Can You Find Zen In This 3-D Geometric Puzzle?

An artist known for his large street installations takes it indoors, where he plants some dystopia in his Zen Garden.

You won’t find Sam Songailo much in art galleries. The young Australian artist can, more often than not, be spotted out on the streets, under bridges, down alleys. It’s this urban fabric–specifically, that of Adelaide–on which Songailo installs his large, geometrically patterned tableaux.


“An art gallery is a safe place to exhibit an artwork,” he says. The middle of an intersection, on the other hand, is not. Nor is the belly of a highway tunnel. Yet, for his latest project, Songailo returns to the gallery space in a work that, on the surface, appears to be the opposite of unsafe. It’s also titled Zen Garden.

Despite its name, Songailo describes the installation as “more of a dystopia than a place of meditation.” It fills an entire hall at Adelaide’s famed Fontanelle Gallery & Studios. But with what exactly? Like much of Songailo’s work, which is marked by an interest in repetitive geometries, Zen Garden packs the space with slender rectilinear motifs arrayed minimally across the floor and walls. In this case, the vertical and horizontal surfaces are clearly delineated not by color (the graphic here are just black-and-white) but by form.

The project is based on the Japanese rock gardens of the late 15th century, Songailo tells Co.Design, particularly the Ryōan-ji, “which was the first zen rock garden created to be purely abstract.” At the Fontanelle, a former industrial hangar, Songailo updates zen for “an urban, contemporary context using industrial materials. “Though much of the zen, he admits, appears to have been lost in the process.

A constellation of black diagonals dance atop the white backdrop of the walls. They move in two directions, creating a De Stijl-like tension–only minus the polychromatics. On the floor, Songailo has executed an eye-tickling vortex of lines, with a resemblance to the Op-Art of Bridget Riley he only realized after the fact, he says. Miniature mountain peaks, painted a mute black and jaggedly sculpted, rise from this illusory web. They are the source of the floor pattern and dictate the ebb and flow of the lines themselves.

“The Zen Garden project like all before it is partially an experiment,” says the artist. “I’m interested in artificial spaces such as stage or movie sets and places removed from the everyday.”

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.