Mirei Shigemori: Abstraction, Not Elimination

Mirei Shigemori — Rebel in the Garden by Christian Tschumi / Birkhauser, cover image: Christian Lichtenberg

By Masako Ikegami, ASLA

Few landscape architects embody an aesthetic style as striking and intertwined with a country’s identity as Mirei Shigemori. His landscapes in Japan are one of the greatest representations of the karesansui style, a dry garden that uses neither ponds nor streams but is latent with references to nature. This master designer’s palette includes ripples of stone, deliberately-placed boulders, and highly-sculpted plantings. Each element represents the natural world, not a deletion of it. Indeed, the beauty of Shigemori’s garden is in its exercise of abstraction, not elimination.

In a new book, Mirei Shigemori — Rebel in the Garden, landscape architect Christian Tschumi deconstructs the multiple influences represented in the outward simplicity of Shigemori’s iconic gardens.

Shigemori is presented as an omnivorous seeker of knowledge. By focusing on the complex passions of this landscape master — his upbringing, lifelong pursuits, scholarship and publications, family, and spirituality — the book succeeds in creating a nuanced perspective.

In the first part, Tschumi explains that Shigemori was a practitioner of chado – the art of tea; ardent student of ikebana, the art of flower arranging; one of the first designers to survey all of the gardens in Japan; author of 81 published books; and a designer of 239 gardens. Given the breadth of his interests, it is reasonable to wonder if Shigemori would have called himself a landscape architect. He was a true polymath.

Born in 1896 in Okayama prefecture, Shigemori is enterprising and artistic from his youth; building himself his own chashitsu Tea Room in his teen years and embarking on an education in nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) at the Tokyo Fine Arts School.

Imagine a time in Japan before the Shinkansen bullet trains between Tokyo and Kyoto were first made available in 1964, years before Narita International Airport opened to serve as a gateway for global travel. In the few photos of the man himself, Shigemori is highly engaged, wearing a hakama (traditional Japanese men’s attire) and serving tea, or a three piece suit while accompanying Isamu Noguchi at a stone quarry in mid 1950’s.

Shigemori, at left, is conducting a tour of landscapes around Kyoto for Isamu Noguchi, who was visiting at the time. / Mr Suzue

The author mentions in a rather factual manner that western influences shaped Mirei Shigemori’s life. For example, the name Mirei is not his birth name but one that he adopted in 1925 at age 29. The name refers to Jean-Francois Millet, a 19th Century French artist of pastoral landscapes and daily life. What is implied in this observation of Shigemori’s nom de guerre?

The book then explores a number of Shigemori’s landscapes in detail, including the Maegaki Residence. Built in 1955, this residential garden demonstrates the emergence of Shigemori’s signature style of the undulating line, cut out of stone as if to frame the rectilinear nature of property lines and the engawa veranda typical of traditional homes. Tschumi states this garden was designed early in his career, but at this point Shigemori is just shy of sixty years old. Shown below is the generous residence of a sake brewer, with three distinct garden areas in the front and back of the house.

The wave motif is shown in the South Garden in plan. The sinuous line becomes a recurring theme in Shigemori’s later works. / Shigemori family

The South Garden located in the back of the house is entirely visible and unified with the interior space. The placement of risseki (standing stones) is intended for the viewer imagine boats out in the sea, a mythical journey to the islands of the immortals.

The wave motif is shown in the foreground, with the iconic rock sculptures – risseki, in the middle ground. / Christian Lichtenberg

Tschumi offers a thorough analysis of the garden with Shigemori’s own words, which were a rebuke of what he deemed the amateur nature of gardens in Japan at the time. “People tend to think that anybody can make a garden, without any education or original ideas. A lack of insight on the part of the owner, and knowledge on behalf of the garden maker, provides for many tasteless gardens.” Shigemori is seeking a way to connect to timeless, essential beauty through his artistic endeavors. Lucky is the artist who himself is immortalized in the many gardens still in the care of clients who relish his work.

Perhaps the Japanese term haikara, though colloquial, is an apt description of Shigemori’s personality. Haikara describes a certain type of Japanese gentleman with a Western flair, derived from the English “high collar” fashion popular during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). To use a personal example: my grandfather would have shokupan (sliced milk bread) for breakfast and was considered haikara because he didn’t have the traditional choice of asagohan (rice for breakfast).

