Between a Rock and a Void Place

Art, Culture

Ryoanji garden. Photo by japan-guide.com.

In the northwest of Kyoto, in the Temple of the Dragon at Peace (Ryōan-ji), stands a garden where only the viewer grows. It is a rock garden— the greatest rock garden in the world. Since the late 1400s it has been tended daily by Zen monks in the service of those who go there to see what is or is not to be seen.

Ryoan-ji, Concentric circles

Ryoan-ji, concentric circles and lines, Blogodisea.com

The monks rake the rocks into straight lines where the large stones are absent, and they rake them into concentric circles where the large stones are present. The net effect is of an ocean's regular waves lapping gently against every shore in a tiny archipelago, except that nothing is moving.

A rock garden such as this is an example of the art of karesansui, which is often translated "dry landscape" but which etymoliterally means "dry mountain water"; the evocation of land and sea is explicit.

There are many ways to interpret this garden and its elements.

In the midst of the garden stand fifteen stones of various sizes and shapes, some upright, some flat, and some middling in scale and mien. In five different ways they form clusters. Despite their variety, all the stones are different enough from the white gravel to stand in contrast to it individually and collectively. The heaps of moss on which some of the larger stones stand offer a third, mediating element, more land than sea but softer than the sea.

Ryoan-ji garden, detail

Ryoan-ji garden, detail, Blogodisea.com

Taken with interpretive simplicity, the virtual land and sea form a fundamental contrast of complements, one firm and the other malleable, one solid and the other liquid, one irregular and the other patterned, one spatially complex and the other of uniform height and distribution. The dark and light, the yin and yang; each is the other's negative space, and each is the other's positive fulfillment.

Ryoan-ji, diagram of stones, Will Petersen, "Stone Garden," 1957.

Taken as a metaphor of humanity, the garden offers seemingly endless interpretive potential. Suppose each stone represents a particular person or a kind of person. What do the similarities and differences now suggest? Perhaps that some people are quite important, and that these gather an entourage. Perhaps that the less important may also have an entourage, though possibly one of peers rather than inferiors. Or perhaps that the large and small, the broad and narrow, are essentially the same after all. Perhaps that there is no single hub, but that social clusters provide sufficient unity in the midst of ineluctable differentiation. Is each of the fifteen stones an individual? Is its relationship to its cluster necessary, or merely incidental, to its identity? Are the large less or more distinguished than the small? How do numbers affect proximity? What does it mean to be alone? (And, of course, would a roiled moss gather no stone?)

Ryoan-ji, oblique view

Ryoan-ji, oblique view, Blogodisea.com

Suppose instead, or in addition, that the stones taken together provide a Rashomonesque opportunity. The noble cliché in the interpretation of Ryoan-ji is that no matter where one sits on the lateral veranda, at least one stone among the fifteen will be out of view. The suggested lesson is that multiple perspectives are necessary and that even then they are perhaps insufficient. Solitary is blinkered; static is blind.

Well, perhaps so and perhaps not. Certainly, it takes some exploration to find a vantage from which all the stones may be seen. Even if such a place can be found, the garden's cautionary disposition remains: do not take in at a glance and thereby claim to comprehend what actually requires investigation, imagination, elevation, empathy, or submission.

Interpreted metaphorically, Ryoan-ji provides a ripe occasion for the fertile mind. But taking only the stones and pebbles into account is limiting. The rocks and gravel do not exist in the abstract but are embedded in a particular human context: they're displayed before this veranda and surrounded by that low wall beyond which stand those trees and the mysteries beyond. Does this situation invite a literal reading or a metaphorical one?

Are the rocks people, or are they little mountainous islands, or are they just rocks? Under what conditions would one way of thinking about them be preferable to another? If the rocks in the garden may be construed as a lesson about people, then may the ancient clay wall, and the trees beyond? If the rocks in the garden are a study in contrast and complementarity, then what of the onlookers themselves? On the other hand, if the rocks are best understood not as a miniature realm, nor as a meditation on society, but simply and materially as pebbles raked around a rocky, mossy arrangement, then what of the wall, the trees, the people. Are we those who live artfully, laden with meaning? Or is our humanity, our civilization, just so much abstract sense imputed to a sea of pebbles? And what of the monks?

