Words by Nik Zanella
Waves have been admired, studied, and of course ridden since, well, probably the beginning of time. Japanese artist Mori Yuzan (Kyoto ... -1917) was, most likely, not a surfer. Even if an indigenous form of wave riding called Itako is said to have existed in Japan around that time, but he understood wave energy better than most of us.
I came across his obscure work while editing my book Children of the Tide, in which I explored the wave riding tradition in dynastic China. I was looking for graphic patterns to use as chapter headers. His Hamonshu was exactly what I needed. Yet, Mori is not known in the west. His fame pales in comparison to Katsushika Hokusai or Sesshū Tōyō, the superstars of Japanese visual art. Original prints of his three volumes can be bought on Amazon for reasonable prices and even downloaded for free in digital form.
There's little I know about him, such as he died in 1917, and that he was an exponent of the Nihonga style, an aesthetic trend that stood against influences from the west, focusing on traditional themes and techniques.
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His art, actually, sums up 2,000 years of Japanese and Chinese wave-voyeurism, analysing every ripple, backwash, tidal bore, surge and even perfect barrel the ocean can throw at us. The ‘Book of Waves’ was mainly intended for internal use; a handy manual for artists of all sorts. His geometrical designs successively appeared on swords, religious books and miniature sculptures.
I have been so deeply touched by his prints that I started using them as inspiration for my own photography. I’m an avid wave-voyeur. I can spend hours contemplating a pointbreak, trying to decipher the obscure equation behind a messy sand-bank, or simply enjoying the ephemeral geometry of a zippy backwash.
I can be spotted running up and down the shallows on the beaches of southern China, with my iPhone in my hands, trying to replicate Mori’s work. My students often ask me what I’m up to. I do not have a word for this activity, I just tell them I’m studying ‘liquid geometry’.
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Surf explorer, coach and Sinologist, Nik Zanella has been living in China for the past 10 years, working at several levels of the surf development project and researching China’s untold wave-riding past. His book, Children of the Tide tells the surprising story of a wave riding community active from the 9th to the 13th Century that left traces in art, poetry and dynastic chronicles.