Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lone Stone

From the Southern Garden at Kyoto's Tofuku-ji, famously laid out by Mirei Shigemori in 1939.

Ikasumi has an undisguised weakness for dry landscape gardens (karesansui). They are fascinating aesthetically, culturally, and historically, with shifting emphases through various eras. One way to think of the garden is that it concentrates all the energy and size of a mountain into a stone. Another is somewhat opposite - that the design tries to achieve an expansion to represent all of the universe. This was the trend in the Heian period (794 - 1185) when art and literature were emphasized by the aristocracy. The Kamakura era (1185 - 1333), saw increasing influence of zen meditation on gardens. Stones became less representational and more abstract. The much celebrated garden at Ryoan-ji is the best known example of this. In Japanese the phrase, yohaku-no-bi (literally, "the beauty of extra white") refers to the beauty of empty but articulate space, a recurring theme in Japanese aesthetics.

Later, the setting of stones transferred from priests to an underclass of laborers called sensui kawaramono. This is normally translated as "riverbed people", but the fact that mono actually means "thing" gives us an indication of their status as societal outcasts. In many cases Zen priests helped the kawaramono by teaching them about gardening and its history in detail, and many of the students became highly skilled. These outcasts created what are now considered some of Japan's most enduring and best loved works of art, though their contributions have gone largely unrecognized. Reportedly two kawaramono have their names carved into the hidden backside of one of the rocks at Ryoan-ji.

The use of sand or gravel to represent water began in the 15th Century. The designs of Mirei Shigemori, the great (and controversial) modernizer of stone gardens, often included gravel to achieve such an effect.


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