Borrowing The View From Afar:
A Sculptor Considers Chinese Garden Design

“Borrow the view from afar,” advises Ji Cheng. By framing sights outside the garden walls, he continues in the Yuan Ye (translated as The Craft of Gardens,) his 16th century comprehensive theory of Chinese garden design, the garden designer should conspire to enfold the vast, external landscape into the contained, private world of the garden. “In designing gardens,” adds the 18th century gardener and poet, Shen Fu, in his Six Records for the Floating Life, “[one must] give the feeling of the small in the large and the large in the small, of the real in illusion, and of the illusion in reality.”

Places – be they cities or fields or gardens – acquire their character through the imposition of our human needs on to their inherent natural characteristics. As a sculptor, interpreting the places in which I live, I come to know how places reveal their humanity by engaging in their particular scale and use of space. I work to create something of the immeasurable space of the real world within the container of the gallery and to render the space of the gallery in such a way as to reveal to the viewer something unfamiliar and unexpected.

Newly relocated to Shanghai, China, I was delighted to discover the classical Chinese scholar gardens. Unlike the collections of flowers and lawns that define Western gardens, Chinese gardens attempt to represent inside their contained spaces an idealized view of the landscapes and structures of the external world. While Western gardens yearn to extend themselves into the mythical pastoral view, the Chinese gardens, bound by high walls within the geometries of the urban grid, turn hermetically in on themselves.

The Chinese gardens are dense with architecture, pavilions and walkways, interior and exterior spaces that flow into and out of each other. Scenes abound: close at hand, overhead, enticingly just out of sight. Windows frame miniaturized views that mimic distant landscapes. Inscriptions enhance the sensual experience with the literary. Water passes under foot, mirrors and inverts structures, carries the viewer from the hard ground of the 'real' world into a space of timelessness and reverie.
 
As a manipulator of space, I recognize in the gardens some of my own strategies for creating spatial complexity but more significantly, I realize the potential of sequencing a sculptural experience in time as well as in space. In my talk for the symposium, I present some of the basic history and principles of Chinese garden design followed by images from my recent installation, Chinese Garden for the Delights of Roaming Afar. This installation at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St Louis, Missouri, was my first attempt to incorporate my understanding of 'space in time' as garnered from the gardens and my experience of China into my work, to create what is known in the Chinese tradition as 'a world in a teapot.'

Christina Shmigel
Nov 2005
Shanghai

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