Monday, 8 September 2008

Chineses Contemporary Conceptual Artists in relation to Dharma Art

Ai Weiwei, Song Dong and Zhung Huan are Chinese contemporary artists. They all engage in different techniques. In this essay I will present performance, photo documentation of the performances, sculpture and installation. I will focus on and examine one piece of art from each, how they relate to the audience, and space. To deepen the investigation further I will find out whether their creations and way of thinking can be described as Dharma art. "Dharma art refers to the creative works that spring from the meditative state of directness, unselfconsciousness and non-aggression." This will add to the understanding of the impact their art has on the audience. I have used the Buddhist Chögya Trungpa and his book "The art of calligraphy, Joining Heaven & Earth" as a source for definition and understanding. It reveals anyone can be a practitioner of Dharma art, and one does not need to be a Buddhist to create Dharma art. My quest is therefore to examine in depths the impact of these 3 artists works. Song Dong draws heavily on the Buddhist tradition, regardless I do not know his religious status. Zhung Huan is a Buddhist, but will that make his work Dharma art? Ai is working from an intellectual source, he uses the old Buddhist temples as symbols, rather than investigating their values. What type of reaction does that lead to? Trungpa said Dharma art is based on the universal laws, absent of what he calls poetic licence, and always telling the truth. The Shambala Buddhism web page bases it's teachings of Trungpa and states; "Dharma art does not refer to particular skills or techniques but is about the source of inspiration, its manifestation, and how it speaks to us." This is in opposition to quite a few of the traditionally explored avenues within cinematic history, where illusion is not only used, but explored and celebrated. Yet the illusion can be used as a technique to tell the truth. The artworks of these 3 Chinese does not need to be put in context to the history and culture of China, as the themes they work with are dealing with and commenting upon universal issues. It would necessarily offer a different understanding though, as we culturally have a different point of departure.

Pilgrimage, Zhung Huan, 1998, New York

Zhung Huan (1965) was born in China but chose to move to New York in 1998, due to governmental restrictions on artistic freedom of expression. His focus is on his own childhood and Chinese inheritance paired with the identity as an immigrant. Huan did a performance the same year as he arrived in New York, called Pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is about the fear he feels for his new home town. Huan laid naked, face down on a block of ice for 10 minutes, with a pack of dogs from different breed tied to the bed that holds the ice-mattress. The performance was first documented by photo, then transformed into a sculpture of stone with water. The dogs represent the cultural mix of New York. The ice is the cold he feels, and the posture is what Buddhists traditionally do when on a pilgrimage to Tibet. Huan says the only way he can feel his art works is to physically engage in them. To ultimately feel it he chose to be naked. Then through distancing himself from the physically uncomfortable condition in the performances he transcends into a spiritual state where he feelings are more intense, but without any pain. As his mind leaves the body the pain disappear, and he feels he reaches an altered spiritual state. Huan almost neglects rather than addresses the audience in this piece. By lying face down the whole time the audience are prevented to read Huan's facial expressions or movements. What gets the focus is the lack of direct communication, the dogs and the awkward underlay, the ice-block. The audience can see his presence, but he seems numb to the audience. The only thing we can be sure of is that he must move sooner rather than later. Huan is focusing on letting his mind leave his body, and in doing so, he also leaves the audience. The audience seems left behind to tackle what seems unbearable to Huan. He intends to get us to feel as cold, cut off and fearful as he feels, and maybe he even hope to transfer his altered state to the viewers. The audience can at least experience the situation visually and will react to what is physically happening. The space seems to be contained in both the performance and in the stone sculpture replica. There is nothing outside the frame to relate to. Huan seeks to physically be in the moment and feel the situation as vividly as possible and by that the space is intended to be felt intensely in the here and now.Writing the Time with Water, Song Dong, 2000, London