Much has been written about how Japanese culture at all levels demonstrates a competition between two opposing forces: modernity and tradition. In simple terms, modernity is often seen as rooted in westernization, and at times an incursion into or dilution of Japanese tradition. But the limitations of such discussions are obvious, and Tschumi is careful not to steep in this theme, allowing the reader to imagine a more complex man in Shigemori.

The majority of the publication focuses on present-day photographs of Shigemori’s landscapes and detailed plans collected by the author with the cooperation with Shigemori’s estate. The projects are astonishingly simple yet staggeringly beautiful. And the reader is again left to question how Shigemori could embark on so many creative endeavors in one lifetime. One quibble: the photography does not depict people and is deliberately devoid of any visitors or caretakers. In reality, droves of visitors admire Shigemori’s landscapes, so they require rigorous maintenance.

In my experience, visiting Tofuku-ji Hojo in Kyoto is like the moment you finally arrive at Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Tofuku-ji Hojo in Kyoto is one of the most popular gardens in Japan. / Shigemori family

As visitors to Japan seek out Shigemori’s landscapes, which they may view as aesthetic experiences quintessential to Japanese culture, one actually finds the world at his landscapes. It is a safe bet that a log of visitors to Shigemori’s public gardens would demonstrate more international traffic than any regional airport. This reverse haikara — foreigners flocking to Kyoto to take in Japanese culture and aesthetics — is perhaps driven by the same impulse of the Japanese dandies: in studying the other, they find more of themselves.

Masako Ikegami, ASLA, is a marketing associate with SWA Group in Los Angeles.

Jörg Gläscher’s COVID-19-Inspired Forest Waves

C19/18 / Jörg Gläscher

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a daily reminder of the awesome power of mother nature to foil the plans of humans. Many scientists, landscape architects, and planners believe the virus, which is theorized to have originated in bats in western China, spread because of human expansion into complex ecosystems and the rise of wet markets where diverse species and humans mix. As humans damage the intricate web of relationships in ecosystems, virus risks increase.

As the second rush of COVID-19 hit Europe in fall 2020, photographer and artist Jörg Gläscher transformed his own concerns about the spread of the virus into a compelling land art project in a forest near Hamburg, Germany.

C19/18 / Jörg Gläscher

There, he gathered dead wood, which he organized into nine wave forms. The largest is 13 feet (4 meters) high and 29 feet (9 meters) wide. After photographing a wave, he took the installation apart to form a new one, temporarily re-arranging the forest floor.

C19/18 / Jörg Gläscher

Gläscher told Colossal: “I was working (with the idea of) the pure power of nature, the all-destroying force, which brings one of the richest countries in the world to a completely still stand. A wave is a periodic oscillation or a unique disturbance to the state of a system.”

C19/18 / Jörg Gläscher

On his website, Gläscher includes a poem about his work, which explores his negotiation with nature and the virus:

“Observations are manifold, individual, not directly transferable and can be experienced in many different ways. A perceived object can generate impact in numerous ways. Is it standing still? Has it moved? Nothing is ever as it seems.

Are appearances therefore deceptive? No, they are not necessarily deceptive, but they join me on a journey, wash over me, swirl through me, make me anxious, retreat, and then rush towards me all over again. ‘But that can’t be’ says the left, ‘but I see and feel it’ says the right half of my brain.

I can go through them, stop them, touch them, but everything comes to a standstill and goes no further. I have to let it go. Standing up, the second wave rolls over me. It is unique, it was unique. I lift my head, take it by the hand and recognize the vibration and the recurring sensation, and with it the fear disappears. Should it come, I will be ready.”

Learn more about Gläscher’s documentary photography and photojournalism work and check out his Instagram.

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (June 1-15)

Art in its nature state: visible invisible in Arkansas / Phoebe Lickwar, via Sightlines

Edible Cities: Landscape Architect Phoebe Lickwar on Post-pandemic Public Spaces and Urban Agriculture — 06/14/21, Sightlines
“Landscape architect Phoebe Lickwar thinks about how more food could be grown within cities — how agriculture should be a part of contemporary urban infrastructure. Sure, that means things like more community gardens where people can grow their own food. But even the practice of community gardens needs significant expansion and change.”

Cornelia Oberlander, a Farsighted Landscape Architect, Dies at 99 — 06/09/21, The New York Times
“Her acclaimed modernist but naturalist designs recognized the fragility of the climate and the social effects of parks and playgrounds.”

