Between a Rock and a Void Place

Ryoanji garden. Photo by

In the northwest of Kyoto, in the Temple of the Dragon at Peace (Ryōan-ji), stands a garden where only the viewer grows. It is a rock garden— the greatest rock garden in the world. Since the late 1400s it has been tended daily by Zen monks in the service of those who go there to see what is or is not to be seen.

Ryoan-ji, Concentric circles
Ryoan-ji, concentric circles and lines,

The monks rake the rocks into straight lines where the large stones are absent, and they rake them into concentric circles where the large stones are present. The net effect is of an ocean's regular waves lapping gently against every shore in a tiny archipelago, except that nothing is moving.

A rock garden such as this is an example of the art of karesansui, which is often translated "dry landscape" but which etymoliterally means "dry mountain water"; the evocation of land and sea is explicit.

There are many ways to interpret this garden and its elements.

In the midst of the garden stand fifteen stones of various sizes and shapes, some upright, some flat, and some middling in scale and mien. In five different ways they form clusters. Despite their variety, all the stones are different enough from the white gravel to stand in contrast to it individually and collectively. The heaps of moss on which some of the larger stones stand offer a third, mediating element, more land than sea but softer than the sea.

Ryoan-ji garden, detail
Ryoan-ji garden, detail,

Taken with interpretive simplicity, the virtual land and sea form a fundamental contrast of complements, one firm and the other malleable, one solid and the other liquid, one irregular and the other patterned, one spatially complex and the other of uniform height and distribution. The dark and light, the yin and yang; each is the other's negative space, and each is the other's positive fulfillment.

Ryoan-ji, diagram of stones, Will Petersen, "Stone Garden," 1957.

Taken as a metaphor of humanity, the garden offers seemingly endless interpretive potential. Suppose each stone represents a particular person or a kind of person. What do the similarities and differences now suggest? Perhaps that some people are quite important, and that these gather an entourage. Perhaps that the less important may also have an entourage, though possibly one of peers rather than inferiors. Or perhaps that the large and small, the broad and narrow, are essentially the same after all. Perhaps that there is no single hub, but that social clusters provide sufficient unity in the midst of ineluctable differentiation. Is each of the fifteen stones an individual? Is its relationship to its cluster necessary, or merely incidental, to its identity? Are the large less or more distinguished than the small? How do numbers affect proximity? What does it mean to be alone? (And, of course, would a roiled moss gather no stone?)

Ryoan-ji, oblique view
Ryoan-ji, oblique view,

Suppose instead, or in addition, that the stones taken together provide a Rashomonesque opportunity. The noble cliché in the interpretation of Ryoan-ji is that no matter where one sits on the lateral veranda, at least one stone among the fifteen will be out of view. The suggested lesson is that multiple perspectives are necessary and that even then they are perhaps insufficient. Solitary is blinkered; static is blind.

Well, perhaps so and perhaps not. Certainly, it takes some exploration to find a vantage from which all the stones may be seen. Even if such a place can be found, the garden's cautionary disposition remains: do not take in at a glance and thereby claim to comprehend what actually requires investigation, imagination, elevation, empathy, or submission.

Interpreted metaphorically, Ryoan-ji provides a ripe occasion for the fertile mind. But taking only the stones and pebbles into account is limiting. The rocks and gravel do not exist in the abstract but are embedded in a particular human context: they're displayed before this veranda and surrounded by that low wall beyond which stand those trees and the mysteries beyond. Does this situation invite a literal reading or a metaphorical one?

Are the rocks people, or are they little mountainous islands, or are they just rocks? Under what conditions would one way of thinking about them be preferable to another? If the rocks in the garden may be construed as a lesson about people, then may the ancient clay wall, and the trees beyond? If the rocks in the garden are a study in contrast and complementarity, then what of the onlookers themselves? On the other hand, if the rocks are best understood not as a miniature realm, nor as a meditation on society, but simply and materially as pebbles raked around a rocky, mossy arrangement, then what of the wall, the trees, the people. Are we those who live artfully, laden with meaning? Or is our humanity, our civilization, just so much abstract sense imputed to a sea of pebbles? And what of the monks?

It is a question much worth pondering.

Raking Ryoan-ji
Raking Ryoan-ji. Photo by EIGHTFISH.

The 20th-century American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi had this array of possible meanings and methods of meaning-making in mind in 1963, when he created (among cognate works) his Sunken Garden for the Hewitt University Quadrangle at Yale. Adjacent to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the garden is a starkly geometric restatement of similar themes.

Model of Hewitt Quad showing Isamu Noguchi's Sunken Garden

Visible but not accessible from the surrounding promenade, the garden invites a meditation on the nature of architecture, that intellectual operation that mediates between abstract organization and concrete manifestation. Noguchi's employment of a pyramid, a Bi ring, and a notched cube standing on its vertex ensures that even this simple plastic vocabulary will evoke many connotations. Should these fleeting meanings attach? According to Noguchi

The pyramid symbolizes the “geometry of the earth or of the past”; the circular disc is the sun, “a ring of energy”; and the cube “signifies chance, like the rolling of dice”.

Isamu Noguchi, Sunken Garden.

Like the garden at Ryoan-ji, Noguchi's arrangement asserts a relationship between negative and positive space in which it is possible that the absent rather than the present is primary: not the stone, but the space that is not stone. "I like to think of gardens as sculpturing of space,” he once explained.

