The Zen gardens of Kyoto have attracted countless admirers and served as inspiration to many artists, designers and other creative people. Steve Jobs, for whom Zen Buddhism was an inspiration, praised Kyoto’s gardens, and the minimalism of Zen aesthetics became a strong inspiration behind the design of Apple Inc. products.
The association of a traditional, disciplined minimalism with Japanese rock gardens, such as that of Kyoto’s Ryoanji temple, has become so familiar worldwide, it is virtually a cliche. But there are also great examples of Japanese gardens that go beyond traditionalism to provide tranquility and space for contemplation.
Mirei Shigemori (1896-1975), a self-taught garden designer and historian of Japanese gardens, challenged the conventional design of Japanese gardens. He refused to imitate the style of a specific master or school of landscape gardening — a way of teaching that in Japan was common to traditional art and craft forms such as painting, ikebana or pottery.
Born in the Kayo, Jobo District, Okayama Prefecture — where he grew up surrounded by the grand landscapes of Goukei ravine, which remained an inspiration throughout his life — Shigemori moved to Tokyo in 1917 to study nihonga (traditional Japanese-style painting) at the Nippon Art College, then called the School of Japanese Fine Arts. To deepen his understanding of Japanese aesthetics, his studies led him to explore a broader spectrum of Japanese culture, including art history, philosophy, calligraphy, the tea ceremony and ikebana.
Instead of pursuing nihonga, however, Shigemori joined the avant-garde debate on ikebana, criticizing the art form and attempting to create a new style of flower arranging. It was around this time that he also became interested in traditional Japanese gardens. Though he had actually completed a garden and tea room on his family’s property in 1924 — working on them with his father — it took another 10 years before Shigemori chose to settle on designing gardens as his profession.
After the 1934 Muroto typhoon left a path of destruction across western Japan, Shigemori, worried that more gardens could be lost without a trace in the future, began to survey and document the country’s most important ones. Within three years, he researched, measured, photographed and sketched more than 400 gardens, and in 1938 he published the 26-volume “Illustrated Book on the History of the Japanese Garden.” It was an unprecedented documentation of Japan’s major gardens, which also provided Shigemori with the comprehensive and profound knowledge of landscape gardening that helped his career take off.
Chisao, Mirei Shigemori’s grandson, also a garden designer, said in a recent interview that through the extensive research, his father learned that “each significant garden was created with the cutting-edge spirit of the time.”
Shigemori’s first major work was for Kyoto’s Tofuku-ji Temple in 1939. He used geometric shapes and forms in designs for four gardens that are now considered some of the earliest examples of the modern Japanese garden.
“My goal is to create a modern garden, not by replicating traditional gardens of old times,” he once said. “But by studying carefully and learning from them.”
It was a unique approach from someone who lived in an era when artists in Japan were confronted with the tension between the post Meiji Restoration (1868) modernizing influence of the West and the promotion of Japanese tradition by a growing resistance to such cultural change.
Mirei chose to follow neither Western style nor stick to conventional tradition. Instead, his gardens retained the quintessential element of a Japanese garden — the primordial power that the Shinto tradition attributed to nature — while advocating the modernist spirit.
He designed more than 200 gardens throughout his life, most of which were karesansui (dry landscape or rock gardens).
Nothing can match visiting a Shigemori garden, but Tokyo’s Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Watarium) has found a way to bring Shigemori’s garden to the viewer.
As well as a comprehensive visual history of Shigemori’s work, including photographs, projections and drawings, three replica sections of the Hassou Gardens of Tofuku-ji have been reproduced as large-scale installations: Hokuto Sichisei (Big Dipper) of the eastern garden, the Eiju and Horai stones of the southern garden and part of the checkered northern garden. For authenticity, each installation has been made to scale — the abstract composition of “Checkered Garden” is even recreated with real moss.
The exhibition also presents some of Shigemori’s paintings, calligraphy and interior design work, reminding us that he was a multidisciplinary artist who brought ideas and skills from different disciplines to garden design — something that helped assert gardens as an integral part of the modern art form.
The large film projection of the top floor of the museum, shows viewers other representative works, such as the avant-garde geometric gardens of Kishiwada Castle in Osaka and his prehistoric-inspired garden of Matsuo-Taisha temple.
Chisao said his grandfather, “focused on the avant-garde garden and devoted himself to the renewal of the garden as art, keeping roots in tradition but relevant to modern life.”
The Watarium takes that even further by turning Shigemori’s gardens into exhibits outside of their actual location, and giving them the artistic respect that they deserve.
“The Garden of Mirei Shigemori” at The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art runs till March 25; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Wed. till 9 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.watarium.co.jp.