When Monuments Go Bad — 06/08/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“The Chicago Monuments Project is leading a city-wide dialogue in search of ways to resolve its landscape of problematic statues, and make room for a new, different kind of public memorial.”

Explore the Modernist Landscapes of Washington, D.C., with This New Illustrated Guide — 06/08/21, The Architect’s Newspaper
“Now, D.C.’s modernist landscapes are taking center stage with a new illustrated guide produced by The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) in partnership with the National Park Service. Titled D.C. Modernism, the handheld device-optimized, GPS-enabled city guide is the 18th of its kind to be produced by TCLF as part of the What’s Out There series.”

With New Law, Las Vegas Water Agency Bets on ‘Aggressive Municipal Water Conservation Measure’ to Remove Decorative Turf, Conserve Colorado River Supply — 06/08/21, The Nevada Independent
“Over the past two decades, Lake Mead, which holds nearly all of Las Vegas’ water, has dropped more than 100 feet amid drought and overuse. In response, federal regulators expect to declare the first-ever shortage for the Colorado River next year, triggering cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s allocations.”

Lower Merion Suddenly Has a Walkable Riverfront, Thanks to Pencoyd Landing Development — 06/07/21, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“By incorporating bits and pieces from the ironworks into the design, the project becomes more than just another generic development. History is made visible in the steel outline of the former complex.”

Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (May 16-31)

Swing Time by Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Boston / via Bloomberg CityLab

Teen Girls Need Better Public Spaces to Hang Out — 05/28/21, Bloomberg CityLab
“Basketball courts, skate parks and playgrounds overlook an important demographic: teenage girls. A burgeoning design movement is trying to fix that.”

D.C. Retakes Top Spot in Annual Survey of Nation’s Best Parks; Arlington at No. 4 — 05/27/21, The Washington Post
“The survey, released Thursday by the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group, ranks the nation’s 100 largest cities on park access, acreage, investment, amenities — and, for the first time this year, ‘park equity.'”

Anna Halprin, Teacher and Choreographer Who Embraced Improvisational Style, Dies — 05/25/21, The Washington Post
“Mrs. Halprin [wife of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin] made a bold statement by making California her base. ‘I’m accused of being touchy-feely,’ she once said. ‘Well, I am. California is a very sensual place, and its landscape has become my theater. I’ve found much inspiration in the way nature operates.'”

An Open Space Plan for Cultural Landscapes, Resilience, and Growth in the Coastal Southeast — 05/25/21, Planetizen
“The Beaufort County Greenprint Plan, completed in 2020, offers an innovative model of open space planning integrated within a larger planning framework.”

Canadian Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander Dies at 99 — 05/24/21, The Architect’s Newspaper 
“German-born Canadian landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, who revolutionized mid-20th century urban play spaces and cleared the path for women in the profession, has died in Vancouver, British Columbia, just weeks ahead of what would have been her centenary on June 20.”

A New $260 Million Park Floats on the Hudson. It’s a Charmer — 05/20/21, The New York Times
“Signe Nielsen, a co-founder of Mathews Nielsen Landscape Architects, designed everything green and flowering that visitors will see, smell, lay a blanket on and walk past.”

Walter Hood: Landscapes Can Tell New Stories

Saint Monica’s Tears / Hood Design Studio

Semiotics involves the study of signs and symbols. In a virtual lecture organized by the National Building Museum, landscape designer and artist Walter Hood, ASLA, kept returning to the idea of re-evaluating existing signs and symbols in American landscapes and creating meaningful new ones that speak to diverse audiences.

Designed landscapes use symbols to tell stories about places and communities. But for Hood, it’s clear that landscapes too often use symbols to create “fictions,” narratives told by someone else. This presents communities that have not expressed themselves before with opportunities to tell new stories that resonate with an increasingly diverse public.

Hood began his lecture by sharing a few recent projects, including Saint Monica’s Tears in Santa Monica, California (see above).

When the Spaniards arrived, there were sacred springs named Kuruvungna by the local Tongva tribe. When Father Juan Crespi saw the springs, he thought of Saint Monica’s eyes. Saint Monica (Santa Monica in Spanish) is known as the “weeping saint,” as she shed tears over her son Augustine’s “hedonistic lifestyle.”

