Oct 5, 2012

The Art of Survival

Kongjan Yu

Tu-ren is two characters in Chinese.
Tu means dirt, earth, the land.
Ren means people, the man, human being.
"Once these two characters come together, it actually means earth man,
which also expresses my understanding about land and people".

NYBG Winter Landscape Series
Asia Society
October 2, 2012

Don't bite the hand that feeds you is supposedly good advice.  Kongjan Yu did not take this advice. 

He slammed the making of ornamental gardens and our nostalgia for Chinese landscapes represented in the brush paintings of former centuries.  It was the New York Botanical Garden that brought him to New York to speak and yet everything he had to say was a contradiction of the kind of gardens a botanical garden makes and maintains. 

Yu equated the ancient practice of foot binding (little feet)  as a metaphor for the unproductive landscapes that are a result of Chinese urbanization.  50% of the Chinese population live in cities, surrounded by pollution, drought, flooding and habitat loss; Yu is determined to change all that by creating a new aesthetic.

His practice is based in the rural landscape of his childhood.  Farmers have wisdom.  How the land was managed for centuries, teaches Yu how to use some of those practices, combined with current green infrastructure techniques, to clean water and manage storm water run-off.

His landscapes are messy.  They are not ornamental.  They are DESIGNED to be performative.  And this is where the beauty comes in.  These urban parks are full of native grasses, woodlands, rice paddies and native flowering plants that increase biodiversity. 
Getting the public to accept these "messy" landscapes is a question that I have struggled with, but Yu has found the solution:  create a formal structure for people to experience the landscape.  Paths through the plantings,  skyways above the plantings, pavilions ot hang out in, sculpture to magnify the landscape... these parks, day or night, create active interaction with the landscape.  Almost all of these massive public spaces use a filtration system or terrace system in which plants act as a sponge to clean and absorb water.  The landscape becomes a living machine.  It's what Yu called landscape acupuncture.

Kongjian Yu left us with the following words, "Help nature to recover and let nature do the work."  I can live with that.