It is a question much worth pondering.

Raking Ryoan-ji

Raking Ryoan-ji. Photo by EIGHTFISH.

The 20th-century American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi had this array of possible meanings and methods of meaning-making in mind in 1963, when he created (among cognate works) his Sunken Garden for the Hewitt University Quadrangle at Yale. Adjacent to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the garden is a starkly geometric restatement of similar themes.

Model of Hewitt Quad showing Isamu Noguchi's Sunken Garden

Visible but not accessible from the surrounding promenade, the garden invites a meditation on the nature of architecture, that intellectual operation that mediates between abstract organization and concrete manifestation. Noguchi's employment of a pyramid, a Bi ring, and a notched cube standing on its vertex ensures that even this simple plastic vocabulary will evoke many connotations. Should these fleeting meanings attach? According to Noguchi

The pyramid symbolizes the “geometry of the earth or of the past”; the circular disc is the sun, “a ring of energy”; and the cube “signifies chance, like the rolling of dice”.

Isamu Noguchi, Sunken Garden.

Like the garden at Ryoan-ji, Noguchi's arrangement asserts a relationship between negative and positive space in which it is possible that the absent rather than the present is primary: not the stone, but the space that is not stone. "I like to think of gardens as sculpturing of space,” he once explained.

While Sunken Garden offers a complementary contrast of mental to physical, abstract to concrete, spatial extension to void, Noguchi's waist-high Balance Stone (1978) at the New Britain Museum of American Art considers the nature of equilibrium and effort. The museum's website explains it well:

Isamu Noguchi, The Balance Stone, New Britain Museum of American Art

…he began to use local materials that were harder to carve. Granite and basalt slowed down Noguchi's pace of carving and focused his attention…. Stone became a symbol of nature and carving became a metaphor for the human confrontation with the temporal. …Noguchi often left part of the rock's surface unworked, revealing where it had been torn from the earth or displaying its rich natural "skin." He employed different textures chosen from a vocabulary of surface treatments—untouched natural exteriors, areas of small chisel marks, ragged edges where one stone had been broken from another, smoothly polished surfaces—each of which also had a different color…. Noguchi's methods in working the stone surface varied also: he freely used power tools as well as the traditional chisel and hammer. ThusThe Balance Stone incorporates the apparent opposites of the organic and the geometric, the ancient and the modern, and the hand and the machine.

The rough-hewn wood of the rising elements, steadied by a single stretcher, bears a worked stone fragment that looks like the pitched roof of an inexplicably skinny house. The dark stone relies upon and stabilizes the wood. Perched atop the whole is a carefully worked stone with convex surfaces that ought to prevent it from staying there. It remains because of the enormous notch taken from below by means of which it fits well enough on the elements below. Another notch on its top is open to the sky.

Is the stone fitted or balanced? Is balance a question about the stone or about the whole system? Why are the elements arranged with the hardest dependent on the less hard, and the less hard dependent on the soft and fibrous? How do design, labor, and choice relate to the natural characteristics of the material on which they operate? Are the relationships and questions raised with respect to this sculpture the sort that may also be pondered and asked of humankind in a more general way? Is this work metaphorical? May we use it as if it were? Should we?

Where humans meet matter, issues of art arise. But raking is fundamentally different from crafting of the sort Noguchi has done with this sculpture. An anonymous Zen monk has raked the rocks of Ryoan-ji in order to conserve them, to keep them tolerably static. Noguchi has hammered and hacked, scratched and polished, planned and stacked, and in so doing he has not only conserved but also transformed his material. What is it about this transformation that makes meaning and the possibility of interpretation not only available but inevitable?

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, photo by Brian James

The lessons of Ryoan-ji and of Isamu Noguchi give us a way to assimilate the recent celebrated and controversial work erected before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by the artist Michael Heizer: Levitated Mass.

Like the Zen garden, it is a vortex of connotations. The assertively immobile mass stands in contrast to the sleek artificial ravine that bears it. One is positive, the other negative; one is raw, the other engineered; one was added through a herculean effort of transportation and transposition, the other subtracted by similar means. The natural and the man-made converge in a presentation that speaks not only of a nexus of complementary contrasts, but of the human will to want it so, and the technological capability to make it so.