Speaking to a Tongva elder, Hood learned about the lost landscape that existed before the Spanish colonialists arrived. He wanted to design a reminder of this landscape in the midst of today’s busy commercial and tourist mecca. “I wanted to create a duality — a conversation between the present and past — and explore materials that can help us remember the past,” he said. At a metro station, he designed large sand stones in Indian trapezoidal forms to make up a wall, with hand-made glass tears that form streaks running down the wall’s face.

A public art piece Hood designed more than a decade ago in Oakland, California, 7th Street Dancing Lights + Gateway, includes light poles that honor the community’s jazz and blues history. The artwork culminates in a gateway above a four-lane street with etched portraits of leading Black American figures — Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Saint Monica’s Tears, the projects brings to light a little known aspect of history — the Black history that defines 7th street in West Oakland. One West Oakland resident told him that each morning, seeing “the signs gave him confidence to go into the city every day. Seeing them ablaze gave him peace.”

7th Street Dancing Lights + Gateway / Hood Design Studio

Hood’s recent book Black Landscapes Matter, co-edited with Grace Mitchell Tada, Assoc. ASLA, came out of efforts, like the two projects just mentioned, to “change the semiotic,” and therefore change mindsets.

Hood had watched footage of the scene where Michael Brown was killed by police and wondered why these killings were always happening in the same places — liquor stores, the middle of empty streets. He initiated a series of lectures at the University of California at Berkeley, which then provided the foundation for the book. In the book and lecture, he returned to the ideas of signs and symbols in the landscape — and how they reflect different narratives for different communities.

One place for Hood to explore these ideas was the Tidal Basin Ideas Lab, an initiative to re-imagine the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., which is increasingly threatened by rising sea levels brought on by climate change.

Here, his team imagined a “speculative future” and decided to “do something different.” “I didn’t want to fix Washington, D.C.; D.C. is a fiction anyway.” Instead, Hood Design Studio proposed an elevated ringed pathway above a Tidal Basin returned to its natural wetlands. He imagined Black tourists and locals visiting D.C. to discover the untold Black history of the landscape.

Tidal Basin Ideas Lab submission / Hood Design Studio

In Nauck, Arlington, Virginia, his studio is re-imagining a space dedicated to John Robinson, Jr., a beloved figure who passed away in 2010, as a true town square. Prior to emancipation, a community of freed slaves created Freedman’s Village, a space now taken up by Arlington National Cemetery. As the cemetery was created, the community was forced to move to this area of Virginia.

Hood said the community’s real name isn’t Nauck, but Green Valley, as this is the name used by the Freedman’s Village diaspora who moved there. As such, he wanted to make sure the new Nauck Town Square is very green and feels like a place of refuge.

Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio

He also designed a gilded sentinel that spells out “FREED” and then turned it so it stands vertically. “It’s a celebration of early freed people. Nauck now has a different name and symbols — 40-feet-tall, gilded, and lit.” The sentinel itself is comprised of a pattern made up of slave badges.

Nauck Town Square / Hood Design Studio

In the historic downtown LaVilla, Florida, Hood designed the Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park, which honors the brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson who composed the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in LaVilla and lived in a home on the park site in the early 1900s.

The community was once known as a Black commercial street, lined by flophouses and shotgun homes. “It was the Great Black Way, and there are ghosts of that neighborhood still there.” Hood is designing a new park that has gardens and an amphitheater. A shotgun house will be stenciled with lyrics from the Johnson brothers and form the foundation of a new stage. There’s also a “poet’s walk,” with inspirational quotes.

Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park / Hood Design Studio
Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park / Hood Design Studio
Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing Park / Hood Design Studio

For the International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, Hood Design Studio is imagining a new landscape that can speak to the vast African diaspora in the U.S. who were brought to the country against their will. “Some 40 percent of the slave diaspora landed in Charleston.” The museum is near now buried landing places where “people were bought, sold, and perished.” It’s also near the aquarium, harbor, and the Black church where nearly a dozen people were killed by a white supremacist.

The old landing place where slaves disembarked in the U.S. for the first time has been “erased, built upon, forgotten.” Hood thinks its critical to exhume the history of the IAAM site, which is almost a burial ground, given so many perished there.

In her books, Toni Morrison has relayed the sentiment — there is no place for me to go and sit and hear my ancestors, Hood said. This idea inspired him to design a “landscape of memorial” at the museum site. He added that too often for Black Americans, “there is no tree, park, square — no place to think of who came before” — and the IAAM can provide this for the African diaspora.

