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    Our Water: Bringing the Beauty of Jiangnan to Versailles

    An exhibition on the splendor of classic Chinese garden architecture aims to offer international audiences a ‘touring’ experience.
    Apr 19, 2024#arts

    The exhibition “Merveilleux Jardins de Jiangnan” (Beautiful Gardens of Jiangnan) opened in Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris, on April 17. The event is part of Our Water: Flowing From Shanghai — Intercultural Dialogues Among World Cities, an international platform to promote urban cultural exchanges and cooperation.

    Here, two members of the curatorial team, Zhang Ming from Tongji University’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and Li Dandan, director of the Pearl Art Museum, discuss the ideas behind the show.

    The Paper: Conversations on Eastern and Western garden designs often involve phrases such as “winding paths” or “central axis symmetry.” How have you tried to make visitors to the exhibition feel like they are touring a garden?

    When it comes to appreciating the beauty of a garden, the “touring” experience is very important. This is where the theme of this exhibition stems from. The tour here can be divided into two dimensions: time and space. In terms of time, the exhibition shows the audience the past and the present of Jiangnan-style gardens, and in terms of space, it presents activities in diversified forms. This combination is the most important feature of this project.

    The Paper: How does the exhibition demonstrate the differences between East and West, and the common ground that can be found between two cultures?

    This was the focus of the curatorial team’s discussions during our preparations. On the one hand, it’s necessary to reflect the characteristics of Chinese gardens, and on the other hand, we want foreign audiences to be able to see and feel it.

    One of the most unusual aspects of this exhibition is that it brings the Chinese gardens of Jiangnan to Versailles, creating a direct dialogue between the East and the West. The location of the exhibition is itself part of the curatorial process. We see the Palace of Versailles as an important exhibit, and we hope that the audience will be able to walk from the palace to the Jiangnan gardens and enjoy an immersive feeling.

    This exhibition is aimed at people in France and Europe as a whole, rather than architecture or landscape professionals. Therefore, we wanted to give the audience an immersive and interactive experience by using a lot of modern techniques, such as computer-designed graphics and ink-drawn animations. We’ve also invited artists to perform traditional Chinese music and display contemporary art onsite. This, combined with the deep research and accumulated practice of Tongji University, aims to give visitors a holistic sense of presence.

    The differences between the gardens of the East and the West are obvious, but there’s no denying the fact that all the gardens reflect humankind’s instinctive yearning for nature. Therefore, the exhibition interprets the Jiangnan gardens from the viewpoint of nature, and showcases the cultural concepts from the level of gardening rationale and methodology. From this perspective, we believe it will be easier for foreign audiences to grasp the context of Jiangnan gardens.

    The Paper: Considering historical dimensions, what do you feel is the best way to present the beauty of Jiangnan gardens to European audiences?

    The region that we call “Jiangnan” in China covers roughly 80,000 square kilometers, and its long history of landscaping, its large number of gardens, and outstanding artistic achievements are considered extremely rare in human history. So, it’s a challenge to tell such a phenomenal story to an audience in an exhibition hall in just a matter of minutes.

    In the process of curating, we selected five representative gardens: Yu Garden, Wangshi Garden, Jichang Garden, He Garden, and Fangta Garden. They differ markedly in terms of when they were constructed, regional characteristics, and gardening styles, vividly expressing the evolution in Chinese gardens over thousands of years. We also wanted to present a 3D view of our Jiangnan gardens to Western audiences under the macro framework of time and space.

    Based on Tongji University’s many years of research in classical Chinese gardens, we have created a number of customized exhibits. One of the most important is “A Thousand Gardens in Jiangnan.” The creators researched nearly 2,000 gardens in more than 50 cities and towns in the Jiangnan area and presented them in the same space through cartographic methods. The result was very impressive and fully expressed the overall appearance of Jiangnan gardens.

    The Paper: The designer of the Fangta Garden, Feng Jizhong, studied in China and Austria. How does the garden reflect the fusion of East and West?

    Fangta Garden is the only modern garden in this exhibition that serves as the bridge for the Western audience to understand Chinese gardens. The concept of “giving the ancient a new meaning” raised by Feng aims to revitalize ancient materials, to respect what came before and preserve the original.

    So, when Feng was designing the garden, he kept in mind the Western concept of cultural heritage and used the Fangta (Square Tower), the screen wall, and the Temple of Goddess as the main body of the garden. During the design process, to solve the problem of the tower’s ground elevation being lower than the surrounding area, and to follow the tradition of putting a tower in the center of the courtyard, Feng created two sections of the courtyard wall. This prevented any negative impact from the ground height difference on the towering effect, and managed to determine the angle at which people standing in the courtyard would look up at the tower.

    The Paper: Can you talk about the challenges faced by multinational teams?

    The challenge mainly lies in coordination. Normally, it takes at least a year to prepare for an exhibition of this scale overseas, but we had only three months. Fortunately, we had the help of many French partners, especially the local authorities in Versailles. Carré à la Farine, the venue for this exhibition, is an important cultural place open to the public. The local government has great expectations for the citizens of Versailles to experience the beauty of Chinese gardens up close.

    Maximizing the exhibition’s effect and value was also a challenge. The exhibition involves many multimedia techniques, so we spent a lot of effort communicating with the French team. In our exchanges, they gave us lots of good advice and helped us achieve the exhibition effect in the most reliable way.

    The Paper: There’s no shortage of young artists featured in this exhibition. What contributions have the younger generation made to mutual understanding and cultural exchanges between China and the West?

    This exhibition not only includes Ru Xiaofan, an internationally renowned Chinese painter living in France, who we invited to display his work “Infinite Space,” but also brings together three young artists worthy of attention: Zhang Xiaoli, Zhou Yang, and Yuan Long. Their works are all related to Chinese classical gardens and Oriental philosophy, and the innovation in their concept and language is obvious.

    Zhang has a background in art and biology. Her “Lego Landscape” series of paintings are delicate, soft, and full of wit. Zhou is pursuing a doctorate degree in the United Kingdom while working as a photographer and a translator. Her work “Immortal Landscape” is a very good example of how she’s been straddling these two cultures. As for Yuan, a keen creator who is concerned about environmental issues, she has brought to France floating Taihu Lake stones made of special metal materials, an artist’s answer to sustainability.

    These artists share the common experience of “living elsewhere,” are all fascinated by the beauty of gardens, and in a sense have found their own unique and universal artistic language.


    Exhibition: “Merveilleux Jardins de Jiangnan”

    Time: April 17-20, 2024

    Location: Carré à la Farine (70 bis, Rue de la Paroisse, Versailles)

    The curatorial team:

    Zhang Ming, director of the Department of Landscape Architecture, College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Tongji University

    Li Dandan, director of the Pearl Art Museum

    Yang Chen, assistant professor, Department of Landscape Architecture, College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Tongji University

    Yuan Jialin, director of the International Office, Tongji University Press

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Eunice Ouyang; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    Sponsored content by Sixth Tone × Our Water

    (Header image: A performance at the exhibition “Merveilleux Jardins de Jiangnan,” Paris, 2024. Courtesy of the exhibition’s curatorial team)