It is as difficult to understand Zen Gardens as it is to understand one’s own self. (Parkes, p.10)
“Zen Playground” was a performance I created in December and various different inspirations were synthesized to create my final project. Artists discussed in classes, concepts discovered in other lectures, and previous aspirations from my own life came together to create this performance piece. The performance revolves around three key ideas: physicality, inspiration from children, and appropriating Zen imagery for a western audience. The original concept came to me many years ago when I discovered this small play area that evoked the image of a Zen garden to me. The work had been bubbling away in my mind since I had first found the playground back in high school. The play park had a series of small rocks alongside various play apparatuses in an somewhat circular space. I immediately was struck with the idea of recreating a Zen-like garden in the playground. Since this initial inspiration I have learned more about Zen and have created a clearer vision for my appropriation of the Zen garden concept.
Several artists from the Gutai movement sparked my interest from Ming Tiampo’s article Gutai: Decentering Originality, because they drew their inspiration from youth. Murukami Saburo’s “At One Moment Opening Six Holes” from 1955 was originally inspired by his son throwing a tantrum and ripping through the paper screen in their home. This work is extremely provocative because of the amount of physical involvement the artist had on its creation. Watching the artist struggle his way through a series of screens is almost painful to watch. At the end of his performance he is panting and sweating in front of his audience. The Gutai movement is deeply entwined with two of the main principles for my own performance- physicality and children. “Early Gutai sought originality by investigating the nature of creativity. One place they looked to as a model was children’s art, (Tiampo, p.24)” I wanted to use the children’s playground to this same affect, drawing inspiration from where children play rather than how they play.
Another idea that I drew inspiration from was my lectures on Zen in professors J.P Park’s “Art In China” course. We spent two weeks discussing the origins and principles of Zen in his lecture. Three concepts from the Zen practice that stuck with me were that (1) enlightenment could occur at any time, (2) that children were closer to enlightenment than adults, and (3) that enlightenment could be achieved through repetitive tasks. The masters that codified Zen practices were anti-sutra and in general contrary to previous Buddhist beliefs. Instead of sitting and reading about enlightenment, actions and thought had to be taken to reach it. Spontaneous action in juxtaposition to repetitive action replaced previous Buddhist traditions. The act of working on a garden was a logical repetitive task that could possibly lead to enlightenment and also served to help the monastery through the cultivation of food.
Allen Weiss discussed the various aesthetics, symbols, and stories that have come to be included in Japanese thought, specifically in regards to gardens. He explained the experience of a Zen garden as follows:
Each person arrives with different beliefs, different expectations, different protocols of viewing. Where one finds the living presence of nature, another seeks a revelation of the transcendental void, while a third discovers sublime beauty. One need not become a Buddhist monk seeking satori to appreciate the Zen garden, yet, as with all art, the form and depth of appreciation depend on what one brings to the scene. These temples and gardens are thus simultaneously sites of meditation, magic, devotion, knowledge, curiosity—even commerce, play, and profanation. (Weiss, p.128)
His explanation of the function of Zen gardens lead me to believe that any artistic license I took on the concept would be acceptable. Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Zen, was often in favor of breaking down old traditions and re-appropriating ideas. In many ways Zen is all about anarchy, paradox, and irony. Zen gardens also function as a form of visual Koan. A Koan is a form of riddle that has no answer. Through puzzling through the nonsensical question with a nonsensical question enlightenment might possibly be reached through escaping normal trends of thought. The synchronicity between the inspiring artists of the Gutai movement, my own inspiration for this performance, and these concepts within Zen Buddhism was extremely exciting. Keeping this in mind I went forward with creating my own garden at the playground.
I chose to use a child’s toy rake to groom the garden. Not only did it create an aesthetically pleasing line in the sand, but it also visually linked the viewer to a child’s role in the performance. Raking the garden was much more physically exhausting than I anticipated, but the repetitive and concentric circles helped establish a rhythm and reflected the physicality that had inspired me in other art pieces. In the end I was quite happy with the garden I created. Unfortunately I had wanted to work on the garden for more time but technical and weather issues prevented me from executing the performance as perfectly as I wanted. Originally I wanted to stop whenever a child appeared to play in the park, and start over once they left. No children came to the park for the full duration of my performance, and ironically as I was packing up my materials two families came to the park. This aspect of the performance was out of my hands. Also it snowed and was cold the first day I planned to perform, and so I had to reschedule to a day when there was no more snow.
Luckily, I was struck with another ray of inspiration for the music of the piece. Two men came to play basketball in a nearby court while I was working on the garden. The sound of the ball hitting the rim for the net reminded me of sounds I associated with Buddhist temples. I looped the audio clip to create a rhythmic chime. This creation of a sound that would perceived as authentic, when in fact it was completely fabricated. This idea is similar to the music Jaye Rhee created for her “Cherry Blossom” performance. She plucked at a chinese instrument to create a composition that sounded asian, but in fact was not. Incorporating this into my final video finalized the appropriation of Zen visuals and sounds for a western audience. In all I was very happy with the performance and it accomplished almost everything I hoped to.
Berthier, François, and Graham Parkes. Reading Zen in the Rocks: the Japanese Dry Landscape Garden. Chicago, Ill. [u.a.: Univ. of Chicago, 2000. Print.
Park, JP. “Zen.” Art in China. Visual Arts Complex, Boulder. 18 Oct. 2011. Lecture.
Tiampo, Ming. Gutai: Decentering Modernism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2011. Print.
Weiss, Allen S. “Heimits Of Etaphor: Ideology And Representation In The Zen Garden.”Social Analysis 54.2 (2010): 116-129. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.