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Japanese Garden in the West Goes Pink

15715Today we have a guest post from Christian Tagsold, Associate Professor at the Institute for Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Düsseldorf and author of the new book Spaces in Translation: Japanese Gardens and the West. Tagsold is interested in how "Japanese gardens" signify Japan in non-Japanese geographical and cultural contexts. In Spaces in Translation, he ponders their history, the reasons for their popularity, and their connections to geopolitical events, explores their shifting aesthetic, and analyzes those elements which convince visitors that these gardens are "authentic." Here, he brings this experience and expertise to bear on a recently-opened Japanese garden and its peculiar, intriguing aesthetic choices.

After having visited more than 80 Japanese gardens in ten countries, I was quite self-confident that I had seen all of it. Daniel Arsham’s Lunar Garden, which is currently on display at the gallery of the Cadillac House in Lower Manhattan New York, somewhat shattered my confidence. Arsham’s installation presents a sand garden in the tradition of the Ryōan Temple’s stone garden in Kyoto. The Ryōan garden is a World Heritage Site and an icon for Japan in general, often reproduced as an image in calendars, brochures and travel guides. Arsham copies the raked sand structure of the Ryōan garden in a wooden frame of roughly 14 by 8 meters with a small wooden fence and a broad veranda around it. Instead of erecting stones on the sand, like the famous 15 of the Ryōan garden which can be never seen all at once, he has placed a petrified tree and a stone lantern on the sand and encircled them with a pattern. If that does not sound specifically spectacular, the hue Arsham has added to the scenery through clever lightning certainly is. The whole garden shines in a magic shade of pink and a white orb lightens up the background as if the moon was about to fall on the ground! Arsham calls his installation a stone garden, which is slightly mystifying in the absence of stones, but stresses the allusion to the Ryōan garden. His Lunar Garden looks like an abstract replica (albeit bathed in pink) of the World Heritage Site garden, which often has been touted as reductionist itself.

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The Ryōan Temple garden in Kyoto (Photo courtesy of Christian Tagsold)

Even though I was first taken aback by the images of this garden, it soon dawned on me that Arsham’s installation actually fits surprisingly well into the frame of my new book Spaces in Translation: Japanese Gardens in the West. What first attracted my attention is the context of the pink Lunar Garden in New York. The Cadillac House is not simply a gallery but a deliberate attempt by the car company General Motors to upgrade its brand. The house showcases fancy art alongside polished cars in Lower Manhattan. However, the combination of cars and Japanese gardens actually has a long tradition. In 1915, the Chicago National Automobile Show produced the most expansive “scenic setting ever,” a newspaper reported: “Such a garden has not been seen outside the wealthiest estates in the Mikado’s realm.” Other automobile shows and even individual car dealers did the same. In the early days of the automobile, such scenery signified splendour and wealth to potential buyers, because Japanese gardens were cherished by the rich, who built them as fashionable and exotic diversions at their country houses. 

This is but one striking example of how Japanese gardens had penetrated American popular culture around the turn of the century. The starting signal for this success story was the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair and the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. Here, the Japanese commission used Japanese gardens as backdrop for their pavilions and (more profanely) for selling merchandise. However, these early gardens would not be as convincing today. They looked rather unsettled and not yet refined to the degree of Arsham’s abstraction.

Even the Japanese world’s fair commission in 1876 had not fully understood the potential of marketing their country through gardens and unassumingly described the Philadelphia garden as rooted in Chinese garden tradition. Only after Western pundits and visitors praised the gardens in Vienna and Philadelphia, and only after Western discourse on their qualities commenced, did Japanese commissions employ gardens with more self-assurance. In my book, I elaborate on this process of mutual mirroring of expectations as a web of cultural translation which in the end brought forth a much more stable idea of what constitutes a Japanese garden.

However, Arsham’s abstraction does not fully fit into this picture of the Japanese garden. Japanese gardens up to the 1920s were rather green and showcased flowers. In addition, the Japanese government wanted to support its national crafts industry and therefore equipped world’s fair gardens with bronze cranes and storks. It was only in the 1930s that a new image of Japanese gardens emerged in yet another instance of cultural translation. In 1935, the Garden Club of America visited Japan to allow the approximately 100 members of their delegation to see with their own eyes the now famous gardens of the country. On the occasion of this visit, American garden writer Loraine Kuck published her book One Hundred Kyoto Gardens, which helped to bring a concept to prominence that drastically altered our image of the Japanese garden. Kuck called the garden of Kyoto’s Ryōanji, a temple hitherto rather neglected and run-down, a “Zen garden”. She was probably influenced by her neighbour Suzuki Daisetsu. Suzuki had championed the idea that Japanese culture is deeply rooted in Zen Buddhism, and since he was one of very few intellectuals at that time in Japan who was fluent in English, he was able to convince the readers of his English books such as the very influential Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture (1938; retitled Zen and Japanese Culture for the post-war edition). However, Suzuki’s theory is neither very accurate nor had the Ryōan garden been associated with the Buddhist school of Zen before the 1930s. Nevertheless the idea stuck and began to proliferate in Japan and in the West.

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Daniel Arsham’s Lunar Garden (Photo courtesy of Cadillac)

This brings us back to Arsham’s pink garden installation, which builds on the fame of the alleged Zen garden of the Ryōan Temple. When I first saw images of Arsham’s garden I thought its perfect form iced in pink, which looked like a deliberate kitschy Orientalism, was meant to ironize the whole concept of Japanese gardens. But after having read some interviews with Daniel Arsham, I am no longer so sure. “Zen garden” pops up frequently in titles and questions, without any hint that it was an American writer who invented the idea in the 1930s. Arsham also seems to suggest that Japanese stone gardens are an essential asset of Japanese culture rather than the product of an ongoing process of cultural translation, as I suggested in Spaces in Translation. Of course, art gives the observer freedom to form one’s own interpretations, and thus the Lunar Garden strikes me still as being very provocative and ironic. In addition, my research has taught me to appreciate Japanese gardens even if they are introduced as timeless tokens of Japan. Even though I would very much wish Japanese gardens to be presented in a less essentialized way, I would still love to go to New York and enjoy the first pink Japanese garden I have heard of!