Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Cultural Borrowing

Osmosis Day Spa, California

The very notion of creating a “Japanese style garden” raises many interesting questions for consideration. Not least whether it is possible at all to create a “Japanese garden” outside of its geographical and cultural origins.  Attempting even a partial answer will draw us into to considering the very notions of what constitutes a garden, its function in society and within the wider cultural context. Some questioning of the fundamental position of the garden is beneficial in order to understand how to approach the question of importing ideas from one culture into another.

Limerick University, Ireland
In Japan, the exercise of creating gardens has over several centuries evolved into a highly sophisticated tradition. The Western garden (in the modern sense) by comparison is a relative new comer. Though both approaches are ultimately derived from the same starting point; that is the garden as an expression of the notion of Paradise, or an idealised state or condition. It is a characteristic of the development of a tradition that innovation and accumulative change occurs at a relatively slow speed. In the West, it has so far been the case that the development of the garden has been subject more to changing notions of taste and fashion, which have meant that transformation and developments have occurred at a much quicker pace. Further, we can note that in a world of tradition (and the sacred), there is a deliberate richness and ambiguity of meaning, which contrasts to a modern (and especially in the visually dominated post modern world) world that primarily strives to be transparent and literal in its expression.
Private garden Manchester
In the West at the present time it has become very popular to look to the East for creative inspiration. For example, the word ‘Zen’ is synonymous in many peoples’ mind with Japan and Japanese culture. The word is frequently used as a shorthand term to denote a certain style that may have association with minimalism, brevity, abstraction, etc. Often the word is be used in a context completely disassociated from any connection with its origin (as in a hairdressers shop called ‘Now and Zen’!) Hence a “Zen style garden”, is often designated as being a garden composed primarily of a gravel groundcover, which may or may not also feature, rocks, plants etc. It is its physical constituents that attempt to define it, rather than the cultural context and tradition from which it has arisen.

Nursing home, Lancashire
Many “Japanese style” gardens have been created outside of Japan, they vary from the loosest of attempts (a curved red bridge arching over a pond or a stone lantern set in a flower border), to more serious and high-minded attempts to recreate after the manner of gardens that may be seen in Japan itself.  Is it possible at all to measure the relative authenticity of these gardens? If we mean by ‘authenticity’ how closely they align with the original models and forms in Japan, then presumably all such attempts would fail at the first hurdle. Perhaps the key element to the process of adoption is to absorb the underlying techniques, and then integrate those to local conditions and sensibilities.

Garden space in a commercial building, Manchester 
Japan originally imported the notion of creating gardens from the China, that original model was presumably influenced by native cultural ideas, as well as available materials. In time the gardens would come to exhibit a uniquely Japanese character. Perhaps what is more pertinent is for us to look again at the Japanese garden tradition as a whole, to regard it as a source of inspiration in our own attempts to create and find meaning in gardens. In other words, to also look beyond surface appearances, toward the potential that is being offered. In this way we may draw the greatest benefit from the study and appreciation of another culture. Probably it is far too early in the process to say what the influence of the Japanese garden will be on the West, as we are still at a relatively formative stage in the process. Though any process that enhances our awareness and sensitivity to the creative potential in garden making is to be welcomed. Certainly in the tradition of garden creation as practised in Japan one may find preserved a clear and unhindered expression of the original notion of the garden itself. That is, the garden as a work representing sacred space; a place where humans may interact with the forces of Nature, and in so doing be able to reconnect more profoundly with that which sustains us. As we hurtle recklessly into the future it is something that is becoming increasingly urgent to both well-being of the society we live in and also to ourselves.
Norwich Cathedral