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A Note for MA: Space/Time in the Garden of Ryoan-Ji

Takahiko Iimura

Printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East


MA: Space/Time in the Garden of Ryoan-Ji was produced for the Program for Art on Film, a joint venture of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Trust. 1 Directed by Takahiko Iimura, with text by Arata Isozaki and music by Takehisa Kosugi, the film was produced in 16mm and there is also a video version.

This film was produced as part of the series, “Film on Art/Art on Film.” The series dealt with works of classic art and world renowned architecture. The themes of the some of the other films produced for the series were the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, the Pantheon in Paris, the Fayem portraits, and a number of other subjects. Each film in the series was the result of a collaboration between a filmmaker and a scholar or researcher. In this case the collaborator was architect Arata Isozaki, who wrote the text.


I had an early interest in the concept of “MA” and produced another film called MA (Intervals) during my long stay in New York between 1975 and 1977. It is an abstract film, very different than the Ryoan-Ji garden film. The film is composed entirely of black and clear leader and a scratched straight line (still no. 1). All the materials are measured every second for both picture and sound and used with the lengths of one, two, and three seconds as the basic units. I scratched the soundtrack area of the filmstrip either by making points or a line. The film is organized according to the permutations of the possible combinations of picture and sound.

For example, one second of clear leader (white picture) is punctuated by one of two kinds of sound: an instantaneous “p…”, at the beginning and end of a one second interval, or a continuous sound “p~~…” which lasts for one second. The same procedure is applied to the black leader. Any given second of time can be light (white) or dark (black), with audio composed either of two intermittent sounds or of one continual sound.

My interest in this film is that the same interval (“MA”) is composed of four qualities: light, darkness, intermittence, and duration–and out of these, quite complicated qualities develop (even in this extremely minimally composed film), according to the combinations of picture and sound.

I made a graphical score using the above materials of picture and sound, and produced the film following the score. The production could be compared to a kind of musical composition. Looking at the film, patterns, rhythms, and variations of light and sound may be seen and listened to.

During the 1970’s, my main concern in film was the issue of time, and before MA (Intervals) I had made several films using black and clear leader. Sections of leader are put together in the film, Models, Reel 1 and 2 (1972), which are assembled in a series of works including Timing 1, 2, 3, 4, Time Length 1, 2, 3, 4 , etc.

In these series I measured time rationally as much as possible, and made the films by reducing light and sound to their fundamental properties. In these cases, I limited the time to what is possible to experience as intervals. Generally, the films deal with the duration of one second to one minute.

Take, for example, 2 Minutes 46 Seconds 16 Frames (100 Feet), which is a part of Models, Reel 1. Initially, the numbers 1 to 24 are written in each frame, then the numbers 1 to 60 are written each second, and lastly, each minute is numbered, but only the numbers 1 and 2 are seen because the film is less than three minutes long. In total, this film consists of three ways of marking time in 100 feet of film.

In these films I am interested in realizing Henri Bergson’s concept  of temporal duration, called “durée,” in filmic time. I see Bergson's “durée” as closer to the concept of time in the East, which regards time as duration rather than as divisible. If one regards the concept of Japanese “MA” as an indivisible state of time and space, there is common ground with Bergson's “durée.”

When MA (Intervals) was made, I had not abandoned the basic unit of 24 frames per second which had been used in making Models. While supporting this measurable unit, I broke from the continuity of Models, which is predictable to a certain extent, by bringing in intermittence. Out of these works, I thought about creating a work in which continuity and intermittence are both present.

The abstract composition of black and white, using black and clear leader as materials, does not show the movement of an object. Though time in film usually is shown in the process of movement, MA (Intervals) consists of time-intervals without movement. (When a scratched line on film is projected, one may perceive the illusion of movement, as if the line were “running”—even though it is staying in almost the same place on the screen).