The IAAM, designed in partnership with architecture firms Pei, Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan, will be raised up 13 feet off the ground in order to protect against flooding and sea level rise. The elevated structure created the opportunity for a plaza below the building where Hood is designing a landscape of crushed shells that refer to the sea floor.

International African American Museum / Pei Cobb Freed

Within this plane, Hood has etched forms of slaves who were chained head to toe together in galley ships that crossed the Atlantic. The corpses are marked with shells, in reference to the unknown many who perished on the journey and rest at the bottom of the ocean.

International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

Surrounding the building are a series of gardens that include sweetgrass, which has been used by the Gullah community of the low country of the Carolinas to make artful baskets for centuries; rice fields, which highlight the role of Carolina Gold rice farming in the history of the region; and African ethno-botanical gardens, which will include a rotating display of plants with medicinal and other healing benefits.

African ethno-botanical gardens at the International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

Two walls will provide frames for sculptures of “rice negroes” who worked in the fields of the Carolinas. “They are reflective figures, who appear trapped,” Hood said.

International African American Museum / Hood Design Studio

During a Q&A session, moderator Maisie Hughes, ASLA, a co-founder of The Urban Studio, argued that emancipation isn’t often viewed as worthy of memorializing. She wondered why some events are memorialized and not others.

Hood said that W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, argues that “landscapes are fictions.” Institutions and communities design landscapes to create certain narratives, and this has occurred throughout history.

In ancient Egypt, one side of the Nile River represented death while the other bank represented life. In the Taos pueblo community, children lived on side of a river until they were old enough to cross over to the other side. Landscape use symbols to tell stories and create identities.

“The problem is that we are too often subjected to someone else’s narratives. Colonialism created its own fictions that were told to us. It’s fine if you want to have that story, but don’t subject me to that.” Too many communities have “never had an opportunity to own space, create their own narratives, and articulate differences.” Hood has set out to change that.

Light Art for Dark Times

Blue Night by Kiki Smith / Fung Collaboratives

In the era of the coronavirus, public spaces enable us to socialize and connect, across the masks. And public art is a powerful way to bring more people together safely, spark new connections, and add even more value to our public spaces. Illuminate, a free public art exhibition, brought world-class light and interactive art to Coral Gables, Florida, a community of nearly 50,000 southwest of downtown Miami over this past winter. One of the country’s first planned communities, the Mediterranean Revival-style development features a two-mile-long downtown strip that hosted eight new interior and exterior art installations. Working with the Coral Gables Community Foundation, the city, and other partners, a team of curators led by Fung Collaboratives sought to “produce a proper museum-quality group exhibition rather than a ‘light festival.’”

Blue Night by contemporary artist Kiki Smith featured 42 suspended art works inspired by late 17th century drawings of constellations of the zodiac by Johannes Hevelius and others. Smith said: “In ancient times it was believed that the sky was somewhere between heaven and Earth. It’s great to be able to present light, hope, and joy for so many to experience.”

Blue Night by Kiki Smith / Fung Collaboratives

A companion augmented reality (AR) app enabled visitors to interact with the aerial astrological signs. Visitors who aimed their phone cameras at the artworks saw ghosted images of the animals, along with the stars and asterism that make up each constellation. There’s also a fantastic free coloring book for kids (and adults).

Blue Night by Kiki Smith / Fung Collaboratives

On the facade of the Coral Gables Museum, the video art projection You Are Here was the result of a course artist and professor Jonathan Perez taught at Florida International University (FIU) Art & Art History Department that took “an inclusive and historical look” at the city. Perez states that the installation is “heartfelt, relevant, and another time capsule for the city to treasure.” Students that participated in the course were also credited on the final artwork.

You Are Here / Fung Collaboratives
You Are Here / Fung Collaboratives
You Are Here / Fung Collaboratives

Echoes of Souls and Echoes of My Skin by David Gumbs are a dynamic diptych video installation. Visitors passing below triggered “random computer-generated animations and patterns inspired by David Gumbs’ Caribbean cultural, fauna, and flora heritage,” the curators write. His work is also a “token to lost souls due to the COVID pandemic and social injustice.”

