Ever since I visited the US on a double residency in 2007 I’ve been in love with Portland, Oregon. The summers are always warm and sunny, the city walkable and full of quirky independent shops, dominated by leafy avenues and rose blossom, old-style porched houses and glittering forest. This summer I’ve been invited by the Portland Chinese Classical garden (Lansu garden) to explore their space, make art and have a show. The project was initiated by the Sitka Center for Arts and Ecology.
The Lansu garden is like a romantic gem – filled with lovingly crafted rocks, hand-carved windows, authentic architecture, inscriptions redolent with history and symbolism, and at each turn a divine unfolding of borrowed landscape and harmoniously arranged shrubbery. In fact the components of the garden were mainly built in Suzhou (Portland’s sister city) and shipped over to the US, where a team of Chinese worked for over a year to create this aromatic haven.
When I arrived this week the air was heavy with the fragrance of gardenia; in the scholar’s courtyard trees were sporadically dropping ripe plums. There is a sense of completely different time when within the garden, as each step reveals new perspectives and moods. The fat ornamental carp rustle elegantly beneath the lily pads, and shadows flicker on the whitewashed walls. You feel like you are on a journey within an elaborate immersive installation that’s almost perfect.
It is the Lansu garden’s location in a slightly seedy corner of the red light district that is incongruous. This garden is a sanctuary, but located close to the city’s large train station, where trains frequently blast out a powerful brassy moan. The garden’s many carved windows look out on the street where dreadlocked drunks like to cluster, and beyond the pavilion’s curved roofs rise some glossy tower blocks.
Every now and then a car alarm goes off, or buses rattle the hand made window panes. To enjoy the garden to the full you should, as most do, ignore the other visitors and pose as if alone, and listen to the charming Erhu music and ignore the fact that it is playing an off-key version of Edelweiss or Twinkle Twinkle little star.
I am reminded of other gardens such as the Garden of Eden where fallen humanity was unwelcome, and the garden that belonged to the selfish giant who was so selfish that spring herself was not able to enter. This is certainly not the case with the Lansu garden, but I observed people clearing rotten plums from the borders, dusting cobwebs from the windows, and talking about moving trees to make the garden more perfect. It is evident that the nature here needs to be trained and tamed.
With such an oasis of greenery, my initial thoughts are how difficult it would be to compete with such a lovely experience. I have been sketching a little, but not keen to try to reproduce the garden’s beauty – that would be redundant. Instead I am weaving a narrative in my mind about the original nature of the garden as an jewelled cage, a place of enforced seclusion and whispered relationships… Not sure exactly what this means I will make visually, but that’s the current theme…
The show opens on the 2nd August and will be on for the month. I will give a talk on 11th August. For more information please see the Chinese Classical Garden’s website here and the Sitka Center fr Arts and Ecology website here
Update: from the 16–23 July I shall be working in the garden in the mornings. They’ve made me a special place to carve! It’s located between the teahouse and the Scholar’s Study (sorry, between the Tower of Cosmic Reflections and the Celestial House of Permeating Fragrance), in front of the north exit, tucked behind a huge ornamental dustbin. I’m in paradise!
PS> I just had to add a pic of LA airport below just to remind myself that I am not in China!