Song Dong did a performance in London called "Writing Time With Water" in 2000. The performance is documented by photography. Due to restricted economical circumstances he found that cheap materials, a meditative and solitary way of working, and small scale items were most appropriate for his use. Still, I think there are countless ways of reading his works. In 1996 he started what turned out to be a series of water-works. In the so far unexhibited "Writing Diary With Water" he write his diary on a rock with water instead of paper and ink. This reflects his concerns with the lack of freedom of speech in China, and consequently the long tradition of hiding the truth. In 1996 he continued his water-series and did "Stamping The Water", where he use a large stamp of the calligraphy letter "water" to actually stamp the river Lhasa in Tibet. This was by some understood as a comment on the fluidity and inaccuracy of language, but after learning about Lhasa as a holy city for Buddhists, my guess would be it is rather a comment on the secrecy around Tibet and the political and religious control China unsuccessfully tries to impose. Including all other sides there is to water like its transparency et cetera, it symbolizes the source of life for the Chinese. In 2000 Song inscribes tiles with recorded time from 12pm - 1 pm on a street in London.Song Dong definitely wants us to focus on the presence, and comment on the unthinking consumption of time. He notes time, instead of the traditional calligraphy, which again can make us think how eastern and western culture meet with totally different expectations and preferences. He is concerned with rituals and context, and Chinese and Buddhist tradition is rich on rituals unlike our western living. To sit for hours and contemplate while writing calligraphy has a long tradition in China, used for different reasons, like meditation, practicing calligraphy and cleansing the mind. Times Square is a very busy part of London, and he addresses the audience by inviting them to watch his ritual-like or meditative and futile action. By addressing an abstract concept like time, he reaches an audience regardless of culture or language, and just like New York, London is a melting pot.

"1001 Chairs" Ai Weiwei, 2006

While Zhang Huang challenge our emotions Ai Weiwei focus on our mind. In his installation "Fairytale, 1001 Chairs" he takes 1001 ancient looking chairs from damaged Chinese houses. Ai sees the chair as a place to reflect and represent them as thinking-chairs. Placed all over the exhibition space in Kassel they really provide a place to rest and reflect as Ai himself laughinly said in a interview; "when looking at contemporary art, one really needs a place to sit."

"1001 Doors" Ai Weiwei, Kassel, 2006

The second work of "Fairytale" is the large sculpture "1001 Chinese doors" made of ancient Chinese doors. After the 6 day of the exhibition a storm destroyed it, and Weiwei said; "if I was to rebuild the sculpture, it would be like saying the second version wasn't as good as the first one". These doors might be a comment on the doorway between the cultures, or transition between old and new ways of thinking. The third part of "Fairytale" was to invite 1001 Chinese to the exhibition in Kassel. Ai believes in order to change the social structure, one need to change the way of thinking. He believes it is only possible to achieve this through the individuals direct confrontation with reality. Although he consider the west to be ahead of the east, he still sees the stale, old thinking well and alive here too.
Through Ai's web blog he got in touch with 1001 people who had never been abroad before. Ai's two Swiss patrons set the 1001 Chinese up for travel to Germany and purposely built accommodation including Chinese chefs, to also accommodate for the unenviable cultural shock. Ai says they went in lots of 200, and he was really surprised it all went well, and deeply moved by the fact that none of the 1001 people ever complained or told him about their efforts to get a passport, something he knows is difficult. He was also thrilled to find that some people were sad to leave Germany and wanted to stay longer. In "Fairytale" the audience is not only addressed, but literarily invited to participate. The 1001 Chinese themselves are considered a part of the artwork, but anyone who sits down on those 1001 chairs is also participating. Some would probably even be participating unknowingly. When considering the space this installation covers, is stretching from China to Germany, and equally it hopes to stretch the mind of the observers far beyond what is in front of them. The chairs' foreign context creates a constant shift in the mind between Chinese and German culture that the viewer cannot escape, as no matter how familiar a chair is, one can really sense the different situation of a user of the chinese chairs. Ai also points out how the social status of the owner of the chair can be assumed, and here referring to people in power.

