Friday, June 1, 2012

Ma, or, On Empty Space

We all know at least one person who cannot allow aural or, depending on one's role in a conversation, verbal space to remain empty. Such people must talk incessantly: perhaps to fill a need for acceptance, perhaps because their parents did not teach them the fine art of conversing.

For those of us in the education profession, it's rather telling (and entertaining) to watch students squirm, to sense rising collective discomfort when a question posed is met with silence.

We've seen art with negative or empty space--"unfinished" is usually the term used to describe such pieces, which may be a reflection of a Western bias towards filling space. (Case in point: Europeans variously labeled Australia and South America as "Empty"--no matter that aborigines inhabited the land in the former, and great empires existed on the latter.)

Viet and I visited the Barnes Collection last weekend and happened upon a few "unfinished" Cezanne pieces. He (meaning Viet) was particularly taken by the negative spaces in the landscape around buildings, and captivated by the tapestry under a still life of fruit that suddenly lost its articulation and vanished into the canvas. There is something compelling about emptiness, something necessary. 

We all know gardeners who pack their beds, leaving no ground exposed. Of course, we have little control over maturation; as years pass, plants grow (our "beds fill in" is the technical gardening terminology), the ground between plants gradually disappears, and the bed looks finished--always promising a profusion of color which is the preferred Western (American?) garden experience.

As the time for the annual Wilmington City Gardens Contest approaches, I become preoccupied with space: not with filling space, but with the concept of space. I continually rewind the mental tape of a conversation I had with one of the judges for the "Entrance Garden" category last year.

"So what annuals do you have?"

"None. I garden with perennials. I garden based on juxtaposition of foliage texture and color and shape."

"Well," she began, as she slipped her sunglasses to the end of her nose, looking down upon and around the garden, "that explains why there is no color."

Not to be mean, but.... whatever lady, if that's your idea of gardens..

I certainly didn't win that category, which is fine because I won the creme de la creme category: First Prize in the New Garden category!  Sorry; didn't mean for that to sound like sour grapes.

Japanese gardens are known for their many empty spaces. Ma, or, in Kanji, , refers to an interval. But ma is not simply the presence of absence or, framed more positively, space itself. It is also the consciousness of place, an awareness of form and non-form. Ma is thus both that which exists outside us, and that which exists inside us as imagination or consciousness.

Think of it this way: the stepping stones in a garden determine the way we should walk. The space between the stones determines our rhythm. This is ma.

Anyone who has visited my gardens would determine that I do not garden based on the principle of ma. True, in the beginning, there was ma: deliberate space between plants. Yet leaving space was less for aesthetic reasons than for pragmatic ones: plants must have room to grow, else their neighbors overtake the slow-growing ones, which, left to struggle for light, water, and nutrients, eventually die.

No. My gardens are nearly the opposite: most beds are crowded. Plants hug each other; some rely on their neighbors for support. Foliage intermingles, creating both sharp and subtle juxtapositions of foliage texture and coloration.

And yet, if you look closely, there is ma. My garden: a mix of English and Japanese design elements.

My garden: a Western appropriation of an Eastern concept.

The Japanese garden design aesthetic takes plants and situates them in space. Placements of plants recreate and represent particulars and experiences of the natural world. Plants--and rocks and bushes, for that matter--are residuals of a spatial universe, for space is the grand context within which we all exist. Without space, we fail to exist--or we fail to exist well and meaningfully.

In contrast, the Western garden design aesthetic (if I may overly generalize) situates space in plantings. Space is the residual, the dividend, the what-remains after we take into account all of those elements--plants, structures, urns, walls--that constitute the garden.

So where, given crowded beds, is ma?

Ma is the foliage. Ma is the space between color usually provided for by flowers. Without ma, without the foliage, the color blends into a riot, an unmediated mix. But in my estimation, it is not the profusion of color that makes the garden, but the space between color provided for by foliage that defines and accentuates coloration provided for by flowers.

What we sometimes fail to realize is that ma--space itself--has texture and shape and form and linearity and complexity and dimensionality and color and variation. Whereas the Japanese opt to emphasize what I call the individualization of space in grand kind of ways (e.g. through exaggerated distances between placement of stone and rock and plants), I opt to represent that space more tightly as it were, through the placement of objects (foliage) in the visual plane of space itself.

The effects in the end are the same. One either "gets it" and dives into the experience, or one doesn't and simply moves on, missing, sadly, all the richness and fullness of absence that ma really is.

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