Gardens of Gravel and Sand
Where have you visited when you travel to Kyoto, Japan? Have you seen the must-visit “Karesansui Garden (Zen Garden)? However, can you really tell the difference by looking at the rocks and fine sand? Leonard Koren will introduce you to “Wabi-sabi” that could not be described by the Japanese. In this book, the author will take us to the journey of Japanese aesthetics through gravel and sand so that you can comprehend the “Karesansui Garden (Zen Garden)” in Kyoto more than most Japanese.

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Leonard Koren

Artist and architecture, Leonard Koren now lives in San Francisco and Tokyo, who studied artworks and architecture. In the late 60s, he co-founded the “Los Angeles Fine Arts Squad,” with partners, accepting consignment of drawing large outdoor wall paintings. His works are widely available in Los Angeles and Paris.

His latest publications include Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Undesigning the Bath, and Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts. He is also the columnist for BRUTUS magazine, column title “Dr. Leonardo’s Guide to Cultural Anthropology.”

Understand Japanese Karesansui Garden
Leonard Koren introduces us to observe the Japanese “Karesansui” Garden by shifting our vision from the spotlight – rocks of the garden to focus on the fine gravel and sand, thereby understanding from the small things. Using “No Rocks,” “Non-Zen” or “Arts” and “Back Garden” to increase progressively, slowly sorting through the influence and association between Japanese gardens, Japanese chan sect, modern arts, and Chinese garden arts. 

No Rocks 

This book collects photos taken in Kyoto, Japan in May 1995, recording the various arrangement and handling approaches for gravel and fine sand. In particular, the photos were mostly taken in standard “Karesansui” gardens located in the corners of Chan Sect Buddha Temple or the old houses (mansions) of Samurai administered by Zen Temples. Additionally, some sites recorded are either non-Chan Sect Buddha Temples or the Daoism Shrines. Nonetheless, none of these photos were taken as a comprehensive visual description of a certain site. The photos can be said taken from anywhere. The vagueness of the site is to avoid the deviation of the book’s theme in “Garden of Gravel and Sand.” 

Arbors and shrubs usually appear next to the gravel or fine sand, however, this book tries to avoid photography with these. All beings grow in nature freely, which momentum is expressed through the plantation. On contrary, the shaping of gravel and sand garden represents a conscious effort that deliberately tries not to go along freely. To maintain the excellent state of gravel and sand garden, it is necessary to resist against the inclination of nature by frequent sweeping, weeding, raking, and/or re-shaping. 

Finally, the photos in the book avoid rocks all together, which is usually difficult to achieve. Rocks are the “star” highlights of many Japanese gardens and are arranged visibly in all corners. They are frequently maintained and sometimes even named. The nickname of “Japanese Stone Garden” full of love comes into being. However, these rocks are highly valued also make people neglect the “humble” gravel and fine sand, or simply downgrade them as the background to set off the highly ranked “leading role” – the rock. 

What kind of loss will the severe underestimation of these visual and conceptual elements that are unrelated to rocks and/or confrontation bring us? We have abandoned the existing visual image of the idealized Japanese garden. We have abandoned the attachment to “in-depth appreciation,” “exquisite sensibility,” or the professional skills of garden design and construction. We have also denied the Chinese and Japanese garden history of at least 1,500 years. Nonetheless, this history has rarely appealed in discussing gravel and fine sand, or merely mentioned ambiguously. 

On the other hand, when we place the focus completely on the gravel and sand, we will capture the clear and unquestionable evidence to prove the acute and long-lasting wisdom of humans in work. We also directly point out an extraordinary, subtle and visual poetry full of wonders. We have trimmed the focus down to only gravel and we have received a simple media to highlight a viewpoint out of our imagination, which could not be achieved by a holy field, luxuriant plantation, and strange rocks. 

This extract is cited from the Gardens of Gravel and Sand, published by Editions du Flaneur in July 2021. 

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