While Sunken Garden offers a complementary contrast of mental to physical, abstract to concrete, spatial extension to void, Noguchi's waist-high Balance Stone (1978) at the New Britain Museum of American Art considers the nature of equilibrium and effort. The museum's website explains it well:

Isamu Noguchi, The Balance Stone, New Britain Museum of American Art

…he began to use local materials that were harder to carve. Granite and basalt slowed down Noguchi's pace of carving and focused his attention…. Stone became a symbol of nature and carving became a metaphor for the human confrontation with the temporal. …Noguchi often left part of the rock's surface unworked, revealing where it had been torn from the earth or displaying its rich natural "skin." He employed different textures chosen from a vocabulary of surface treatments—untouched natural exteriors, areas of small chisel marks, ragged edges where one stone had been broken from another, smoothly polished surfaces—each of which also had a different color…. Noguchi's methods in working the stone surface varied also: he freely used power tools as well as the traditional chisel and hammer. ThusThe Balance Stone incorporates the apparent opposites of the organic and the geometric, the ancient and the modern, and the hand and the machine.

The rough-hewn wood of the rising elements, steadied by a single stretcher, bears a worked stone fragment that looks like the pitched roof of an inexplicably skinny house. The dark stone relies upon and stabilizes the wood. Perched atop the whole is a carefully worked stone with convex surfaces that ought to prevent it from staying there. It remains because of the enormous notch taken from below by means of which it fits well enough on the elements below. Another notch on its top is open to the sky.

Is the stone fitted or balanced? Is balance a question about the stone or about the whole system? Why are the elements arranged with the hardest dependent on the less hard, and the less hard dependent on the soft and fibrous? How do design, labor, and choice relate to the natural characteristics of the material on which they operate? Are the relationships and questions raised with respect to this sculpture the sort that may also be pondered and asked of humankind in a more general way? Is this work metaphorical? May we use it as if it were? Should we?

Where humans meet matter, issues of art arise. But raking is fundamentally different from crafting of the sort Noguchi has done with this sculpture. An anonymous Zen monk has raked the rocks of Ryoan-ji in order to conserve them, to keep them tolerably static. Noguchi has hammered and hacked, scratched and polished, planned and stacked, and in so doing he has not only conserved but also transformed his material. What is it about this transformation that makes meaning and the possibility of interpretation not only available but inevitable?

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, photo by Brian James

The lessons of Ryoan-ji and of Isamu Noguchi give us a way to assimilate the recent celebrated and controversial work erected before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by the artist Michael Heizer: Levitated Mass.

Like the Zen garden, it is a vortex of connotations. The assertively immobile mass stands in contrast to the sleek artificial ravine that bears it. One is positive, the other negative; one is raw, the other engineered; one was added through a herculean effort of transportation and transposition, the other subtracted by similar means. The natural and the man-made converge in a presentation that speaks not only of a nexus of complementary contrasts, but of the human will to want it so, and the technological capability to make it so.

At the Zen garden, only the monks tread among the stones while others look at the display from a space delimited for that purpose. Levitated Mass poses no such limitations; it invites a kinetic engagement that people routinely accept. In this respect, Heizer's sculpture blurs the distinction between the artwork and its observers. He has placed one stone; we constitute every other. This opportunity complicates the question of whether to read the work metaphorically, and makes possible a very personal investment of meaning. In addition, Heizer gave his work a title, which is a matter of some gravity. What might it mean?

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, held aloft miraculously by fashion and lifestyle blogger Danielle Deojay. Photo courtesy of

People being what we are, the most common use of this opportunity is play. As a bit of googling will attest, the Kids in the Hall photo op is irresistible. This fact alone will make the work a popular success in the same vein as Anish Kapoor's wonderful Cloud Gate.

Anish Kapoor, Cloud Gate ("The Bean"), Millennium Park, Chicago. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed Levitated Mass has a lot in common with The Bean. Each is a notably large structure planted in a plaza where people, unguided, may engage it on their own terms. Each allows not only a potentially meaningful circumnavigation, but also a descent below the work from which vantage its mass and the reliability of its installation may be appreciated. Each is significantly different from its surroundings. And, of course, each offers an opportunity for reflection.

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, photo via

As William Poundstone noted in his survey of initial reactions to Heizer's new work, some with (shall we say) unrealistic expectations registered disappointment that the 340 ton granite megalith was not actually levitating. (Such is our species, gentle reader.) Equipped as we are with an understanding of Noguchi's Balance Stone, we can appreciate that the transitional element between the rectilinear supporting structures and the surmounting stone is an expected feature of works in this genre, not a compromise. In granite, steel, and concrete, meanings converge. This is a work not of neolithic Britain, nor of feudal Japan, but of 21st-century California.

Govern your interpretations accordingly.

Poundstone's overview mentions many interesting possibilities, some plausible and some mere prompts. It also notes the analogy with Kapoor's work. The article is worth reading both for its deft rebuttal of know-nothingism and for its humble, exploratory tone.

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, symmetries. Photo by Brian James.

A successful work of art rewards contemplation and motivates further human action. I will not delve into my own interpretation of Levitated Mass, in part because I haven't yet explored it in person. But I will say that the work, financed entirely by private means and placed in a venue where contemplation is the order of the day, appears to me to be quite successful, a work of great intelligence embedded in material and interpretive traditions as long and wide and deep as human culture itself.

If you find yourself in Los Angeles hankering for megalithic meditation, technological mediation, and Instagrammatical satisfaction, you know what to do!

Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass, crepuscular view. Photo by Danielle Deojay.

Leave a Reply