yang, the dark, passive, feminine force that is equaled by a light, active, masculine force. The fountain flows peacefully, blissfully, the representation of an enlightened existence living in unity with these forces. The Water Stone speaks to us from the state of understanding that the human soul yearns to reach, showing us the way.