Amidst a slew of exhibitions exploring Buddhist practices and beliefs slated to take place this year, Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai’s current solo show “The Eye is The First Circle” in Los Angeles stands out for diving deep into notions of healing and loss.
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Philosophical Research Society (PRS)
Thanks to the overwhelming white noise and rapidity of our contemporary lives, it is easy to forget, even on the brink of a third pandemic year, how much emotional pain, and trauma we are grappling with both individually and collectively. More and more people are finding themselves attempting to grasp notions such as death, life, and loss, while seeking to heal in a way that goes beyond Instagram trends or hashtags.
Of the myriad ways to fathom the unknowable aspects of life, it seems the ancient and esoteric underpinnings of Buddhism are receiving quite a bit of attention lately, even in an art world obsessed with expanding its own deep pockets.
This month, the Brooklyn Museum is opening an entire gallery devoted to the “Arts of Buddhism”, aiming to provide an introduction to the tenets and history of the religion. The presentation will showcase objects from 14 countries dating from second century C.E. to the early 2000s, such as sculptural renderings of enlightened souls, tools and ornaments from temples, and 14th-century Japanese mandala paintings. Nineteen of the objects set to go on view have never been shown in the museum and will be seen for the first time.
At New York’s Rubin Museum of Art, “Healing Practices: Stories from Himalayan Americans”, running from 18 March through January 2023, presents over 25 objects from the museum’s collection, alongside personal stories from Himalayan Americans, to illustrate how Tibetan Buddhist artworks and practices could serve as a guide to well-being in the modern world.
There is also Taiwanese artist Charwei Tsai’s solo show “The Eye is the First Circle” at the Philosophical Research Society (PRS) in Los Angeles, which runs till 6 March and is curated by Haema Sivanesan, who is involved in an upcoming exhibition titled “In the Present Moment: Buddhism, Contemporary Art and Social Practice”.
Spread out across the library and auditorium of PRS, the show draws upon the artist’s research at the nonprofit institution founded in 1934 by Canadian author, scholar and mystic Manly Palmer Hall, as well as Tsai’s various pre-pandemic travels and pilgrimages.
Responding to CoBo Social’s queries via email, Tsai said, “Before the pandemic, I took a series of pilgrimages in Mongolia, Indonesia, and Japan. At first, I didn’t know how to connect these three very different cultures and geographic locations. Later, I found a map that shows the spread of the Tantric wisdom tradition from 5th century India, which had traveled north to Mongolia, south to Java and east to Japan.”
“It is called the Five Buddha families, in which each Buddha field represents a disturbing emotion such as pride, attachment, envy, anger, and ignorance and an antidote to transform them,” she added.
Tsai, who is known for art rooted in the Buddhist practice—especially works reflecting on Buddhist concepts of form and emptiness—begins the exhibition with this familiar exploration.
In one of the two main branches of Buddhism known as Mahayana Buddhism, the Heart Sutra, a highly concise and influential text known throughout parts of Asia, talks about the notion of emptiness. While modern society typically associates emptiness with lack, loneliness, depression and its ilk, the Sutra considers the awareness of impermanence and, by extension, emptiness in all experiences related to life and death to be a crucial step in the path to enlightenment.
Tsai’s works Dedication to the Victims of Pandemic – Turbo Marmoratus – Raw (2021) and Camphor Mantra (2021) are examples of this nuanced outlook. She inscribes the Heart Sutra onto natural objects, connecting the objects with its inherent emptiness, and even providing the possibility of healing by possessing this knowledge.
Working on the exhibition itself was healing for the artist. Back in 2018, during a period of personal upheaval, she found herself increasingly drawn to the form of the mandala, a geometric configuration of symbols used as a spiritual tool in rituals or meditation.
“In times of chaos, we tend to grab onto order out of fear of falling into the extremes of afflictive thoughts and emotions…The mandala represented a balance between order and chaos for me,” Tsai shared.
During the first two years of the pandemic, staying in Taipei and unable to travel, the Taiwanese artist kept in touch with the people she met on her previous travels so as to work on different forms of mandalas together, inevitably partaking in a healing process and the beginnings of “The Eye is the First Circle”.
In fact, the central piece of the PRS exhibition, a mirror installation placed at the center of the library, titled The Womb & The Diamond – Seed Syllables (2021), is essentially a mandala, with each Sanskrit character within its form representing the seed syllable or sound body of a Buddha field. For example, the largest character in the mandala, वं (“VAM”), represents a sound, which is the vibration of the Vairocana Buddha—a major iconic and primordial figure in Mahayana Buddhism.
Tsai also explained how the dust covering the mirror in the installation represented delusion, and the character formed by the dust represented light and wisdom. “The point is that one does not exist without the other. So if the dust were to be removed, the mirror would just become an ordinary mirror. Therefore, the aim of tantra is not to remove or to suppress all afflictive emotions, but rather to use them as we use manure to nourish the fields or mud to grow a lotus.”
It is a comforting idea to contemplate, as we trudge in the mud of humanity’s failings, attempting to figure out how best to chart our paths forward. As curator Sivanesan astutely pointed out, “The contemporary world, and the pandemic world moreover, has accelerated our reliance on technology, and further revealed social inequities, climate impacts, our reliance on a culture of consumerism, materialism etc.”
“What this exhibition is ultimately contending with, I think, is the perennial problem of how to live—of how to live fully, ethically, and well; to have those spaces of interiority and introspection that fulfills our inner lives, and which then translates to how we live together as families, communities, societies,” she added.
According to Sivanesan, focusing the exhibition on the idea of the mandala is fundamentally a way of showing how life, just like a mandala, can be regarded as a transformative esoteric practice, a meditation.
In the light of this understanding, perceiving the world as a mandala allows us to view challenges, loss and pain as implicit instructions guiding us on our life path, and maybe, just maybe, we will come to understand and process the emptiness of these times.
The Eye is the First Circle by Charwei Tsai
21 November 2021 — 6 March 2022
The Philosophical Research Society, Los Angeles
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