Echoes of Souls and Echoes of My Skin by David Gumbs / Fung Collaboratives
Echoes of Souls and Echoes of My Skin by David Gumbs / Fung Collaboratives

At Coral Gables City Hall, Cuban-born and Miami-raised artist Carlos Estévez worked with animators Mai Shirai and Johnny Sim and projection mapping artist Clifford Walker to create the mesmerizing Urban Universes. Estévez transformed his paintings and sculptures into animations that move across the surface of the historic building.

Urban Universes by Carlos Estévez / Fung Collaboratives
Urban Universes by Carlos Estévez / Fung Collaboratives

And on street corners throughout downtown Coral Gables was Yes/No by Antonia Wright and Ruben Millares. The artists state that metal barricades were once viewed as providing safety for events, but because of waves of protests have become ubiquitous in downtowns. They can now symbolize repression and control. By lighting them up, they hope to focus our attention on their complex role in the built environment.

Yes/No by Antonia Wright and Ruben Millares / Fung Collaboratives
Yes/No by Antonia Wright and Ruben Millares / Fung Collaboratives
Yes/No by Antonia Wright and Ruben Millares / Fung Collaboratives

Illuminate, founded by Venny Torre and Patrick O’Connell, is a project of the Coral Gables Community Foundation and includes partners such as The City of Coral Gables, The Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, the Business Improvement District (BID), and the Coral Gables Museum, along with numerous public and private sponsors.

Hug a Tree for 15 Minutes (and Complain to It)

After this challenging year, Marina Abramović, perhaps the world’s most famous performance artist, recommends everyone vent their frustrations to a favorite tree in a public park. She tells you to hug one tightly for no less than 15 minutes and pour out your woes to it. Your angst will be “absorbed in the bark,” and you will feel “rejuvenated.” This is tree-hugging on a whole other level.

Abramović believes there is a degree of energy flow between us and our arboreal friends. “Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you.”

Complain to a Tree / video still from Design Boom
Complain to a Tree / video still from Design Boom
Complain to a Tree / video still from Design Boom

This participatory performance work — Complain to a Tree — is part of series of exercises called the “Abramović Method,” which was developed by the artist to “practice being present.” In Abramović’s most well-known art work, The Artist Is Present, she sat nearly immobile at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City for 736 hours, facing 1,545 visitors over the span of weeks. Being present became a form of “endurance art.”

In the video, Abramović states that “trees are like human beings. They have intelligence. They have feelings. They communicate with each other. And also, they are perfectly silent listeners. You can complain to them.” And she notes that many cultures worship and commune with trees.

For those inclined to try this out in public, Abramović offers guidance:

“One important thing is that you really choose a tree that you like. It can be small and even not that beautiful a tree. But you have some relation to this tree, emotionally. Don’t pick the tree because of the beauty of the tree. Pick the tree because of its smell, the bark, the leaves. Whatever triggers your affection. So look around, and take the tree you like.

Don’t immediately hug the tree. Just feel the energy of the tree. Even not touching it but just holding your hands a little bit above.

And then complain your heart into it. This is the whole idea. Have any of you ever complained to a tree before? No. So this is something that you will be doing for the first time. This is like a journey into the unknown. So get out of your security box and do something that is different.

I hope we can create some kind of trend, that actually people are going to run to the parks and start complaining to the trees. This is one way of healing at this moment of our history.

Complaining to the tree is also a way of getting energy out of the tree—to you. And healing you. So the tree is actually healing the complaint. You’re opening your heart. You’re just telling all your negativity and what bothers you in your life. And the tree is a silent listener. And everything is absorbed into the bark of the tree. And you feel rejuvenated. You feel happy after that.

This is the message for the public. Please—go to the park near you. Pick the tree you like. Hold the tree tight. Really tight. And just pour your heart into it. Complain to the tree for a minimum of 15 minutes. It’s the best healing that you can do.”

The performance was part of a 5-hour public program Abramović produced for the Sky Arts TV channel in the United Kingdom in early December.

Bird’s Eye View: The Best of Drone Photography

Love Heart of Nature / Jim Picôt

Photographers have taken to the air en masse. With drones loaded with high-resolution cameras, aerial photographers are capturing surprising and beautiful scenes from both nature and cities, giving us a fresh perspective on the planet’s complexity. After receiving submissions from 126 countries, the Siena Awards Festival selected their latest Drone Photography Awards. The grand prize winner took home €500,000 (US$586,000) of aerial photography equipment.

Photograph of the year went to Love Heart of Nature by Australian photographer Jim Picôt (see above), who captured an amazing scene in which a shark chases a fish within a heart-shaped school of salmon.

