Zen-Garten, Kyoto, Ryōanji
John Cage was not only a composer, but also a graphic artist who questioned the traditional understanding of artistic activity. The drawings shown here belong to the series he began in 1983. The subject was ‘Where R = Ryoanji’, a cyclic development in work groups consisting of etchings, drawings and watercolours which, conceptually speaking, should be understood as a lifelong artistic process. The two pencil drawings were created four years apart and resemble finely spun notations. They are dense spatial structures in which countless disparate round forms overlap, drawn with lines which are sometimes fine and sometimes thick.
Fifteen pebbles of different shapes and sizes formed the unusual starting material for the drawings, together with a total of seventeen pencils of varying hardness and laid paper. The title underscores the inspiration provided by the ‘Ryoanji’, the famous fifteenth-century Zen Buddhist garden in Kyoto, where fifteen different natural stones are arranged in five groups on the rectangular plane expanse of the circumscribed terrain, while evenly raked white sand imitates the gentle wave movement of water. Seen from the edge, the multiplicity of relationships within the balanced asymmetry of this enduring arrangement seems unfathomable.
Cage placed the stones for his drawings in changing positions on the paper, following the random principle of ‘I Ching’. Since 1951 he had already been using the Chinese ‘Book of Changes’ for musical compositions and literary works. Through this process the artist consciously dispensed with the subjective decisions which traditionally would have to be taken in the face of a multiplicity of possibilities. Cage also left to chance the choice of the pencils with which he drew just once round each stone after it have been put into position. Correspondingly, for ‘Where R = Ryoanji 5 R/7’, the fifteen stones were rearranged five times and the drawing was carried out using seven pencils.
Cage therefore selected the material and determined the rules of the design process in order to arrive at new, unforeseeable forms of expression through the laws of chance. The immediate action of the artist, however, concentrates on the process of drawing itself and creates the viewer’s perception of a lively style. Here, the principle of drawing is transformed into a visual analogy of Cage’s compositional principles.