Dharma art was described by Buddhists centuries ago, and portrays an example of a genuine creative process which may apply to anyone. There are three different aspects to take into consideration when determining if an artist is practicing Dharma art. The "Heaven, Earth and Man Principles" describes them well. The Heaven Principle describes inspiration as a sudden insight after a period of contemplation or meditation. The restful state is needed and intended to cool off the heat of our neurosis, which then clears the way for real Dharma art. We therefore need to look at the artists working methods. Zhung Huan used to seek inspiration and space for creation in museums, and said he did not need a workshop as it all happened in his head. And he adds, he could not afford a studio anyway. Those days are past, and now he has about 100 assistants and a massive workshop, but he does not mention anything about his way of working. On the other hand, in an interview he confirmed his initiation as a Buddhist 3 years ago, which means he would be meditating regularly. Still, being a Buddhist is neither a guarantee nor a criteria for creating Dharma art.Song Dong clearly confirms this is his most desirable method of working. That leads me to the conclusion some, if not all of his works fit the first principle. I found Ai Weiwei mentioning his working method only once, and that was for "the Birds Nest" In Beijing, rather than the "Fairytale". He and his coworkers had a 24 hour brainstorming before the modell was set up. That does not fit into the first principle at all. The second criteria is described as "The Earth Principle", which is concerned with what first practical application there is to the inspiration, or how it is grounded. To fit into Dharma art the work needs to have a quality of self-unconsciousness. Although Song Dong necessarily has to perform his own art, he fits well into this description with the "Writing Time with Water". I cannot see a trace of his ego in it. Its themes have a universal actuality, -time and presence. Zhung Huan is both representing his ego and exploring the different human archetypes, roles or nature. He does intend to transcend the situation, which to me implies that he seeks to make it an selfunconscious expression. His work might partly fit into the second principle. Ai's works have a different flavour than the two others, and it is certainly political. There is a massive self-awareness in his approach, although not directly selfish or self expressive. Ai seems to be fuelled by his family's terrible experiences during the communist period of China. He consciously intend to renew the Chinese (or world-) mentality. Still I cannot see how he would be described as self-unconscious. The third principle is "The Man Principle", where human kind literarily has to learn to live peacefully within the balance of heaven and earth. This represents a nonaggression principle, where one is intended not to harm anyone. Also instead of being read in our western world as the ability to let go of controll of emotions, the Man Principle wants to free us from mental trappings. Art made from the source of our neurosis's, or made to relate to that mental state is seen as aggressive. Everything that is purposely made to disturb the sense of peace is be considered so, and when people make art that stems from that source, the Dharma art says that the artist has used his Poetic licence. That is not considered to be of any value, as it just means the artist has lost the moral standing to appeal to the lower nature of the audience. Has any of these artists done that? Song Dong is acting upon an abstract idea, and his performance is executed with ethereal beauty. He cannot in any way be seen as aggressive. In this way he more than fulfils this principle by adding to the good, which is the ultimate goal for the Dharma art. Zhung Huan is seemingly harming himself, but he states that his spiritual practice leads him to a most beautiful sensation, where the pain is transcended. He performed a spiritual rite, while his body told a different story visually. I am therefore very unsure how to see him in this regard. Ai Weiweis art is necessarily provoking to any conservative Chinese if not to others, and I am sure he arouse anger within some by his treatment of the old cultural inheritance. I think in Ai's case we can conclude he uses his poetic licence.

Do Zhung, Song and Ai tell the truth? They certainly tell their own truth, but are they in line with Dharma art? Song is most definitely doing Dharma art, but Zhung does not totally operate within that model. Ai seems to reside outside the criteria of this definition. I believe this model of explaining art can help clarify the purpose of art and thereby its impact on the audience. Like film philosopher Deluzes' terms on how to define movies, Dharma art broadens and gives a different but much needed understanding of the psychology and consciousness of art. I find all three amazing artists, and I would love to develop my own practice along those lines. What really strikes me is that they show an amazing creative ability to manifest their ideas, and I will keep exploring their works. As a westerner it feels like a drink of fresh water to be exposed to such art. As I am doing a split major of ceramics and drawing, I have already explored Chinese pottery, and stunning calligraphy. It really makes me feel lost for words.

Bibliography; 28 Aug 2008, Asiasociety 26 Sept 2007. 28 Aug 2008,
14 Des 2007 28 Aug 2008, a10tv, 23 July 2007 28 Aug 2008, Artkrush, 2008 28 Aug 2008, Guardian Thursday January 19 2006 Accessed 29 Aug 2008, 2nd Sept 2008 2 Sept 2008, from Artnet, 25 July, 2007 5 Sept 2008, from the 59th minute, date not found 5 Sept 2008, Shambala Art 19.7.08 Accessed 6 Sept 2008, Zhang Huan homepage, no date found

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