In making the film of Ryoan-ji, I thought about “MA” as an indivisible state of time and space, and tried to describe this state in filmic terms. The image of immovable stones in a limited space has been shot before in many photographs and movies. I thought of not merely expressing the concept of “MA,” but also of experiencing  “MA.” I wanted not to illustrate the concept in the film with an explanatory text, as is common in conventional instructional art films, but to make the film viewing an actual experience of “MA.”

While the film was articulated according to the garden, I thought that one should get a total experience through the film of a work of art. I used a tracking shot to create a coherent visual experience. Moreover, through very slow tracking shots, I tried to realize the state of “MA” where time and space are indivisible. The slow tracking shots across immovable objects create a continuous space while making the viewer conscious of his or her own time-process. Though one cannot easily judge, just by looking at a single picture, whether the shot is moving or still, such a tracking shot is required for the scenery to change from the beginning to the end. Quicker tracking shots would break the continuity of the space.

The tracking shot is at a constant speed, and one does not feel any artificiality in the movement. To achieve this I used a computer to control the tracking dolly, which made it possible for it to move at a constant, highly controllable speed. The slow tracking shot, a simultaneous change of space and time, elicits a visual experience of the indivisible state of time/space–this is what we call “MA” and this becomes the main theme of the film.

Except for the fixed shots, which I call “framing  shots” at the beginning and the end, the entire film is composed of tracking and zooming shots. The first shot, from the left edge of the garden, is from an angle that takes in almost the entire garden (still no. 2). This is paired with the last fixed shot, taken from the right edge which is also a view of almost the entire garden. The two shots act as the frame of the film. By creating this frame, I tried to fictionalize the “content.” As a fixed shot with full view, it gives perspective to the subsequent detailed tracking shots.

After the first fixed shot the following text is read:
The garden is a medium
for meditation
Perceive the blankness
Listen to the voice  of the
Imagine the void  filled
These words by Arata Isozaki have a strong message about “MA.” The garden can be regarded as both a medium and an environment–“Perceive–Blankness,” “Voice–Silence,” “Void–Fill;” employing pairs of contrasting concepts, Isozaki tried to juxtapose the negative and the positive. This is not an obliteration of the negative by the positive; on the contrary, it not only admits the existence of the negative space, but it also “fills into” the positive without turning the negative into the positive. This may be regarded as a contradiction from the Western point of view, but is based on the logic of the East. Negative space does not necessarily mean non-existence but has a form of existence. What John Stevens called “active absence” applies to “MA” as well. 2

After these words, the first tracking shot occurs. It starts from a close-up of a large stone, which fills the frame (still no. 3). This stone with a sharp edge on top is located in the furthest  left group of the five stone groups (altogether 15 stones); it is the first stone which a visitor would notice before viewing the entire garden. The top of this stone, which is reminiscent of the Matterhorn, is similar in size to the entire fifth group, and is the tallest of all the stones.

Facing the garden, the camera moves from left to right, as a visitor would, and remains in close-up. It indicates that the layout of the stones has a composition from left to right. 3 The position of the camera is slightly lower than the eye level of a person sitting on the veranda, and is at the same level as the height of the first stone. The dolly tracks were set along the veranda and between the veranda and the garden.

All three dolly shots move along the same length of track and at the same height. The first one uses the longest telephoto lens and moves at the slowest speed, taking the longest time to reach the fifth stone group. Accordingly, the shot shows the detail of each stone, and at the same time makes the distance between stone groups seem greater. “MA” in the garden of Ryoan-ji is a visualization of “MA” between stones. At first, “MA” is considered as space between objects and as the spaces among the scattered stones in the garden created by slow close-up tracking shots. The long lens flattens the image and emphasizes the width. Therefore, the distance between the stone and the wall is compressed, the wall occupying a large part within the picture, and when there are no stones in the image, the composition is divided in two parts: gravel in the foreground and the wall in the background. At no other point in the film is the wall of the garden more visible than in this shot.
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Through this shot, I made an unexpected discovery. Immediately after the second group of stones, which have the shape of a whale, I saw a stain on the wall in the form of a walking headless man (still no. 4). I did not find this mentioned in any materials that I have read about Ryoan-ji. But in one of the photographs in the guidebook published by Ryoan-ji the man is seen. I am not certain if anyone else has ever noticed this stain.

