Toshio Watanabe: Ryoanji Garden as the Epitome of Zen Culture

Ryoan Ji, Kyoto zen garden

The final lecture in the 2012 Frank Davis Lecture Series was given by Prof Toshio Watanabe, from the University of the Arts, London. At its centre was an extraordinary object, the Ryoanji Garden in Kyoto, regarded as one of the finest examples of the Japanese Zen garden. As we discovered in Prof Watanabe’s fascinating lecture, Ryoanji’s canonical status is a more complicated affair than the garden’s antiquity might suggest.

I have, I confess, very little knowledge of Japanese dry gardens, and the lecture slides filled me with a mixture of wonder tinged with bafflement. In the everyday meaning of the term, Ryoanji is scarcely a garden at all: it’s a rectangle of raked shingles, in which a small number of rocks have been significantly placed; the only vegetation is small patches of moss forming islands around these mysterious objects. The garden’s history, in Watanabe’s account, only adds to its strangeness: its designer is unknown, and it was constructed at some point between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries (recent scholarship favours the later date). Its austere beauty, as part of the Ryoanji temple complex, clearly suggests a contemplative purpose, though the ritual or symbolic intent of its authors remains a matter of scholarly conjecture.

The subject of the lecture was not the history of Japanese gardens – though I would have been happy enough to sit through that. Watanabe’s theme was the creation of canons, a process that results, in Ryoanji’s case, in 300,000 visitors a year. It turns out that the origins of this pilgrimage are not lost in the mists of time, but can be specifically dated to the inclusion of Ryoanji in guides to Japanese gardens from the 1920s onwards. The key turning point was 1935, when the American author Lorraine Kuck linked the garden to Zen Buddhism in her book One Hundred Kyoto Gardens – previous scholars had been more circumspect in their claims, if they mentioned Ryoanji at all. The lecture then sketched out the progress toward Ryoanji’s present-day mythic status, passing through American transcendentalism (five million copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), the Tokyo Olympics of 1964,  and the works of John Cage. At some point along the way, Kuck’s speculative theory of Ryoanji’s Zen credentials became hardened into certainty.

The joy of Prof Watanabe’s lecture was that it spoke, with great clarity, to a fundamental issue in the history of art. How do works of art enter the canon, and what does this inclusion signify? A simple appeal to artistic quality is, clearly, inadequate: works may be elevated or ignored for all kinds of contingent reasons. Watanabe did not suggest that we can do without the canon – it’s basic to cultural value systems, and to the creation of interest groups – only that we should be aware of the complex power relations that underlie them. And that, as the Ryoanji example perfectly illustrated, historians need on occasion to follow received wisdom back to its original sources.


A Response

Research Forum Modern and Contemporary Seminar

One of the aims of this new initiative by the Research Forum is to allow students to respond to research events in diverse ways, placing new, perhaps abstract lenses on the information presented. I have chosen to respond to this discussion with a note on Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. As a true admirer of his work I couldn’t help but see two distinct, if somewhat trivial, aesthetic similarities with a photograph by Elżbieta Tejchman in the presentation (Fig. 1), and two of his images. The first related to the use of a solitary figure within a bleak, monochrome landscape, seen here in Nostalgia (Fig. 2), as a strong visual motif in Tarkovsky’s films. The second is the form of the sculpture in Fig. 1, Antoni Starczewski’s ‘spatial form‘ created for the Biennale, and the Polish poster for Solaris (1972), designed by Andrzej Bertrandt (Fig. 3).

These two aspects pick up on the tension of artistic forces in the notion of ‘Photography and Temporality’, there is first the sculpture for the Biennale itself, and then the photographer documenting the event for future observation. Yet when these photographs adopt distinct aesthetic and compositional choices, the artwork it has originally depicted takes on a new meaning within the photographic context. This was one of the themes that Sylwia Serafinowicz discussed in her seminar, analysing the photographs themselves more than the artworks they depict.

I found it quite bizarre that these two separate elements (the sculpture and Solaris, and the photograph and Nostalgia) came together in such a way as to highlight the political dimension, another key theme in Sylwia’s talk. This is because both Tarkovsky’s films and The First Biennale of Spatial Forms work against the current pressures of artists to conform to the socialist realist style of the soviet state, which was extremely difficult to oppose. Particularly for Tarkovsky in Russia, who found it increasingly difficult to make films in his home country, his last two (Nostalgia and The Sacrifice) having to be filmed elsewhere.

Sylwia suggested that in Tejchman’s photographs, the domination of the landscape and deserted streets speak of a void caused by the destruction of the old town of Elblag, under Nazi and then Soviet rule. Considering this now in terms of my Tarkovsky-esque reading, perhaps if we take the photograph out of the context of the Biennale, this is a structure that would not be so out of place as a strange piece of abandoned industrial machinery somewhere in ‘The Zone’, the surreal wasteland setting of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

I decided to make this first blog post a ‘response’ on a very basic level, and as such these comments barely scratch the surface of the depth of Sylwia’s discussion into the complex elements of both the Biennale and the accompanying photographs. Although my observations rely solely on what was essentially a gut reaction to an aesthetic and compositional mood shared by these images, this can be one way to play around with ideas, which can sometimes extend broader angles for research.

Fig. 1: Elżbieta Tejchman, Untitled (Antoni Starczewski's 'spatial form'), Gelatin silver print, 1965

Fig. 1: Elżbieta Tejchman, Untitled (Antoni Starczewski’s ‘spatial form’), Gelatin silver print, 1965

Fig. 2: Andrei Tarkovsky, Still from Stalker, 1979

Fig. 2: Andrei Tarkovsky, Still from Stalker, 1979

Fig. 3: Andrzej Bertrandt, Polish promotional poster for Solaris, 1972

Fig. 3: Andrzej Bertrandt, Polish promotional poster for Solaris, 1972