Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
– English nursery rhyme
What makes a garden? Is it a physical plot of land, fertile and ready to churn out flowers or vegetables? Or is a garden rocks and sand arranged in a soothing way? Japan Society‘s latest exhibition questions our assumptions of the traditional garden by offering us one with an otherworldly theme.
As the exhibition title suggests, Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya, and teamLab is not your typical plot of land spewing forth a few vegetables with which to make a salad. So how does this Garden, with its abundance of unearthly delights, grow? With surreal expressions of nature, modern twists on ancient traditions, and interactive digital landscapes in a row. All cultivated from hundreds of years of Japanese culture and art history.
In total there are 21 works of art by Manabu Ikeda, Hisashi Tenmyouya, and teamLab, a collective with around 300 members who excel in the fields of art, design, computer engineering, and math. Co-curated by Miwako Tezuka, Director of Japan Society, and independent curator Laura J. Mueller, the Garden will be open for contemplation until January 11, 2015.
Unmistakably contemporary, the artists take direction from the classics. Members of teamLab meticulously study calligraphy and the Japanese use of space. Tenmyouya calls himself a practitioner of Neo Nihonga, or neo Japanese-style painting, but he puts traditional subjects in modern situations. Ikeda draws inspiration from legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
For the largest-ever presentation of Manabu Ikeda’s works, Garden harvested eleven of the 41-year-old artist’s intricate, finely detailed drawings that reflect humankind’s tenuous relationship with nature. Using fine-tipped pens and acrylic ink, Ikeda embeds multiple scenarios in each work. Look closely at Victim to see that the metropolis is actually a giant snake, with an airstrip as its tongue.
Inspired by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that devastated Northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, Manabu Ikeda’s Meltdown features a massive industrial compound embedded in the rock of a giant iceberg precariously balanced against the green forest below it. The intricate system of pipes and boilers is a grim reminder of how gray we have allowed our world to become.
But it’s Ikeda’s 2008 work, Foretoken, that draws more comparisons to the horrors of 3.11 as well as Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, possibly the most recognizable image in Japanese art. Entangled in Ikeda’s giant tsunami, there are fishermen in boats fighting the wave, penguins romping, trees and cars and villages being unapologetically uprooted.
The Zen garden in Garden of Unearthly Delights has perfectly manicured lines drawn in blood-red sand and is peppered with volcanic rock that have skulls carved in them. Unearthly, indeed. While contemplating this unusual garden, you can enjoy the expanse of Rhyme, Hisashi Tenmyouya’s major installation of a battle scene depicting combatants, who are actually the same loincloth-wearing yakuza-style man with slicked-back hair, along with horses and tigers fighting against the gold backdrop typically found in classic Japanese screen paintings. A digital print, the mirror opposite, sits beside it.
Known as a “street samurai” artist, Tenmyouya created his own art manifesto called basara, which is part way of the samurai and part contemporary samurai street culture. Tenmyouya puts guns in the hands of the Thousand-Armed Kannon and a suit of armor on a fox.
If you want to see actual flowers in this garden, look no further than the rooms housing the US museum debut of teamLab. (The collective had a month-long exhibition at Pace Gallery in Chelsea this summer.) The flowers aren’t real; they’re growing in a virtual garden.
The cold of winter evolves into the green of spring and the lushness of summer in teamLab’s work Life Survives by the Power of Life, one of two pieces shown for the first time in the US. Grass grows, flowers bloom, birds and bees pollinate, spawning from the Chinese character for “life” written with the flourish of a calligraphy brush.
United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent is an interactive digital media projection piece based on Ito Jakuchu’s 18th century pair of six-panel folding screens called Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants in Imaginary Scene. There are birds, animals, and flowering plants in teamLab’s version, but they exist across eight HD monitors. Gallery visitors’ movements change the brightly lit work, pixelating and morphing from dragons and parrots into bursts of colors.
In a darkened room, touching the walls and the floor creates an avalanche of blooming flowers and falling petals. You’ll want to stay in the room as long as you can to see how your own creation changes. Gardens need attention to thrive, and you can tend this Garden yourself.
This is not the type of exhibition you can breeze through and say, “That was nice.” No, you need to look at the works, study the details, and cultivate your own imagination. It takes time to contemplate the fruits of the gardeners’ labors at Japan Society’s Garden of Unearthly Delights.