In the urban category, aerial photographer Tomasz Kowalski describes the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as an alien landscape.

Alien Structure on Earth / Tomasz Kowalski

Dmitrii Viliunov, the winner of the wildlife category, explains that “many think herons make nests in reeds or in a swamp. In fact, they nest in the tops of huge trees.” With a drone, it’s possible to get a sense of their home life.

Where Herons Live / Dmitrii Viliunov

In the sports category, photographer Roberto Corinaldesi captures swimmers “taking refuge between the blue carpet and the white foam of the waves.”

On the Sea / Roberto Corinaldesi

And in a wonderful photograph by Joseph Cheires, winner of the nature category, we see a gray whale who seems to enjoy interacting with whale watchers. Cheires writes: “at the end of the gray whale season, I was told about a whale that for the last three years played with the boats, pushing them gently. So we went back the year after, and incredibly the gray whale appeared.”

Gray Whale Plays Pushing Tourists / Joseph Cheires

Lastly, in the abstract category, we get a glimpse of the incredible resilience of nature. Aerial photographer Paul Hoelen captures the results of the transformation of a toxic industrial mining site at Lake Owens in California into a shorebird reserve. Hoelen writes: “after a destructive past and the creation of the most toxic dust bowl in America, migratory birds are returning, and life is beginning anew.”

Phoenix Rising / Paul Hoelen

The photographs are now on display in an exhibition entitled “Above Us Only Sky” in Siena, Italy, through the end of November.

Explore all winners.

Conceptual Art Explores Nature’s Return

As people have retreated to their homes, fish have recolonized Venice’s canals, coyote have been spotted in downtown San Francisco, wild sheep occupied a Welsh town, and deer have started using crosswalks in Japan. And now nature is at least temporarily taking over arts institutions.

The closures of opera houses and museums have offered an opportunity for artists and arts institutions to create charming conceptual works that recognize nature’s new privileges.

Earlier this summer, conceptual artist Eugenio Ampudia partnered with the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, to stage a performance of Puccini’s CrisantemiThe Chrysanthemums. But this time, instead of thousands of Barcelonan opera lovers enjoying Puccini’s melodies, the audience was nearly 2,300 ficus trees, palms, and Swiss cheese plants from a local nursery.

Gran Teatre del Liceu
Gran Teatre del Liceu
Gran Teatre del Liceu

Perhaps the flora-themed music performed by the UceLi Quartet appealed to the plants on some vegetal level.

Gran Teatre del Liceu

Ampudia told The Guardian: “At a time when humankind has shut itself up in enclosed spaces and been obliged to relinquish movement, nature has crept forward to occupy the spaces we have ceded. And it has done so at its own rhythm, according to its patient biological cycle. Can we broaden our empathy and bring it to bear on other species? Let’s start by using art and music and inviting nature into a great concert hall.”

Victor Garcia de Gomar, Liceu’s artistic director, called the piece “a visual poem, both a subtle metaphor but one which makes us smile.”

After the concert, all the house plant attendees were donated to Spain’s frontline healthcare workers so they can provide some much needed stress reduction benefits at home.

With both the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Kansas City Zoo in Kansas City, Missouri, closed due to COVID-19, administrators at the museum had an idea: Why not invite Humboldt penguins from the zoo to visit?

In the video, Randy Wisthoff, the zoo’s executive director, said: “we’re always looking for ways to enrich their lives and stimulate their days. During this shutdown period, our animals really miss visitors coming up to see them.”

According to Julián Zugazagoitia, the museum’s director, Humboldt penguins, which are native to Chile and Peru, seemed to “really appreciate” when he spoke to them in Spanish. As they waddled from room to room, they are seen pausing at some paintings but not others. “They seemed, definitely, to react much better to Caravaggio than to Monet,” Zugazagoitia said.

Humboldt Penguin admiring a Caravaggio / Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

In a New Pier District, an Arc Bends Towards Justice

Bending Arc / Brian Adams

Along 2nd Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida, an old pier launch built on landfill didn’t offer much beyond lots of parking and a long hot walk 3,000 feet out to a restaurant jutting into Tampa Bay. After a $92 million redesign, a new 26-acre walkable pier district now unites city and pier through a walkable green landscape that features Bending Arc, a sculpture with a social justice message by net artist Janet Echelman, gardens, a playground, and hundreds of newly-planted native Floridian trees.

