Tuesday, November 4, 2008


November 6, 2008

On an unusually warm autumn afternoon last week, a tour group wandered around and under an immense bamboo art-work, “Clouds,” in the courtyard of the century-old conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden here in the Bronx. Supported by six-inch-thick logs of timber bamboo, the installation is a dense canopy of hundreds of stout sticks and curly shavings 20 feet tall and 50 feet long, seemingly chaotic but tightly geometrical, nothing rounded, nothing fleecy, nothing at all resembling clouds.
That is the point.
The gray-haired Anglo docent told the group that the artist, Tetsunori Kawana, built it on that spot in ten days last month, and that in mid-November it would be dismantled and tossed on the garden’s compost pile.
A woman gasped. “That’s terrible!” she cried. “It’s so impressive! Can’t they move it someplace else on the grounds so people can enjoy it for years?”
“I agree,” said the docent. “I’ll mention it to the curator.”
But that is the point, too.
The installation is one facet of Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum, a month-long tribute to the chrysanthemum festivals of Japan; it ends November 16. Surrounding “Clouds” in the expansive conservatory courtyard are stands of young bamboo, sculpted Japanese maples in fiery fall color, flower-drenched rock gardens, groves of bonsai trees, and most noteworthy of all, four traditional three-sided bamboo pavilions festooned with silk curtains and braided ropes, sheltering the most spectacular display of chrysanthemums outside Japan.
The chrysanthemum — the kiku — is the Japanese imperial flower, introduced from China by Buddhist monks 1400 years ago. As with bonsai, in which trees that in nature grow tall and wild are miniaturized by confined potting and stylized by wire restraints, this simple, cheerful plant with its showy little flowers has been turned into an object of rare, even grotesque beauty. Staring at the elaborate arrangement of these living things inside the pavilions, you can glimpse the mind of Zen.
Cultivation of the chrysanthemum for exotic display has been going on in Japan for centuries, formerly for the viewing pleasure of the royal court. The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, once part of the imperial palace complex, showcases this art most lavishly, but the autumn chrysanthemum festival, like the celebration of the cherry blossoms in the spring, is a national event, and both professionals and hobbyists show off their work in gardens and parks everywhere.
Chrysanthemums common in America are stubby round shrubs with profuse daisy-like blooms that brighten the landscape in the dark days of fall. The Japanese value this type too, but through selective breeding they have developed cultivars producing flowers of most atypical sizes and shapes — pompoms eight inches wide, for example, and specimens with spindly, spider-legged petals in variegated colors. But it is not so much the variety of the plants, but how they are trained for display, that pushes Japanese chrysanthemum-growing beyond horticulture into living art.
Four examples of this art are represented in the exhibition; they were home-grown at the NYBG greenhouses under the supervision of Yuki Kurashina, a young Japanese-American woman who apprenticed with the kiku masters at the Shinjuku Gyoen. For the kengai (“cascade”) display, a common mum is woven through a draping wire mesh; the flowers bloom in a waterfall of color. For the ozukuri (“thousand-blooms”) pattern, an individual cutting is meticulously pruned and pinched to produce hundreds of long branches which are strung into a dome-shaped frame to show off each large flower blooming at the branches’ tips. For the ogiku (“single stem”) arrangement, dozens of plants have all their side growth cut away to put forth a single huge bloom atop a six-foot stem and then are placed in color-coded rows to look like ranks of parading soldiers. And for the shino-tsukuri type, spidery-flowered varieties are trained up trellises for a dense vertical effect — its name means “driving rain.”
Western eyes boggle at the bizarre beauty of these displays (How do people do this?), made all the more bizarre with the knowledge that each one of these plants has been worked on daily by a team of specialists for almost a year, to produce flowers that will last a couple weeks at most (Why do they do this?).
The answer lies in Zen.
A fundamental teaching of the Buddha is the impermanence of all things. The everyday mind takes what it sees as real — the shapes and forms of things supposedly reveal their underlying essences: humans, animals, plants, and inanimate objects all seem to have substance. The Buddha-mind recognizes that things we call real have no more substance than ghosts or fantasies; they are merely the random coming together and pulling apart of qualities, nothing more.
The same applies to time. Neither past nor future actually exists except in our imagination, yet they make us miserable with regret and anxiety.
To be set free from the illusions of space and time and live at the still-point of the present moment, the mind and senses must be jarred into realizing that things are not only not what they seem but they aren’t anything at all.
In words, this is done with the koan or riddle: What is the sound of one hand clapping? The Zen garden, like the one represented in this exhibition, is a sensory koan: Rushing rivers are formed of dry sand, and run without moving. Majestic trees are tortured to grow just one foot tall, and generations of caretakers keep them flourishing through a hundred or more seasons. Waterfalls and driving rains become sprays of chrysanthemums, cultured for a year to bloom for two weeks and then die. Clouds are constructed of bamboo sticks and composted after barely a month.
This surreal world turns the categories of the mind upside-down, pointing the viewer — the participant, really — beyond appearances to behold formless, timeless reality itself.
The gasping lady in the courtyard longs for permanence, while the banks of mums all around her are silently speaking. Nothing gold can stay.

(Photos and a video of this exhibition are on the Garden’s website, nybg.org. A fascinating video of the “Clouds” installation is posted on vimeo.com; in the Search box at the site, type in “Tetsunori Kawana.”)

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