Emptiness and Form, Form and Emptiness: Interview with Charwei Tsai

Charwei Tsai, The Womb & the Diamond, 2021, installation made of handblown glass, mirrors and a diamond, 300 x 600 cm, commissioned by Live Forever Foundation, Taichung, Taiwan. Image courtesy of the artist.
Charwei Tsai, Tofu Mantra (film still), 2005, video, sound, colour, 2:00 min, edition of 3 + 1 AP. Image courtesy the artist and Mor Charpentier Gallery, Paris.
Charwei Tsai, Spiral Incense – Hundred Syllable Mantra, 2016, installation of hand-inscribed spiral incenses, a combination of spiral incenses in diameter of 100 cm, 120 cm and 50 cm, dimensions variable, installation view, Biennale of Sydney, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and Mor Charpentier Gallery, Paris.
Charwei Tsai, The Womb & the Diamond, 2021, installation made of handblown glass, mirrors and a diamond, 300 x 600 cm, commissioned by Live Forever Foundation, Taichung, Taiwan. Image courtesy of the artist.
Charwei Tsai, From a Dust Particle to the Universe, 2021, installation with cinnabar natural pigments and ink (verses from the Flower Ornament Sutra written by the artist as a durational performance at National Taichung Theatre’s Art Corner, 700 x 500 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Taipei-based artist Charwei Tsai explains the continuing influence of Tantric Buddhism on her new exhibition, which references sacred mandalas found in a Japanese mountain temple complex, Tibetan mantras, and the use of the breath in meditation.

 

TEXT: Luise Guest
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier Gallery

In an ongoing exploration of the evanescence of the physical world, Taiwanese multidisciplinary artist Charwei Tsai has written the Buddhist Heart Sutra onto the surfaces of lotus leaves, mushrooms, blocks of tofu and the smooth bark of an olive tree on the Greek island of Hydra, drawing attention to their inevitable decay and disintegration. The “Mantra” series (2005–06) represents a yin and yang oscillation between growth and decay, form and void, living and dead. Later, for Sky Mantra, Earth Mantra and Sea Mantra (2008–09) Tsai wrote the sutra on a mirror that reflected changing light, shifting clouds, or ripples and eddies in the ocean. The core teaching of the Heart Sutra is emptiness: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. This most commonly recited of all Buddhist texts reminds us of the ephemerality of nature and of all living beings.

Tsai has also featured other texts in her work. For the video installation Kafka Project (2007) Tsai copied an entry from Franz Kafka’s 1914 diary, writing it on the palm of her hand: “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon”. [1] This absurd juxtaposition between public events of epochal significance and private banality encapsulates the tug-of-war we all experience between grand events—pandemics and the fall of presidents, for example—and everyday ephemera.

 

Charwei Tsai, Tofu Mantra (film still), 2005, video, sound, colour, 2:00 min, edition of 3 + 1 AP. Image courtesy the artist and Mor Charpentier Gallery, Paris.

 

This contrast between monumentality and smallness, the way that injustice can be so easily pushed to the back of our minds, has long preoccupied Tsai. Her multidisciplinary works, inflected by her Buddhist practice, ask audiences to see familiar things in a new light, to pause and reflect. Like the turning of a kaleidoscope, things shift and settle into new patterns.

In this time of closed borders and COVID-19, I spoke with Tsai via email, asking about her most recent work and her commitment to art as a vehicle for social change. Tsai grew up at a time when Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian traditions were seamlessly integrated into everyday life in Taiwan. “My family is not particularly religious, but we would visit our ancestral graves annually, make offerings to the temples, and recite sutras at funeral rites. My godmother told me recently that I had memorised the Heart Sutra when her husband had passed away when I was about 10 years old,” she tells me.[2]

Tsai studied in the US at the Rhode Island School of Design, and later, when already a practising artist with a growing international reputation, at L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but her most influential experiences did not take place in a classroom. She encountered dissident artists in Cuba, studied Native American culture in New Mexico, and worked on a land-fill reclamation proposal in Arizona where the students also visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture school in Taliesen West and James Turrell’s Roden Crater while it was still under construction. Tsai credits these experiences with her continuing interest in the role of art in bringing social and environmental injustice into the light of day.

Her college friendship with a Tibetan student from the exile community in Dharamsala prompted a growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism. After graduation she moved to live and work in New York and volunteered for Tibet House, archiving their repatriation collection and learning about Tantric iconography. Visits to the Rubin Museum immersed the young artist in the art of Tibet and led indirectly to ongoing collaborations with Tibetan monks in site-specific installations, videos and performance works, including a significant work commissioned for the Biennale of Sydney in 2016, which had been conceived by Artistic Director Stephanie Rosenthal as a series of interconnected ‘Embassies’.