At the Zen garden, only the monks tread among the stones while others look at the display from a space delimited for that purpose. Levitated Mass poses no such limitations; it invites a kinetic engagement that people routinely accept. In this respect, Heizer's sculpture blurs the distinction between the artwork and its observers. He has placed one stone; we constitute every other. This opportunity complicates the question of whether to read the work metaphorically, and makes possible a very personal investment of meaning. In addition, Heizer gave his work a title, which is a matter of some gravity. What might it mean?

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, held aloft miraculously by fashion and lifestyle blogger Danielle Deojay. Photo courtesy of sequinsandponies.com.

People being what we are, the most common use of this opportunity is play. As a bit of googling will attest, the Kids in the Hall photo op is irresistible. This fact alone will make the work a popular success in the same vein as Anish Kapoor's wonderful Cloud Gate.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate ("The Bean"), Millennium Park, Chicago. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed Levitated Mass has a lot in common with The Bean. Each is a notably large structure planted in a plaza where people, unguided, may engage it on their own terms. Each allows not only a potentially meaningful circumnavigation, but also a descent below the work from which vantage its mass and the reliability of its installation may be appreciated. Each is significantly different from its surroundings. And, of course, each offers an opportunity for reflection.

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, photo via ArtInfo.com

As William Poundstone noted in his survey of initial reactions to Heizer's new work, some with (shall we say) unrealistic expectations registered disappointment that the 340 ton granite megalith was not actually levitating. (Such is our species, gentle reader.) Equipped as we are with an understanding of Noguchi's Balance Stone, we can appreciate that the transitional element between the rectilinear supporting structures and the surmounting stone is an expected feature of works in this genre, not a compromise. In granite, steel, and concrete, meanings converge. This is a work not of neolithic Britain, nor of feudal Japan, but of 21st-century California.

Govern your interpretations accordingly.

Poundstone's overview mentions many interesting possibilities, some plausible and some mere prompts. It also notes the analogy with Kapoor's work. The article is worth reading both for its deft rebuttal of know-nothingism and for its humble, exploratory tone.

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, symmetries. Photo by Brian James.

A successful work of art rewards contemplation and motivates further human action. I will not delve into my own interpretation of Levitated Mass, in part because I haven't yet explored it in person. But I will say that the work, financed entirely by private means and placed in a venue where contemplation is the order of the day, appears to me to be quite successful, a work of great intelligence embedded in material and interpretive traditions as long and wide and deep as human culture itself.

If you find yourself in Los Angeles hankering for megalithic meditation, technological mediation, and Instagrammatical satisfaction, you know what to do!

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, crepuscular view. Photo by Danielle Deojay.

 

Last 5 posts by David

37 Comments

35 Comments

  1. Gene  •  Aug 13, 2012 @12:29 pm

    Suppose I'll jump into that rock garden and make a snow angel.

  2. Mercury  •  Aug 13, 2012 @1:00 pm

    "At the Zen garden, only the monks tread among the stones while others look at the display from a space delimited for that purpose. Levitated Mass poses no such limitations; it invites a kinetic engagement that people routinely accept. In this respect, Heizer's sculpture blurs the distinction between the artwork and its observers."

    …but the distinction between hustler and sucker is pretty clear here. $10 million it cost to create this “art” work which just so happens to be indistinguishable from a mistake (Uh…we were rolling the boulder along the ridge and then…). Now, I happen to be a rock guy, I like to build stone walls and other things with rocks and I am frequently seen collecting interesting specimens –as large as possible- for future landscaping or other projects. Zen rock gardens aren’t quite my thing but I get it. I like rocks and I really like big rocks.

    But “Levitated Mass”, like almost all postmodern (or whatever the hell stage we’re supposed to be in now) installations is a pointless, ugly and costly joke. The boulder and the walls it connects aren’t even a good fit. He has these even uglier braces underneath the boulder that scream: *this is a feature not a bug – no really!*

    The whole thing looks like a conduit between terminals at Baghdad International…after it was bombed. Any number of halfway creative people with access to good raw material and some heavy equipment could have put together something way cooler than this for a fraction of the price. FAIL.

