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Hisashi Tenmyouya raking “Rhyme” (2012) (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

The beauty and hell of utopia and dystopia is the subject of Japan Society’s Garden of Unearthly Delights, which opened today in Manhattan. With three contemporary Japanese artists — Manabu Ikeda, Hisashi Tenmyouya, and collective teamLab — the exhibition resonates with the allure of nature, our destruction of it, its own devastating power (particularly the tsunami of March 2011), and humanity’s disposition towards conflict.

Hisashi Tenmyouya raking “Rhyme” (2012) (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Garden of Unearthly Delights, its name a play on the 15th-century triptych by the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch, started quietly on Tuesday with an eerie meditation by Hisashi Tenmyouya. The artist raked circles and deep lines in a zen garden disrupted by red sand, volcanic rocks, and skulls instead of the traditional innocuous stones. The installation, called “Rhyme,” has the “anti-zen” garden joined by two paintings on the wall showing a battle that is hard to place in time. In the masses of clashing bodies and weapons in the paintings there is no blood; the unnerving garden below representing the ongoing carnage in history’s endless wars.

“Rhyme” is the darkest point of the exhibition, although Manabu Ikeda’s incredibly detailed fountain pen and acrylic works on paper are more engrossing with their subtleties of human resilience and defeat. “Foretoken” (2008), a work that took two years to complete, has in its towering wave silhouettes of people parachuting away from a balloon on fire, collapsing infrastructure, a torii arch disappearing under the water, but also birds soaring away, and rainbows angling out of the debris. Meanwhile, “Meltdown” (2013), a reaction to the 2011 tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster, has an island of machinery on a glacier seemingly tumbling into the ocean off a serene hill, white outlines of people and moose-like phantoms lingering in the chaos.

Manabu Ikeda, “Foretoken” (2008). Pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on boards; 72 x 132 in. (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Manabu Ikeda, “Foretoken” (detail) (2008), Pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on boards; 72 x 132 in. (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Manabu Ikeda, “Foretoken” (detail) ( 2008), Pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on boards; 72 x 132 in. (Collection of Sustainable Investor Co., Ltd. © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery)

With all the weight of the first two artists, it’s a nice, if extreme, contrast, to turn the corner from Manabu Ikeda’s galleries into the frenetic, hyper-digital world of teamLab. The collective of some 300 artists, programmers, designers, and engineers has been creating interactive installations since 2001. For Japan Society, they’ve completely embraced the “garden” idea, including two works inspired by 18th-century artist Itō Jakuchū. One replicates the calligraphy letter for “Life” and as the ink animates into wood and sprouts a seasonal growth of flora over six minutes, birds identical to those from a scroll by Jakuchū hanging nearby alight on the branches. Another is a hallucinatory eight-screen piece called “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World,” where animals like a tiger, elephant, deer, and stranger creatures outside of zoological taxonomy are brought to life from Jakuchū’s six-fold “Birds, Animals and Flowering Plants.” The 18th-century work used an innovative “mosaic” grid system of color where, like Seurat and other Pointillists would do a century later, the colors weren’t blended on the surface but optically at a distance. Here teamLab has turned them into a modern pixelation that, as you approach, fragments into abstraction.

But teamLab also has its take on human destruction, with a final room where the floor and walls are covered with animated flowers that are ripped into petals as you rub your hands or feet over them. The flowers projected on the walls are randomly controlled by a human-made program. In the exhibition, it’s a final, otherworldly experience in growth and destruction.

teamLab, “Ever Blossoming Life—Dark” (2014), Digital work; endless. (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

teamLab, “Ever Blossoming Life—Dark” (2014), Digital work; endless. (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

teamLab, “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World” (detail) (2013), Interactive digital work, 8 screens; endless, 9:16; sound by Hideaki Takahashi. (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

teamLab, “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World” (2013), Interactive digital work, 8 screens; endless, 9:16; sound by Hideaki Takahashi. (Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery)

Hisashi Tenmyouya, “Rhyme” (detail) (2012) (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Hisashi Tenmyouya, “Rhyme” (detail) (2012), Acrylic paint, gold leaf on wood; inkjet print on paper, mounted on wood; each 49 7/8 x 118 1/8 in. (courtesy Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Hisashi Tenmyouya raking “Rhyme” (2012) (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Manabu Ikeda, “Meltdown” (2013), Acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 48 x 48 in. (courtesy Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Manabu Ikeda, “Meltdown” (detail) (2013), Acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 48 x 48 in. (courtesy Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Manabu Ikeda, “Ice Stream (Episode from Foretoken)” (2009), Pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 13 4/5 x 17 5/7 in. (Private Collection, New York. © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Photo by Kei Miyajima)

Manabu Ikeda, “Victim” (2009), Pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 27 3/5 x 39 2/5 in. (Private Collection, New York. © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Photo by Kei Miyajima)

Garden of Unearthly Delights is at the Japan Society ( 333 Ease 47th Street, Midtown East, Manhattan) until January 11. 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

4 replies on “An Anti-Zen Garden Full of Skulls and More Unearthly Unease”

  1. So… one point. It could be described as an anti-“zen garden”, but not an “anti-zen” garden, as awareness and acceptance of the inevitability of suffering and death are at the heart of zen and buddhism as a whole.

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I have read that Buddhist monks (not necessarily Zen) would go to the “charnel grounds” to meditate on impermanence. I assume there were many skulls there.

    1. Yes, you are right, although not just monks, contemplation of charnel houses and ossuaries has crossed religious orders.

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