I’d never been to the LongHouse Reserve before this past Saturday.
That’s a strange thing for me to admit, because I’ve been looking for the place forever — I kept a boat at the end of Hands Creek Road for many years and was always on the lookout, returning to town, for Jack Lenor Larsen’s secret 16-acre garden nestled in the piney Northwest Woods.
Saturday was LongHouse’s opening day, and as we wandered down Hands Creek Road it was easy to find it this time — cars lined the street in each direction, daffodils were rioting their yellows all over the curbside, and a women in a safety vest directing traffic assured us we were in the right place.
Entering through the front gate, our senses were awash in a clean, new feeling, the ground pebbled beneath our feet, the white quartzite of our native beaches. We were asked to attach a prayer to a potted Japanese maple tree so that Yoko Ono could take it to the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. Everyone who entered was clamoring to write down their wishes.
Children were tolling Toshiko Takaezu’s “Gateway Bell” with a wooden maul in the center of the garden entrance; its clear, deep voice would ring through the garden all afternoon.
Ahead, in the low light of early spring, the first of Grace Knowlton’s “Spheres” sat perched on a sand dune — wire mesh and metal — and then, behind it, like a trip through the ages of man, a row of more spheres of materials ranging from bronze to concrete, curving through the sand like an army on a mission of progress.
We ducked into LongHouse’s longhouse, then through to the other side, where there was much mingling and quiet conversation amongst other garden lovers, then headed down a grassy path, where early spring bulbs vied for attention with the bronzed sleeve of Chairman Mao’s gigantic empty suit.
Sculptor Sui Jianguo created the suit to convey his emotions about his Maoist past. Critics say it’s a satirical message about Mao’s empty promises. The sculptor put it differently.
“I’m putting him to rest. This way I can grow up,” he said, according to LongHouse’s description of the work.
Women in yellow hats, which matched the daffodils, kept having their pictures taken against the backdrop of the giant suit.
Now the opening of a garden season is a dicey thing. Sometimes mother nature does not cooperate, and this year mother nature wasn’t particularly interested in showing her colors. We noticed a few cherry blossoms about to pop. One dogwood tree had fully bloomed but only just one. Ferns were just beginning to unfurl their heads. After this past cold winter, everything is blooming about two weeks late — a good season for a show of spring bulbs, but not much else.
But this spartan season suited LongHouse. We marveled at the simple things — a stretch of stone gravel that could have been a beach along Gardiner’s Bay, the way the trees that had been here long before the garden were incorporated into the landscape, the way the sculptures seemed to be in their perfect context, no matter in which section of the garden they hid, the way the eastern influences of the garden seemed to mesh seamlessly with the local landscape.
We passed a stand of bamboo, which rustled and urged us on, forcing us to confront Yue Minjun’s “Chinese Contemporary Warriors, 2005,” a series of identical bronze men, the late afternoon sun beating the backs of their heads, wearing wifebeaters and jeans, their hands covering their ears and an expression somewhere between a smile of joy and a scream on their faces.
We’d been watching, a few nights earlier on the television, the story of the Terracotta Army, a series of statues made 300 years before Christ, depicting the armies of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang. In the Terracotta Army, each of the 8,000 soldiers is a unique sculpture. In the Contemporary army, each man looks just like the next. We were sufficiently haunted.
It’s strange how a day in a special place can bring together these connections, these threads of narrative from across millenia and from around the world.
Through another rustling bamboo screen, Alfonso Ossorio’s 1975 “Untitled (with eagle)” totem stood like a guidepost along the way. A young couple was having a heated young couple discussion on Claus Bury’s weathered “Homage to the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial.” Women were taking pictures of the bare sculpted arse of a bronzed man in the central walkway. Yoko Ono’s chessboard was waiting for a game. Sol LeWitt’s empty city of concrete saddened the soul, as cities of concrete tend to do.
We walked on, past the monkey puzzle trees and two strange, three-sided pyramids. The only sign to guide us here said: Soseki — an Artist is a person who lives in the triangle which remains after the angle which we may call “Common Sense” has been removed from this four cornered world. LH pyramids are 3 sided.”
It took me three days to realize that LH stood for LongHouse. I guess my common sense is beginning to fade.
We entered a new realm in the garden, one of bright color — tulip tree buds were opening here, and the one dogwood. The workers who make LongHouse tick were quietly raking up leaves and planting. Children were running, racing one another to the mounded-up ground surrounding a giant, knotted fabric needle.
Their parents sat nearby, talking happily about plans for another gentle summer in the gentle Hamptons breezes. The air was getting colder — it was not quite a spring day, but it tried hard to be one.
We wandered back down the path to the center of the reserve, where the people gathered around fountains and caught up with one another on the things one catches up on after a bitter lonely winter.
Near the fountain, there were women lying in a bed of ground cover. Women and sheep. They were Kiki Smith’s creations. The bronze women seemed to have dropped out of the sky, asleep, and laid where they were placed. The sheep seemed to have always been there, munching on grass, curious.
I couldn’t help wondering whether women are really sheep in women’s clothing. But I’m a journalist, not an artist, so I always see things in political terms.
On the way out, two very nice women handed us bundles of daffodils at the door. We felt like we’d been cared for and treated kindly by the garden, and the world was a fresh new place.
As it should be every spring.
The LongHouse Reserve is located at 133 Hands Creek Road in East Hampton and is open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2 to 5 p.m. In July and August, they’re open Wednesdays through Saturdays. Their staff can be reached at 631.329.3568. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and free of charge for students, members and children.