  3. David  •  Aug 13, 2012 @1:14 pm

    @Mercury Those wondering whether Zen gardens and rock installations have a future need look no further than Babylon 5. At least until the 23rd century, their currency abides!

    Delenn contemplates her spatial oneness

  4. AJ  •  Aug 13, 2012 @1:17 pm

    It's been 25 years but I remember Ryoan-ji quite well. My first thought was, infinite pairs. The longer I observed it, the stronger the theme became. One group with one branch, one rock with one tree, and so on.

    It also was not the same where the design was deliberately incorporating another sightline, as in other style gardens, but felt more organic.

  5. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Aug 13, 2012 @1:21 pm

    I'm torn. I can see a connection between "Levitated Mass" and the Zen garden, and they both resonate with me. On the other hand, I have seen far too many pieces of 'art' like Isamu Noguchi's "Portal"

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/hanneorla/3827602542/

    which strike me as nothing much, for one hell of a lot of money.

  6. David  •  Aug 13, 2012 @1:24 pm

    Are you saying the cake is a lie?

    For the joy of The Balance Stone, I'll forgive him Portal.

  7. Laura K  •  Aug 13, 2012 @1:27 pm

    {The whole thing looks like a conduit between terminals at Baghdad International…after it was bombed. Any number of halfway creative people with access to good raw material and some heavy equipment could have put together something way cooler than this for a fraction of the price. FAIL.}

    Mercury…wow…just…wow. I have seen some sorry-ass comments in my short time of reading blogs. I've seen comments more hateful than yours, or less intelligent…but…wow. I think you have a problem with your brain being missing. You may want to look to that.

    At least the monks would forgive you if they saw this because of their compassion for things far worse than your attitude.*

    I add, in an act of embarassing but necessary optimism, that if you were kidding, I apologize for not picking up on the snark.

  8. Andrew  •  Aug 13, 2012 @1:28 pm

    "Govern your interpretations accordingly."

    Can you make this the new Popehat subtitle?

  9. Laura K  •  Aug 13, 2012 @1:31 pm

    Ok. Cough. MY brain was clearly missing as I thought you were talking about the original garden.Mercury, I am sorry…

    "From the moment I was born, I made my first mistake; I have been learning ever since." (Ganesh, Mahabarata).Man for my sake I hope that is true…

  10. Narad  •  Aug 13, 2012 @2:49 pm

    'Crepuscular' really doesn't get enough play.

  11. BCP  •  Aug 13, 2012 @4:10 pm

    Ken goes on a posting hiatus and it really classes up this place. I'm ambivalent about this.

  12. David  •  Aug 13, 2012 @4:12 pm

    Yeah, he's a vulgarian. But what can we do? He's our vulgarian, bless his pate, and we loves him.

  13. TPRJones  •  Aug 13, 2012 @4:35 pm

    Not all things that can be contemplated are necessarily worth contemplating.

    I am now going to go contemplate a plate of nachos. This is more my speed.

  14. Mercury  •  Aug 13, 2012 @6:28 pm

    Laura, of course I was talking about 'Levitated Mass' (the name is a gross conceit all by itself if that rock was actually eased down into place and not raised up). I’m cool with Zen gardens as I thought I made clear.

    And David, I’m also totally down with the majesty and permanence of colossal stonecraft of all kinds – which makes this thing all the worse. Future civilizations will not hesitate to note that works like this immediately preceded the massive, self-induced economic collapse that currently lies just ahead.

  15. David  •  Aug 13, 2012 @6:31 pm

    So you're saying you don't care for it?

  16. Laura K  •  Aug 13, 2012 @6:43 pm

    Again, Mercury sorry.

  17. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Aug 13, 2012 @11:44 pm

    On consideration, I think that Levitated Mass does have a certain something, if only a sly sense of humor. I can get behind it being compared to the Zen garden. What irks me is the Arty Intellectuals who insist that 'Art installations' like it are comparable to Michelangelo's Pieta.

  18. Damon  •  Aug 14, 2012 @6:14 am

    Always loved the japanese gardens, this one in particular. Note the use of "background" material (the proper japanese term escapes me but equates with "borrowed scenery" or something).