The tracking shot temporarily stops above the fifth group of stones, then pans down slightly, and holds at a shot of the middle of a stone in the shape of a trapezium. The reason for the pan down is to isolate the fifth group of stones, which is in the foreground, separating it from the fourth group which is seen with the fifth group earlier in this shot. This pan down at the end of a tracking shot is used three times and is equivalent to a sort of punctuation, or a rest in a piece of music.

The text continues:
Perceive not the objects
but the distance
between them
not the sounds
but  the pauses
they leave unfilled
These words express what I have already emphasized visually. The distance between them is the visual perceived in the first tracking shot. However, in the image, as long as it is visible, there is no negative form but only the degree of emphasis. Therefore, a logic of alternatives is not at work in the image as implied in not the objects but the distance; not only do the objects and the distance co-exist, but the distance is also occupied by other kinds of objects. In the distance between stones, there is gravel and wall. If one takes the standpoint of the stones, those are the distance, but from the standpoint of gravel and wall, stones could be the distance. In a normal sense stones occupy the position of the objects against gravel and wall.

After the second text, a second tracking shot is shown. Using a wider lens than the first, this shot is a standard one with a slightly faster tracking speed. The first stone group includes moss at the feet, is farther from the wall, and has a wider perspective. But the upper limit of the frame remains within the wall, the outside view is not seen, and the shot shows that the garden is a space limited by the wall.

The wider angle, even though moving horizontally at constant speed, has the effect of a zoom back from the first telephoto tracking shot. This second tracking shot with a wider angle is perceived as slower, even though it is actually moving faster. Based on the laws of perception, the shooting plan was made so that the repetition is felt as slower.

In this second tracking shot, the distance between the stones becomes relative. The area of the gravel in the foreground gets larger and is perceived as an open space. Daniel Charles has stated that in the garden of Ryoan-ji, “the countless sands symbolize nothingness. But the sands become the sign of nothingness because of the existence of the stones.” 4 Such a perception may be based on a viewing from above. Here, it is recognized that the sign of nothingness depends on the existence of the object (the stones).

At the third tracking shot, a pan down occurs again. Because of the wider lens, the stones of the fourth group remain in the upper part of the frame with the stones of the fifth group below them (still no. 5). This composition is reminiscent of Eastern perspective (for example, Suiboku-ga, brush stroke painting), focusing on above and below as opposed to a Western perspective preoccupied with depth. In Suiboku-ga, the eye-line pans down as if moving from a distant view to a close view. Framing typical of Eastern painting is used in the composition of the tracking shot.

Now the picture zooms in on five groups of stones (still no. 6). This slow auto zooming takes place from the fixed, almost middle point of the corridor toward a main stone in each stone group. The zooming concentrates on stones as objects. While the two tracking shots emphasize MA between the stones, these zoom shots emphasize MA between the observer and the stone. Is it possible to have MA in the space between the observer and the object if MA is normally perceived in the absence of an object? The zoom approaches slowly toward the object and stops with the stone in full frame, creating the effect of gazing at the stone. Now the object occupies the frame where no distance seems to exist. This zero degree of distance allows the observer to identify with the object—another aspect of MA. This could be called a subjective MA compared with an objective MA in space.

Throughout the five zooms, synchronized loud hitting sounds with echoes are repeated. In the tracking shots a single sound with variations is heard echoing and leaving lingering sounds. At the beginning of each zoom, one is startled by a synchronized sharp sound. It is a strong hit to the head like a “stone bullet.” Like a Zen monk's “Kattsu!,” the sound achieves its effect by the multiplied affect caused by synchronizing it with the image.

