Gardens of Time (Part 1)

It might be presumptuous to assume there is any such thing as the Idea of cultivation. The absence of any such idea (a deficiency that is immediately stimulative) could readily be imagined as the condition that makes cultivation necessary.

When the search for a conclusive concept is abandoned, the cultural task of the garden — in its loftiest (Jiangnan) expression — begins to be understood. No less that the acknowledged fine arts of East or West, the Suzhou garden merits appreciation as a philosophical ‘statement’ in which aesthetic achievement is inextricable from a profound apprehension of reality. Perhaps, then, no short-cut or summary seeking to economize on the creation and preservation of the garden itself could possibly arrive at the same ‘place’, or — even with the most restricted sense of cognitive purchase — discover the same things.

Anachronistically conceived, the Suzhou garden is a multimedia experiment, incorporating various types of writing among its parts. Alongside, or embedded amid, pavilions, walls, bridges, rockeries, ponds, animals, vegetation, furnishings, ornamental carvings, and paintings, are found calligraphic scrolls and inscriptions that make words an ingredient of the garden. Language is something included, and trained, within a comprehensive ensemble. From the beginning, the immoderate passions of exile and dominion are stripped from the cultivated sign.

To draw upon ulterior signs in order to talk about the garden — especially the generic garden — introduces a problem of framing, but this, too, has been meticulously anticipated, in a variety of ways. Framing is the principal method of the garden, and its supreme artifice. Whether through simple ‘picture’ frames, that transform — for instance — a slice of stone into an artwork, or elaborate constructions of gates, doorways, windows, apertures, alcoves, interiors, and viewpoints, it is the framing of perspective that aestheticizes. What produces the garden as a cultivated whole — most fundamentally — is its perspectival sub-division into itself. When the garden is analytically decomposed, in accordance with its own ‘grain’, it breaks down into a myriad scenes. It is made out of pieces of contemplation.

The garden makes its own outsides — numerously — in order to appear, piece by piece. It cannot, therefore, be assumed that one has left the garden, simply because one is commenting upon it ‘from without’. No less probably, the garden has itself provided the frames that now escape into a prolonged contemplation, as its scenes are pursued on some path of ever deepening disclosure. To apprehend the garden, and reality through the garden, is the garden. The garden is a perspective machine.

As a scenic device arranged in space, the garden is almost endlessly intricate, but still comparatively tractable. The spatial puzzle is resolved in stages as the visitor passes through a sequence of apprehensions, serially adjusting position and the direction of attention, tuning into perceptual frames, and synthesizing associations. This is a process which takes time, lending each part of each garden a characteristic pace, inversely proportional to scenic density. Wherever framings multiply most arrestingly, whether through the segmentation of space by aestheticized objects and tableau, or through the recursive layering of frames (perhaps a moon gate, seen through a doorway, and then a window), the garden slows progression to an extreme, as if absorbing motility directly into perception. (The grasp of perception as a behavior that shares an economy with locomotion is one of the garden’s many lessons.)

In making time a key to the decryption of space, the garden has already begun to vaguely thematize duration. The name of the Lingering Garden (留园, Liu Yuan), combining the senses of ‘stay’ and ‘attend’, captures this especially pointedly.  To linger is to let space absorb time. That is how the garden captivates, and cultivates, contemplation.

If, stepping back from the seductions of space, it is time that is sought down this garden path, what do we discover? That is the question this (languidly unfolding) series will orient itself towards.

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