Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Notes on Ishigumi, or the Art of Arranging Rocks

ancient ishigumi at spring source,
Miidera, Shiga Prefecture


The Skeleton Underpinning the View

In Japan the skill of a garden creator has traditionally been measured by their ability in setting stones. Master the setting of stones, then the garden will master itself. In traditional Japanese gardens what the viewer is presented with is a composed and framed view. A view which is built up, by the play of layer upon layer of scenery, adding depth and visual complexity each time. The mind though, seems to fall into a sense of equilibrium, perceiving movement yet stillness, 'equal play'. What the mind signals it's perceiving is something balanced, something in harmony. This opens the door for the viewer, now he or she can become a part of the garden. All manner of landscapes and gardens will have a similar effect on the experiencing viewer, but the japanese garden uses this aspect with a particularly deliberate effect.

The critical principle to the garden view is the placement of stones. The pattern of their interrelationship creates a variety of 'physiological' structure, a skeleton underlying the view. So structuring the view, making it authentic, and visually logical to our perception. 

In the first of images below the rock arrangement is both obvious, yet also fully integrated with the accompanying planting. The skeleton is overlain by a coating of  planting, in the way of flesh covering bones and giving dimension, individuality and character to a face. Identity formed.

In the second image, (the iconic Ryoan-ji courtyard stone garden), in this arrangement the skeleton is worn on the outside, presented without any embellishment. Here is nature in the raw. There is no planting about the stones to alleviate, shade or obscure. The scenery is composed of fifteen stones in plain view. There are no distractions, the scene is cut to its narrowest edge before it slides into pure abstraction. Open heart surgery on the concept of what constitutes a garden.

Jikko-in, Ohara
Ryoan-ji, Kyoto


Asymmetry, as a Building Block

The basic rule regarding a composition of stone is to be guided by asymmetric triangles. A dominant, or Master stone is placed, usually with a distinct upright movement. This stone then becomes the axis around which subsequent stones are placed. Most often in groups of three, five, seven pieces. Groups can link and overlap with one another, distinctions are subverted in favour of an overarching dynamic harmonisation.

The nature or character of the stones themselves also determines the level of emotional energy generated by an arrangement. The initial movement is upward, straight to the heavens. Creating an axis mundi, a central spindle, a fixed point to which the viewer can centre themselves on. A sacred centre. The upward thrust is supported, reinforced, from either side by flanking stones, the alignment of each are carefully collaborated. The relationship can be explored by shifting the relative position of stones until the point of maximum tension is realised. The drama inherent in good ishigumi is infinitely subtle and plastic, rather than formulaic. When the viewer is drawn into an arrangement a narrative has begun. The ishigumi speaks from one heart to another. 

Shigemori's precisely defined arrangement,
Zuiho-in, Kyoto
a 3- stone setting, the fundamental building block,
Daisen-in, Kyoto


 From Memory to Here and There

By the time they arrive in a garden, stones have already experienced millions of years of exposure. Try to imagine the forces involved in their creation alone and you will fail. Our mind cannot encompass experience at that level. Yet there in the detail, in the grain, in its colour, texture, or shape; in its distribution of weight and weathering patterns, there is an energy vibrating. It is this memory of some primal energy that the ishigumi creator is concerned to observe and arrange.

The stone placed on the very edge of the arrangement is an 'entry point
private garden, England

A rock arrangement will have a doorway, or a point of entry for the eye, a start point on a journey. As the eye-mind moves from peak to peak, from one edge to the next, it  it coalesces the scene into a whole. The opposition of the twin poles of dominant rock as one axis mundi, and the viewer as the one who creates the scene in their mind as another, breaks down. The viewer becomes the axis mundi, embedded into the scenery as a rock. The doorway is a point of transition for the viewer to step through, to step from one world to another. Setting one stone after another, adding and taking away, so an arrangement is created. When a stone is placed well it is because there is a harmony between the intention of the arranger, and the request of the stone. When the stone is placed very well, there is no stone and no arranger.

The sinuous layering of the ishigumi anchors the powerful upward thrust of the tree trunk. The movement of the arrangement draws the viewer forward and upwards

Reverse side of the arrangement reveals a fast running stream. Here the movement of the stone arrangement is carefully resolved by spreading the base wide, and establishes the big boulder, centre right, as the dominant visual focal point.

The dry stream depicted by individually set small stones gives the impression of water rushing in a mountain stream. The stream balances the lofty ambition of the upright stones, grounding the arrangement. Te stream detail is made of many edges and contrasts, which gives a greater points of attention for the mind.


Balancing on the Edge

One of the great joys of my life is arranging stones. It is a bizzare activity to get excited by, but I do. It's that part of the work that just seems the best fun, sharper, and more demanding. Demanding of my attention to be be as present as I can. Even small rocks can hurt, they demand respect when placing or moving. Three sturdy poles.lifting straps and a chain block may look primitive technology, but the system works beautifully for making the very precise placement of stones possible.

It becomes a dance, with the poles taking the weight of the stone, holding the balance just right. Then with a couple of fingers you can rotate a stone of a ton weight or more degree by degree, until some trigger in your mind tells you the stone's aspect is correct. For me its a soft, but audible sound. Its not a thinking moment, its a moment where you empty your mind and listen for the stone to speak. It is meditation in itself. No different.

There are formulas to follow, such as the rule of thirds; one stone is a third the height or distance in relationship to its pairing with another. Rules are there to guide us as we learn, and when we have absorbed sufficient, then we rely of other means, not just rules for the sake of it. Learn and then unlearn, the stone itself will tell you how and where it wants to be.


Sleeping spirits

Korin-in, Kyoto

The spaces between elements defines their outline, reveals clues as to volume and mass, and draws attention to their edge forms What is 'described' or revealed by the placement ultimately lies in the mind of the viewer. Traditionally the garden scenery describes a vision of landscape, an attempt to encapsulate an essence of landscape, rather than presenting a miniaturised reproduction of a landscape. Its the essence that we are chasing; cutting to the core, to find what is absolutely essential.

Just as in a passage of music, an arrangement with have rhythm, tempo and emotion. Its rich voice is in the web of interconnectivity, the enclosed stage on which the action unfolds, the patina which speaks of experience and depths beneath the surface. The eye rarely takes in the whole in a glance, the bigger picture is composed of untold thousands of fragmentary snapshots.

Norwich Cathedral, England
Stones are a paradox, they appear inert and unyielding, yet they seem capable of movement and they can move us. Their weight and mass connects powerfully with the earth, yet they seem to soar. They rise from the ground. They are capable of expressing distance, depth and seem to stir memory, make connections, deep within own minds. A stone will occupy space, become a point marked, a punctuation mark in a sentence. A centre, and so according to Mircea Eliade, becomes something sacred. Rock arrangements suggest something primal, mysterious, yet redolent with meaning. A voice coming to us borne by the wind, even if the words are indistinct.

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