The pier district project was planned and designed by multiple interdisciplinary teams. Barbara Wilks, FASLA, and her team at W-Architecture led the design of the 23-acre approach that brings visitors from downtown through the park space that features Echelman’s piece, her largest permanent installation to date. Architects at Rogers Partners and ASD/SKY Architect and landscape architects at Ken Smith Workshop designed a 3-acre plaza and pier found at the outer edge further into the bay.

W-Architecture started with a master plan devised by AECOM, which the team then revised by “moving things around,” including roads, bus stops, and parking lots, and then layering in multiple transportation systems. There is now a tram line, bicycle paths, and new circulatory system for pedestrians. Wilks said: “if you use Google Earth, you can clearly see we transformed the space from a car dominated place to a pedestrian park.”

As visitors meander through the new landscape, there’s a gateway lined with palm trees, a marketplace with stalls for local artisans, the striking artwork, gardens with a playground and constructed pond, and a beach. The pier district was “designed as a series of events that draw you in. We choreographed how the experience will unfold.”

Conceptual landscape design was already moving forward when city leaders alerted Wilks that Echelman has been commissioned to bring one of her giant pieces to the park. On the phone over a weekend, they reached agreement on the location for the piece, which is called Bending Arc, in reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Bending Arc / Raul Quintana

Echelman named the piece Bending Arc and incorporated multiple arcing forms because the site played an important role in the movement for civil rights. The place was “where local citizens began peacefully challenging racial barriers, leading to the 1957 U.S. Supreme Court case ruling, which upheld the rights of all citizens to enjoy use of the municipal beach and swimming pool without discrimination.” St. Petersburg was also later known for the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968, one of the largest in the country in the wake of the assassination of King.

Echelman’s works are crafted for their specific locations and shaped by their surroundings. Raised in the Tampa Bay area, she was inspired by the colonies of barnacles that grow on the underside of piers and the blue and white parasols that can be found on St. Pete’s beaches. Her studio writes: “The sculpture’s design in aerial view can also be read as three barnacle-like parasols nestled together.”

Bending Arc aerial plan / Studio Echelman

On the ground, Wilks worked with Echelman to fine tune the position of the artwork so it avoided existing trees. Wilks then created circular landscape forms below Bending Arc‘s three apertures where visitors can look up.

Circles are prevalent in the new pier district’s design because the local limestone landscape naturally forms round pools of water, which also result in trees forming circles around the pools’ edges.

A view of the Pier District circular forms before installation of Bending Arc / Marian Flanagan

Under one aperture, a concrete lined circle is filled with oyster shells and forms an outdoor event space.

One of Bending Arc’s apertures, and a circular sitting area below / Brian Adams

Below the two others, there are rounded grass-covered berms so visitors can more easily lie back and gaze at the pleasingly engulfing, undulating nets, which become even more dramatic at night. According to Echelman, the piece is “composed of 1,662,528 knots and 180 miles of twine, spans 424 feet, and measures 72 feet at its tallest point.”

Bending Arc / Brian Adams
Looking up into Bending Arc at night / Brian Adams

Wilks purposefully designed the perimeter of the space with native oaks and pine trees to focus attention on Bending Arc. Diagonal pathways from the gardens direct visitors to the artwork. At some surrounding edges, bioswales with native plants, which are green infrastructure systems for managing stormwater, can be crossed by low wooden bridges.

A view of the bioswales and bridge in the Pier District before the installation of Bending Arc / Marian Flanagan
Bending Arc, bioswales, and bridge at night / City of St. Petersburg

Once visitors move past Echelman’s sculpture, they encounter gardens that contain a play space overlooking a new pond. Because W-Architecture planted native trees and plants, the site has become a mecca for wildlife, something its earlier incarnation as a parking lot could never have achieved.

Pier district gardens / Marian Flanagan
Pier district playground / Marian Flanagan
Pier district constructed pond / Marian Flanagan
New pier district visitor / Marian Flanagan

From there, visitors can either veer towards spa beach or walk further out on the pier designed by Rob Rogers, Ken Smith, FASLA, and team. Pathways at the perimeters enable visitors to loop back to the central spine on bike or foot.

Wilks added that the park itself echoes the social justice message of Echelman’s artwork. “The new pier district is very much for everyone. It was designed to be free and open.”