Joseph Anderson

Japan: Grid and Grain


We spent a lovely day yesterday installing and sharing the Orchard Oculus project in Carkeek Park. It was very sweet and meaningful, certainly worth its own post one of these days. But I am eager to continue to capture the important vectors of my experience in Japan, so on we go…

One of the themes I explored in the Oculus project was the interplay between order and wildness, the rectilinear shapes of the urban landscape and the more dynamic, complex and fluid forms that nature generates.

While we were in Japan in May and June we found a similar theme represented time and time again. At the many Buddhist temples we visited, there were interesting variations among the different historical periods and traditions, but almost everywhere we saw the juxtaposition of pristine, carefully laid-out grids and beautifully polished natural wood grain, with its inherent irregularities and dynamic subtle rhythms. Together these two make a nice metaphor for the Japanese way of integrating the organizing propensity of the human mind with the natural flows of nature.

This was most evident and highlighted in the beautiful Zen temples we went to (the three most striking were Kennin-ji, Daitoku-ji and Nanzen-ji – the photo on the right is at Kennin-ji). In these temples the emphasis is on the aesthetics of spatial arrangement – we certainly saw beautiful altars and sculpture as well, but they played a subordinate role (compared to the esoteric Buddhist and Amidist temples, where the  statues were large, powerful, and insistent upon consuming all your attention – about which more another time).

But in the Zen temples, it was grid and grain, structure and flow. The temples themselves are laid out as grids, a series of rectangular covered walkways surrounding gardens with meticulously arranged rocks, sand, bamboo, cedar, maples, and fish ponds. The floors on which you walk are made of polished wood, gleaming and very lovely to feel with stocking feet, or in slippers provided by the temple. The walkways are grid-structure – but grain-flow is ever present in that dark wood; the gardens are grain-flow – but grid-structure is ever present in their careful, conscious design. To reinforce this balance, along the way are interior rooms with pristine tatami mats and shoji screens (grid-structure), painted with swirling scenes of mountains and dragons (grain-flow).

For me, anyway, the net effect was as thrilling as being in the most ornate Baroque church – the layers of subtle design mirrored back to me something essential about my own consciousness.  My mind also shuttles between grid and grain, moments of conceptual structuring and moments of expansive unstructured suchness. Through this process I weave patterns of awareness that span the void between rigid lifeless mental obsession and mad chaotic formlessness.

Back at home there aren’t quite such deliberate evocations of this dynamic weaving process – but in fact looking around me there is plenty of opportunity to explore this further. We can see everywhere the interplay between  our built environment and an insistent nature making its mark (the proverbial blade of grass growing up through the sidewalk, but also our gardens and yards and parks, and the silent workings of rust and mold and erosion). I tried to capture a little piece of this in my “Interplay” paintings for the Orchard Oculus – but there’s so much more to investigate.

It’s something I hope my current group of Soul Cartography students can play with. We are about to launch into mapping of patterns and pathways through life. One of the keys is to find the balance between a conceptual framework for the exploration, and a willingness to let go, embrace the void of creative possibility, and let new insights flow as they will. It’s challenging but full of potential rewards!