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A student holding an umbrella while walking in Nitobe Memorial Garden
December 9, 2022
3 mins read

Hidden in Plain Sight: You don't need to "get it"

Hidden in Plain Sight

You walk into a gleaming art museum to see the latest exhibition, which has been getting rave reviews from newspapers and online commentators.

You follow the signs to the first room, breathless with excitement. What grand statement is being made? What’s the real meaning behind this exhibition…?

You stop in your tracks.

The artist appears to have smeared rotting compost over canvas and sprayed it with some sort of lacquer. The lacquer has almost smothered the smell of decaying banana peels.

This is art?

In short… yes! It can feel like there’s pressure to “get” a piece of art, especially art that’s more abstract. However, trying to figure out what it all means can feel frustrating.

Instead, focus on how it makes you feel, rather than what it means. You don’t have to like or “get” the rotting compost, but it probably made you feel something, even if that feeling is disgust.

Something I noticed during my time at university was that, while I was developing great critical thinking skills, sometimes I wasn’t able to just relax and stop analyzing things that I was supposed to be enjoying.

Critical thinking is important, and I love dissecting a movie or book or even painting. But remember, it’s okay to take a break and just see the beauty (or curiosities) of art and the world around you once in a while!

The Shadow by Esther Shalev-Gerz

No, the ground you’re walking on isn’t wet (well, it probably is). It’s art! The Shadow remains slightly obscure when you’re walking over it on your way into the Nest, even if you know that it takes the form of a Douglas Fir tree when viewed aerially.

The Shadow is made of 24,000 dark pavement stones that contrast the lighter pavement around it. It spans 100 metres in front of the Nest, and was installed in 2018. It truly is hidden in plain sight—many students don’t even realize that they’re walking over an art installation.

A photograph of The Shadow art piece.

Photo credit: Belkin Art Gallery

What does this tree mean or represent? The artist’s website says that it “summons the memories of those forgotten things that populate our collective and individual psyches.” I mean… sure! I can definitely see how this ghostly tree connects to the idea of something that used to be here but isn’t anymore, like the forest that was here before UBC was.

But how does The Shadow make you feel? I’m always impressed by its scale, and how spooky it looks in a certain light. There’s a sense of mystery both up close and from afar, and that’s what sticks with me. I don’t know exactly what I’m walking on or what it all means, but I love that sense of the unknown.

Mystery can be meaning in itself—as important as it is to look for the truth and the answers in our studies, science, and politics, don’t forget to be impressed by the big stuff. The trees and the rising sun don’t require any analytics to be amazing.

Nitobe Memorial Garden

The Nitobe Garden is a place where meaning, beauty, and art go hand in hand for me. The garden honours Dr. Inazō Nitobe, who wanted to build cultural bridges across the Pacific and introduce the West to Japan, which seemed extremely distant and foreign to European Canadians at the time.

Dr. Nitobe died in 1933, before war wreaked havoc between Japan and Western powers. Despite this, Japan is now Canada’s 5th largest trading partner, and Canada has embraced many aspects of Japanese culture, so Dr. Nitobe’s goal has arguably been realized.

Snow covering Nitobe Garden at UBC.

Photo credit: UBC Brand & Marketing

The Nitobe Garden is a beautiful place—Japanese Emperor Akihito gave it his blessing as one of the most authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan. Though it’s not on a canvas or carved from stone, the care and attention to detail within the Nitobe Garden unmistakably make it a work of art.

You can go to the garden and think about how far we’ve come since Dr. Nitobe’s time, or you can simply go and enjoy its beauty. It’s a great place to stop, smell the proverbial roses, and just appreciate being alive.

Either way, chances are you’ll feel something, and that’s all art really has to do. You can analyze it and look for deeper meaning, or just let it wash over you—whatever you decide, remember that art is where you find it, just waiting to be discovered.

Header photo credit: Belkin Art Gallery