Thursday, 27 November 2014

Texture And The Japanese Garden

Ritsurin Koen, Takamatsu
Fresh in mind from a recent visit to Japan I am reminded of the importance of texture to our perception and reception of Japanese garden. Texture is something that we tend to take for granted visually, our eyes seek out forms in a vague belief that these hold the key to the garden. We scan a garden view flitting from rock to rock, plant grouping to plant grouping, from tree to tree, sensing in these concrete aspects of the garden that there is some notion of idea here. If there is idea inherent in the forms, then we can find ‘meaning’, and so make ‘real’ our relationship with the garden. The fact that I couch certain key words within apostrophe marks is indicative of a hesitancy in expression, as I unconsciously recognise that what I have written is only partially true at best.

Saiho-ji, Kyoto

Time after time as I sat and observed garden scenery it came to me that what I was responding to was only partially the forms within the garden, but it was moreover the textures of the garden that made somehow the greater sense, the greater impact on myself as a responsive being absorbing the garden. It is the textures of the raked gravel, the texture of light playing across water, the texture of stone surfaces, the texture of the plants, and so on. My experience of the garden is an interplay between the substantive and the ephemeral aspects before me. These forms I respond to and recognise primarily with my visual senses, and given the relative importance of the visual senses therefore I tend to grade these as being the dominant elements of the garden.

Adachi Museum, Shimae Prefecture
But my senses are tricking my cognitive brain into an illusion of sorts. The essential magic of the garden does not lie primarily in the visual realm. When I am viewing garden scenery I am responding to much more than visual clues. Emotionally I am also profoundly engaged with the textural qualities of the garden. These qualities of texture I seem to recognise primarily through senses other than the visual. On further reflection I can begin to understand that the principal source of contact with texture is through the heart as an organ of perception. The heart does not discriminate, intellectualise, nor categorise what it perceives. It simply responds without analysis to any given situation. Ordering our experience takes place in the brain through cognitive process we apply to the information we garner from our environment. The illusion is that we take for granted that this filtered experience has some primacy of reality, that it is our experience. In fact the gestalt of our experience is unfiltered and beyond discrimination, nor is it fixed in time and space. The garden we are viewing is constantly shifting and metamorphosing before out eyes, as what we experience is constantly in a process of change.

D T Suzuki Museum, Kanazawa
Texture is what it is because of the interplay of light across substance. The texture of bark is a result of the falling of light across the surface of the tree. The texture of water is the interplay of light falling across the skin of the pond or stream. The quality of light is constantly changing from moment to moment, the gradations may be infinitesimally small, but they are in a process of ceaseless change and shift. This is the reason a photograph of a garden cannot do justice to what we experience whilst observing, as the camera lens freezes a particular aspect representing say 1/500th or 1/125th of our immediate experience (the image is further inhibited by the technical limitations inherent in the camera itself), which is in itself on-going.

Ryugin-an, Kyoto
The Zen masters of old teach us not to be attached to what we understand through the intellect, not to accept the apparent forms of the world as being an ultimate source of reality. To do so would be to elevate a photograph, a ‘snap shot’, of our perceptions as an absolute representation of something that is infinitely complex. Perceiving texture gives us an understanding that the nature of the reality we are dealing with in experiencing a garden (and indeed all aspects of our environment) is a process that is in constant motion, constant transformation and evolution. The genius of the Japanese garden is that it recognises just that a garden is not merely an assemblage of forms; but a process which may appear to be stable, but is actually in ceaseless movement and change. All the interpretations as to the ‘meaning’ of a garden are just that, interpretations after the event of perception. In engaging with the Japanese garden we are brought closer to an awareness of being in the very moment of the creation of the world about us; the creation of which we are wholly engaged with as an active participant in the process.

If you enjoyed this blog then try my Facebook page, Robert Ketchell Garden Design. Feel free to leave comments there. Good gardening. If you enjoyed this, or any other post, please let me know! If there are specific aspects of the Japanese garden tradition you are interested in, please let me know. Thanks.

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