Rock gardens and how I went about making one
Note to the reader: The most important stuff is at the bottom of this text, so if you’re short of time, then skip ahead, but please do read the rest later.
In order to make a zen or rock garden, one must follow a bunch of rules, conveniently listed on Wikipedia. That’s because rock gardens are based on the principles of sumi-e, a Chinese style of painting in which the entire essence of a landscape is captured with only a few simple strokes of ink.
This summary became the scripture I followed (and tried to avoid) whilst making this exhibition, Portraits of trees. The installation might as well have been called Self-Portraits, as my attempt to do something simple whilst constructing a whole world of rules about how to do it, describes my general modus operandi with a comfortable degree of accuracy. One example of this is how I arrived at the idea of making a zen garden.
After a year of using cloud motifs as screen savers for my painting practice - whilst I staunchly ignored my suspicions that I might need a change - I headed to Banff, an arts centre in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. There I planned to host my very own energy recovery program by hiking in the forest every day. However, due to the danger of angry elks, no one was allowed in the woods on their own, so all I could do was stare at the trees from a distance.
To compound matters, the artists in residence simultaneously began having disturbing, hyperreal dreams. The psychologist told John that Banff used to be the sacred meeting place of several indigenous nations, and that in those days no one was allowed to sleep there. In hindsight, I guess the smudging ceremonies that the locals carried out in our studios, should have been a giveaway.
Caught between involuntary dream walking and angry elks, my Canadian exhaustion remedy did not prove effective. Upon my return to London, I therefore immediately caught a plane to Oslo. I wanted to have a second go at recuperating, by crashing at my mother’s. My great uncle, the architect who once owned the flat, designed it to be like a zen garden, so now you know why I was reading about those on Wikipedia. Like in Canada, I spent days staring at the trees outside. This time however, it occurred to me that I should construct my very own garden and include those trees in it.
With the Wikipedia article to hand, I determined that making a traditional zen garden involved too many rules for my Millennial attention span. Just kidding. But I did decide to make things simple for once. Literally. Portraits of trees is developed from my last show, 50% Grå, at Trafo Kunsthall. But rather than working only on the surface, fusing transparent canvases to painted stripes (representing photographs representing landscapes) again, I figured it’s more straightforward to just paint the trees themselves as stripes. And with that I crumpled up the photographs I‘d planned to paint. Besides looking like discarded drafts, they resemble rocks - which was just what I needed.
With the eagerness that always accompanies an Ebay shopping spree, I began buying fabrics to use as motifs, whilst feeling like I’d understood something new about Piet Mondrian and Agnes Martin all in one go.However, a line is never just a line when you’re planning on painting several hundreds of them. At times my burgeoning rock garden worked and I was able to meditate whilst I painted or see music in the colours. Naturally, the thought of prison bars did also cross my mind once or twice, but overall the multitude of ways in which one might paint stripes was freeing.
The result is perhaps not quite a zen garden, but the space does contain peaceful painted facades with jumbled piles of source material behind them. In this way, the works are perhaps more like self-portraits. The play between rules and subjectivity, simplicity and all the complications that such a concept induces in me, is the most honest configuration I could come up with. And as a bonus, the show is applicable to more subject matters than just trees.