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My secret Chinese garden - capturing the yin and yang and planting a glass peach tree

BUILDERS of classical Chinese gardens in the West often dogmatically copy the landscape, but miss the essence and connection with nature. Nancy Zhang talks to a modern-day literati creating a garden in Venice.

One of the world's oldest and biggest art fairs takes place in Venice every two years, but almost no artwork remains after the International Art Exhibition from June to November.

This year, however, a 600-square-meter Chinese garden - both a work of art and a place to reflect - will become a permanent fixture on the Venetian island of San Servolo.

It will be part of the 53rd International Art Exhibition of Contemporary Art.

Designed by Chinese artist and garden expert Ye Fang, the garden reinterprets Chinese philosophies for a Western audience, emphasizing the harmony between East and West and inspiring people to reflect. There's a transparent glass moongate, a birdcage containing a book of jade and one of gold, and a peach tree made of Venetian glass.

"Chinese gardens in the West have traditionally been copies of gardens in China," says Ye, noting they are usually official gifts from Chinese governments.

Ye, trained as a fine artist, lives in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, in a home with a classical garden he built himself. He grew up in a family that produced literati, the elite who appreciated classical gardens and understood their symbolism.

Ye, who is middle-aged, is something of a modern-day literati.

Those who recreate classical gardens today, Ye says, do so "dogmatically, concentrating on the architecture rather than relationship to nature. My gardens, in contrast, are works of art which reinterpret the attitude to life that Chinese gardens represent. They have the personal stamp of the artist."

Ye's garden in Italy, however, is not yet ready to be enjoyed; it will be completed later this year.

Models, design concepts and paintings will represent the garden in the upcoming exhibition.

Sponsored by Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art and the ChinArt Institute, eight leading contemporary artists, including Zhang Xiaogang, will present works on the theme of Chinese gardens. China's exhibition is titled "A Gift for Marco Polo."

"In Western culture, the word 'garden' has roots in the idea of paradise, and paradise is also the word Marco Polo used to describe southern Chinese gardens when he visited them 800 years ago," says Ye.

"My garden in Venice is like a gift to Marco Polo, a completion of an 800-year-old dream." The garden itself is named "The Garden of Becoming."

Ye has earlier explored the idea of garden as art, as classical gardens have persisted in his memory and imagination from childhood.

In 2003, he built his garden in Suzhou ("Living in His Artwork," Shanghai Daily, August 24, 2008) as a place of repose for his own family and four other families in the same compound.

It quickly became famous in China as one of the very few "living gardens" of traditional design that was enjoyed in daily life and wasn't a public attraction. Ye himself is known as one of the few people in China who has lived in a garden, paints gardens and builds gardens.

Lost traditions revived

Japanese TV NHK featured the garden in a documentary about UNESCO World Heritage gardens in Suzhou. While those heritage sites have preserved the rocks and trees, the literati lifestyle and culture behind the physical gardens have been lost.

But Ye's gardens revive some of the lost traditions. As he grew up in a family that produced high-ranking officials during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), he appreciates the subtleties and symbolism of gardens.

The traditional garden was the exclusive preserve of the educated elite well versed in poetry, philosophy and painting. Their paintings would commonly depict nature, and ideal conceptions of beauty. Gardens were often modeled on these paintings, in an attempt to realize the aesthetic ideals of the owner.

For Ye, Chinese gardens are where abstract understanding of the world became tangible realities, where "the metaphysical turned into the physical."

Ye lived in a traditional courtyard and garden until the age of 7. The experience, though short, haunted him for the rest of his life. He had recurrent dreams of gardens, surprisingly detailed and realistic.

Eventually he felt compelled to paint gardens, and from there to build gardens.

The line of traditional education passed down through the generations has been severed, says Ye. "Only impressions remain in people like me."

In one of his powerful memories from childhood, his literati grandfather would gather the children in the garden in winter and challenge them to find and cut the perfect spray of plum, a delicate bare branch with just the buds, to put into a vase in his study.

When the children returned with their cuttings, he would compare them and explain why some were more beautiful than others - he prized the asymmetrical lines, the shadows they cast, and the shapes they made with other cuttings in the vase. This kind of education conveyed a certain aesthetic understanding of the world that has since been swept away.

Ancient gardens are rich in symbolism. For example, traditionally rockeries represented mountains, which in turn represented great people - those to look up to and emulate.

Ye's goal for the Venice garden is to revive this tradition of philosophical symbolism and tailor it to the garden's unique position and purpose.

Even the name, "The Garden of Becoming," has a distinctly existentialist ring to it.

The moongate entrance will be made of clear, colorless glass to symbolize that "boundaries exist between people, and at the same time don't exist. Just as they do between East and West," says Ye.

As the garden represents harmony and exchange between East and West, Ye will incorporate Chinese rocks from Taihu Lake, persimmon trees and local Venetian glass.

The garden's location on the east coast of San Servolo island is also significant. The rockeries curve into the water from the east, representing influences from the East arriving by sea. The shape also imitates a yin yang sign - the Chinese symbol for balance and harmony.

As the garden lies in the grounds of a university and will be used by students in their leisure, it also aims to provoke reflection on the nature of education. A birdcage contains two books, one of jade and one of gold. The jade represents purity and beauty and the gold represents wealth.

He wants students to ask themselves: Are you trapped in a cycle of education only for material ends?

There are many other symbols in the garden, but the most striking addresses the fundamental question of ideal beauty - the same question that inspired the ancients to build Chinese gardens.

On one of the rockeries in the pond there will stand a peach tree made of glass (Venetian). In Chinese symbolism, peach blossoms represent the idea of beauty that exists in the heart of every person, in contrast to the fragile and fleeting blossoms in reality.

But the peach tree of glass lasts forever, and in this modern take on the ancient theme, Ye plans for the observer to see reflected in the peach tree an image of themselves.


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