With this intense concentration on objects, to emphasize MA without looking at space between objects may seem a contradictory strategy. But the more one concentrates on the objects, the more one perceives MA, or an “active absence.” This is the strategy used here.

I would also like to note that the zoom-in has a perceptual effect opposite that of the three tracking shots, which have the effect of zooming back from telephoto to wide angle.

After the zooms, we read the following words in the frame:
Are the rocks placed
on the ground
the islands of paradise
is the white sand the
vast ocean
that distances them
from this world
The Japanese word “Syumisen,” translated as “paradise,” is a sacred mountain located in the center, according to the ancient world view of India.

These words are a metaphor, seeing the stone garden as islands floating in the ocean, a common interpretation. This stone-garden is an example of Kare-San-Sui, a dry-landscape garden, and the metaphor is appropriate despite the lack of water (or because of its absence), and because of the form of the gravel in an orderly raked wave pattern.

The last tracking shot uses a wide-angle lens and shows the widest view. The trees behind the wall are seen, as well as the left side wall. In the foreground the lines form waves of gravel. Although the tracking speed is fastest, this does not feel like the fastest shot.

One already knows the layout of the stones from the two tracking shots, but this last shot gives the impression of floating on a boat while overlooking islands. This moving viewpoint is one that cannot be had from a fixed point on the observation corridor. The tracking shows not only the continuation of points, but gives a changing overview.

One cannot see all fifteen stones of the garden from any single point, and must move to see them all. Doesn’t that imply that the maker of the garden conceived from the beginning that one should move in the garden so as to see all the stones? (In a drawing of the garden in late 18th century Edo period,  people are shown strolling in the garden!). 5

The back wall gets lower towards the edges, making the garden look larger than it really is. This indicates that although perspective was not invented in Japan at that time, the maker created it through his experience. Using a wide angle lens in the last tracking shot emphasizes the perspective of the wall, making the garden appear larger than in reality (still no. 7).

This artificial perspective is based on the wall as a frame that separates the garden from the outside. Compared with Western gardens, where no wall is set (or is expected to have a vanishing point with a symmetrical spatial design and depth), this garden limits the space with a parallel wall at the back. The wall blocks the vanishing perspective of the garden while emphasizing the perspective of the wall by itself. This is a contradictory strategy that makes the garden a self-contained space. The maker also conceived of “Syakkei” (borrowed landscape) which attempts to integrate the garden with the background scenery of trees. Yet it is based on this framed garden. In fact the background trees stand out over the wall.

After the third tracking shot, the next words appear:
B r e a t h e
Swallow this garden
Let it swallow you
Become one with it
This rather sudden appearance moves the observer to breathe with the garden. This breathing operation, to swallow and to let it swallow is natural. If one can identify with the objects, one would, through this action, become one with them. Beginning from perceiving the blankness, the chain of the text, full of paradox, works at an extremely conceptual level.

The film concludes with a full shot from the right edge of the garden. This is the final point after the three tracking shots, a fixed shot that frames the film.


In a review of the film in Art on Screen, a dictionary of art film, the editor Nadine Covert writes:
Original, personal, disciplined approach to the subject, seeking to convey the aesthetic experience of the artwork and to integrate a philosophical agenda with a visual one. Takes a difficult concept and explores it, making it visual. Very reductive, flat, and simple. The photographic simplicity gives clarity to what we see, the rigid linear camera movements give us a feel for the dimension of the garden but also flatten space. The aesthetic of the film is the message, it has the quality of experimental film, conceptual film-an artwork itself. Good balance of music/visuals/titles. If not compelling for some viewers as for others, still rated as very effective. Makes one want to visit the actual garden and experience its spiritual energy. 6

Translated from the Japanese catalog The Media World of Takahiko Iimura, Kirin Plaza Osaka, Osaka, 1993, pp. 34-39, by the author with the assistance of Peter D’Agostino and Grahame Weinbren.

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this article was printed in Millennium Film Journal No. 38 (Spring 2002): Winds From the East