    Visiting this Zen garden is on my bucket list. BTW, the Japanese garden in Portland Oregon has a nice one.

  19. David  •  Aug 14, 2012 @6:54 am

    What irks me is the Arty Intellectuals who insist that 'Art installations' like it are comparable to Michelangelo's Pieta.

    @C. S. P. Schofield

    We've got an app for that!

  20. David  •  Aug 14, 2012 @7:06 am

    @Damon You're right about "borrowed scenery", and shakkei may be the term you have in mind.

    Kyoto is definitely bucket-worthy, not only for Ryōan-ji (which I also haven't yet visited), but also for the day trip to Naruto for the strange and wonderful and oh-so-Japanese Ōtsuka Museum of Art!

  21. Maybrit  •  Aug 14, 2012 @9:35 am

    @Damon: If you do go to Kyoto, I can recommend going off-season. SUmmer is hot and muggy and full of people. I went in the late fall (autumn leaves!) and Jan-Feb, and had the gardens to myself. This means that instead of shuffling along with the crowd, you can sit at the various vantage points and meditate/enjoy the gardens. There is, of course, less color!

  22. Aufero  •  Aug 14, 2012 @9:46 am

    The problem with Levitated Mass as a work of art is partially one of location – in the L.A. area, (where it's hard to go more than a couple of miles without seeing a similar concrete trench built by civil engineers) it's reminiscent of a boulder stuck in a culvert.

  23. Corporal Lint  •  Aug 14, 2012 @10:33 am

    What irks me is the Arty Intellectuals who insist that 'Art installations' like it are comparable to Michelangelo's Pieta.

    The problem is that in the 21st century it's probably impossible to match Michelangelo by doing representational art in a traditional media — a reanimated Michelangelo would not be comparable to Michelangelo. If you want to take a shot at historic greatness you have to abandon the field. It makes everything a mess. This is the tragedy of living atop 26 centuries of Western history and 700 years after Giotto.

  24. Gavin  •  Aug 14, 2012 @11:22 am

    @Corporal Lint,

    Yes, it seems like so many things have already been done that significant changes/advances seem unlikely going forward. I take comfort in know that previous generations have said the same thing and been proven wrong. I do not know how we'll be proven wrong, but my hope is that we are, and soon.

  25. Corporal Lint  •  Aug 14, 2012 @1:11 pm

    Oh, there will be tremendous changes in the art world going forward, tremendous advances (if we can use that word). This is obvious. I just don't think they'll be in the area of representational art in traditional media. It's been 50 years since we've seen a historically significant "advance" in the area, back to Lichtenstein/Warhol-era pop art. Unless you count photorealism, I guess, which proved to be something of a dead end. The point is that if I were drunk right now I could convince myself that there's been less progress in representational art in traditional media in the fifty years since Roy Lichtenstein painted Minnie Mouse than in any similar slice of time since before the Ottonian Renaissance of the 10th century. That would be a mostly ridiculous argument to make, but the fact that it is not entirely ridiculous is very telling.

  26. Ariel  •  Aug 14, 2012 @2:12 pm

    You might also look at Amano's photographic work in freshwater aquaria.

  27. David  •  Aug 14, 2012 @2:30 pm

    Bishop Bernward's doors rocked the house.

  28. theparsley  •  Aug 14, 2012 @7:11 pm

    You know, it's possible to say you don't care for a work of art without saying "It's not art!" If I read a book I think is awful, I don't feel compelled to tell everyone that it's not a book, or even that it's not worthy to be called a book, that it was a disgraceful waste of money to print it, etc. etc.

    I realize that this is in a way a profoundly elitist view, because most people don't have the means or ability to do it except locally, but I really think it's necessary to experience a work of art in person (and take some real time with it) before you can really evaluate it. Photos certainly don't tell you enough about a sculpture. But I feel that way about paintings, too.

