The Gingko Project is a form of media that provides a space for the commentary and circulation of art and culture. It will also contribute written pieces on the historical background of certain artistic and cultural themes. The Gingko Project is also a digital arts project – a symbiosis of new media art, musical creation, creative writing, and design.
The heart and soul of this project are embodied by its namesake: the Gingko. In order to better understand who we are and what we do, here, as a prelude, is an excerpt of the history of the Gingko.
Botany is an extraordinary scientific discipline combining the natural sciences with a certain kind of poetry, transcribing and recording in perfect detail the hereditary traits of its studied subjects. Have you ever been lost in a botanical garden? Have you ever escaped into nature, surrendering to the awareness and attention of the flora that surrounds you? The Jardin des Plantes in Montpellier was the very playground where my spirit and senses travelled from one continent to another. To my great surprise, it was also where the story of the Gingko began its own botanical journey.
In an etymological view, the Latin name Gingko comes from the ancient Japanese pronunciation ginkyo of the Chinese word 銀杏. In the botanical dictionary “Kinmozui,” written by Nakamura Tekisai (1629-1702) It is spelled ぎんきょう, with the footnote “rekishiteki kanazukai.” In modern Chinese, 銀 is pronounced yin and means “silver,” which 杏 is pronounced xing and means “apricot.” The compound word in Chinese, 銀杏 is therefore pronounced yinxing, and means “silver apricot.” In modern Japanese, these Chinese characters are pronounced ginnan (ぎんなん)- a word used mostly to refer to the Gingko fruit, while the tree is popularly called the icho (いちょう). The form specified by Nakamura Tekisai in “Kinmozui” is no longer used today.
The “Tree of a Thousand Crowns” belongs to the oldest known family of trees, which first appeared on our planet over 270 million years ago. But where did the reference in its name to “crowns” come from? It is said that the first person to bring the Gingko into France had paid the monetary sum of forty Crowns for five specimens. Those who saw it marveled at its golden yellow foliage, and nicknamed it the “Tree of a Thousand Crowns,” believing that its leaves resembled small crowns of gold.
To find the true origins of this ageless tree, one must travel deep into Southeast China, into the Tianmushan Mountains. The Gingko is a cultivated plant, the wild strain of which has almost completely disappeared. It supposedly arrived in Korea and Japan around the 12th century.
The German doctor and botanist Engelbert Kaempfer travelled to Japan in 1690-1692 as a part of a mission for the Dutch East India Company. He was the first European to carry out a study of the plant in his memoir, “Amoenitatum exoticarum,” which was published in 1712. He then brought young Gingko sprouts back with him to Holland, where the first European Gingko was planted in the Botanical Gardens of Utrecht in 1730.
Auguste Broussonnet (1761-1807) was the first to introduce the root of the Gingko Biloba to France, having received it as a present from the renowned British botanist and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Auguste Broussonnet then gave the Gingko Biloba root to Antoine Gouan (1733-1821). He planted it in the Botanical Garden of Montpellier in 1778, which is today my beloved Jardin des Plantes. In 1795, a cut from the Montpellier Gingko tree was planted in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Both trees are still alive today.
Now, let us focus for a moment on the leaf of the Gingko Biloba – unique in its kind for two reasons. Firstly, it is made of only two lobes in the shape of palms, missing the central vein apparent to almost all modern plants. Secondly, the form of the Gingko Biloba leaf exhibits a peculiar characteristic during development – it is bi-lobed (or divided into two lobes) when young, and then takes the form of a fan in maturity. The leaves, including their stem, extend from the stalk in small groups of three or four.
An extreme example of the resilience of this tree is the fact that it was one of the rare plant species not to have been affected by the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A Gingko Biloba, located less than a kilometer from the epicenter of the explosion, had survived the blast. The gingko also has a wide variety of medicinal usages, having been discovered and used for over thousands of years for its restorative virtues.
The legacy of the Gingko surpasses its extraordinary biological traits, however – it has even become a part of popular culture. For example, its leaf is the symbol of the city of Tokyo in Japan. Its tree is frequently evoked in works of Meiji-era and contemporary Japanese literature. In a way it has even become a trace of the union between East and West – the Gingko Biloba is the representative tree of the city of Weimar (Germany), where Goethe once lived. He celebrated the Gingko Biloba in one of his poems, published in “The West-Eastern Divan:”
Leaf of Eastern tree transplanted
Here into my garden’s field
Hast me secret meaning granted
Which adepts delight will yield
Art thou one – one living being
Now divided into two?
Art thou two, who jointed agreeing
and in one united grew?
To the question, pondered duly,
Have I found the right reply:
In my poems you see truly
Twofold and yet one am I.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The West-Eastern Divan,” Gingko Biloba (translated by Paul Carus, 1915)
“The West-Eastern Divan” (West-östlicher Divan in German) was the last major poetic anthology of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It is comprised of 12 books, written from 1819 to 1827, each of which bears both an Eastern title and a German title. Goethe’s original letter containing the poem, as well as the two leaves glued to its pages, are on display in the Goethe Museum in Dusseldorf.
In the most ancient of Chinese literature there is no trace of the Gingko. Not until the Song Dynasty in the 11th century, was it mentioned by poets such as Ou-Yang Xiu or Mei Yao-Chen.
After the Song and Yuan dynasties, however, the Gingko seems to have been largely cultivated throughout China. Historians agree that it had always been the duty of Buddhists and Taoists to preserve the holy species on the grounds of temples. In Japan, the consumption of Gingko nuts was first mentioned in Japanese manuals in 1492, used as snacks in tea ceremonies, or as candies and desserts. During the Edo Period (1600-1867) the common population began to eat them as vegetables and use them as an ingredient of vinegar preserves. In the 18th century, Gingko nuts began to be eaten as an accompaniment to sake. Today, in Japanese cuisine, they are still cooked, grilled or boiled dishes such as chawanmushi (an appetizer of steamed eggs) or nabe-ryori (Japanese hot pot).
The Gingko has thus existed to the world in such diverse forms, in different cultures, for a wide range of usages. Not unlike the Gingko, I also passed from my African cradle to continental Europe, the stage of Western art history and culture, and arrived finally in Asia, its birthplace. My life is a long journey, where art and culture continually emerge in diverse forms, in different cultures, to different outcomes. The eternal and majestic dimension of the Gingko in history certainly stems from the strength of its virtues, which, in being recognized by all, make it a most precious life form.
Founder of the Ginkgo Project