    I haven't seen Levitated Mass yet even though I live in Los Angeles (I well remember the huge hype surrounding The Boulder being elaborately moved all the way from Riverside), so I haven't formed an opinion. The photos I've seen haven't been very impressive, but I don't think I've seen *good* photos. I do share the concern that the trench bit where you walk through seems uncomfortably evocative of our city's many drainage channels. And it's not like it's going to patinate over time (though the boulder might) – it's hard to like the way concrete ages. We'll have to see, because the dimension of time is lacking in a new work.

    How interesting or challenging would a new artwork be if everyone immediately loved it?

  29. David  •  Aug 14, 2012 @7:19 pm

    "…pointless, ugly and costly joke. The boulder and the walls it connects aren’t even a good fit. He has these even uglier braces underneath…."

    "The whole thing looks like a conduit between terminals at Baghdad International…after it was bombed."

    "I’m also totally down with the majesty and permanence of colossal stonecraft of all kinds – which makes this thing all the worse."

    "On consideration, I think that Levitated Mass does have a certain something, if only a sly sense of humor."

    "The problem with Levitated Mass as a work of art is partially one of location – in the L.A. area, (where it's hard to go more than a couple of miles without seeing a similar concrete trench built by civil engineers) it's reminiscent of a boulder stuck in a culvert."

    "The photos I've seen haven't been very impressive, but I don't think I've seen *good* photos. I do share the concern that the trench bit where you walk through seems uncomfortably evocative of our city's many drainage channels."

    Heh.

    You all make a pretty good argument for the cleverness of the work and it's undeniable utter suitability to the look, feel, and state of contemporary Los Angeles. But I'm still not convinced. Keep selling!

    Shakkei! Shakkei!

  30. AJ  •  Aug 14, 2012 @8:51 pm

    The shakkei of the Levitation Mass piece. One interpretation of shakkei might be borrowed image which includes ideas. It's all about the engineering. Los Angeles would have never exploded if not for the Aqueduct, which was a profound bit of engineering, and overcame a few large masses of rocks.

    I think it well represents the idea of human ingenuity overcoming obstacles, but the piece itself indicates, eventually nature wins. Gravity.

  31. Damon  •  Aug 15, 2012 @10:09 am

    @ David and Maybrit,
    Thanks for the tips! I always try to go on "the shoulder" of the busy seasons. :)

  32. Mercury  •  Aug 15, 2012 @5:28 pm

    Actually David my argument is for the cleverness of the artist and the foolishness of the patron. Surely there's a classy Japanese term for that too.

    But I don't contest its suitability to LA.

  33. M.  •  Aug 15, 2012 @6:41 pm

    @theparsley: My boyfriend does some kind of modern dance which looks like something out of a Charlie Chaplin film; it's supposed to go along with electronic music, but looks like it should be accompanied by the kazoo. It's called shuffling or something. I've tried it. It still isn't art to me, unless you count vague comedic value that wears off quickly when you realize the practitioners take it extremely seriously. It is art to my boyfriend, however.

    Bottom line, art is something defined by the individual. Art museums exist to collect works that are noteworthy to a larger number of people than average, either because they truly have a wider appeal or because people are sheep (Pollock's work strikes me as fitting in this category). If it doesn't speak to me personally on a deeper level, or do so to another person in a way that I appreciate empathically, it isn't art to me. I expect people to be intelligent enough to realize that the things I say are my opinion without me prefixing them as such; therefore, I'm totally comfortable saying that shuffling and Pollock aren't art.

  34. Lucille  •  Aug 16, 2012 @6:47 pm

    When presented with something like Levitated Mass, I like to check with the dictionary. The one in front of me claims art is defined as "the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance." Does winning the most comments make it significant? Was Charlie Sheen winning because he said so? The other stuff was nice though.

  35. Gavin  •  Aug 17, 2012 @7:32 am

    @Corporal Lint,

    Oh, traditional media. You mean like sketching and painting I assume? I would also be more than a bit surprised about advances there. Simply because the last floodgate of art was to throw out all rules and guidelines so that anything goes.

    Technology is what we're using now. Like computer generated movies (all but completely replaced the traditional hand-drawn genre). I'm particularly looking forward to where Oculus Rift's VR is going to take us. It's the first viable step towards enabling artists to design worlds for people to feel like they're actually in (fortunately the gaming industry is footing the bill for these advancements).

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