 

Charwei Tsai, Spiral Incense – Hundred Syllable Mantra, 2016, installation of hand-inscribed spiral incenses, a combination of spiral incenses in diameter of 100 cm, 120 cm and 50 cm, dimensions variable, installation view, Biennale of Sydney, 2016. Image courtesy the artist and Mor Charpentier Gallery, Paris.

 

The ‘Embassy of Transition’ was sited in Mortuary Station, a disused, Gothic-style Victorian railway station, once the site of departure for funeral trains. Tsai’s works, Spiral Incense – Hundred Syllable Mantra and Bardo (both 2016) were dedicated to all the souls who had passed through the station. Large incense spirals inscribed with the mantra with the assistance of Tibetan Buddhist monks were hung over the tiled platform. Lit each morning, their ashes were smeared on the ground at the end of the day. Dried leaves and seedpods, each bearing a single word from the sacred text, were scattered over the train tracks in a rite of purification for the dead.

“Stephanie Rosenthal invited me to make a work for the Mortuary Station. A few months later, my grandmother happened to pass away. It was my first experience as an adult of a loved one dying,” writes Tsai. “I started to read the Tibetan book of Living and Dying [3] and to learn about the subtle consciousness that still remains even after the person is clinically declared dead. I then made a work on the ‘bardo’, which means the ‘in-between state’ for the waiting rooms of the station.”

Tsai’s latest solo exhibition in Taiwan, “The Womb & The Diamond”, has again involved a collaboration with Buddhist monks. The central work is a six-by-three metre installation of glass and mirrors that references Garbhadhatu (‘womb realm’) and Vajradhatu (‘diamond realm’) mandalas from the Shingon Buddhist temples in Mount Koya, Japan. Tsai’s creation involves the use of breath; mantras are recited as each glass piece is created.

“My idea was to create the form of a womb out of glass with the recitation of a mantra that is part of a large mandala. Around the time of conceiving this idea, a very special Buddhist teacher from Bhutan, who is also a well-known filmmaker by the name of Khyentse Norbu, whose short film was exhibited in last year’s Venice Biennale, happened to be in Taiwan.” Tsai explains, “So, I asked for his blessings and for his participation in realising this work. The mantra that he chose was the ‘Dependent Arising Mantra’ that is commonly recited during the consecration of a new project. This project is again about the interdependence of form and emptiness. It also became a reflection on how our material world is driven by immaterial forces.”

 

Charwei Tsai, The Womb & the Diamond, 2021, installation made of handblown glass, mirrors and a diamond, 300 x 600 cm, commissioned by Live Forever Foundation, Taichung, Taiwan. Image courtesy of the artist.

Charwei Tsai, The Womb & the Diamond, 2021, installation made of handblown glass, mirrors and a diamond, 300 x 600 cm, commissioned by Live Forever Foundation, Taichung, Taiwan. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Each small glass of ‘captured mantra’ is placed on a large circular mirror, becoming part of a larger mandala. Visitors are invited to take a flower petal and place it on the mandala, dedicating it to victims of the pandemic. The work reveals the increasingly relational nature of Tsai’s practice. In recent years she has collaborated with refugee women, migrant workers, Tibetan lamas, Indonesian weavers and Mongolian shamans. Tsai explained how her work developed from solitary, meditative acts such as the writing of sutra in the “Mantra” series to the complex, multi-dimensional projects she now focuses on. This shift began during a visit to the Buddhist caves of Dunhuang in western China with a group of scholars, artists and musicians. Tsai says that before this trip she had almost abandoned contemporary art to focus on her Buddhist studies, but her experience in China made her realise the urgency of integrating spiritual practice into the arts: “I consider this trip as the beginning of a series of pilgrimages.”[4]

Over two summers following her visit to Dunhuang, Tsai spent time in Mongolia and later participated in the Ulaanbaatar International Media Art Festival. In a journey to the border of Siberia with two Mongolian artists and musicians, a German choreographer and a shaman and his apprentices, she witnessed shamanic rituals. She describes these powerful experiences as a “warm invitation for us to enter a passage that transports our mind from one place to another.”[5] She followed her Buddhist teacher, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, to the temples at Koyasan, Japan, and spent some time in Indonesia preparing for the Jogja Biennale in 2019. Seeking a way to connect these disparate, culturally diverse experiences, Tsai discovered a map tracing the spread of Tantric Buddhism from 5th century India north to Mongolia, south to Java, and east to Koyasan.

 

Charwei Tsai, From a Dust Particle to the Universe, 2021, installation with cinnabar natural pigments and ink (verses from the Flower Ornament Sutra written by the artist as a durational performance at National Taichung Theatre’s Art Corner, 700 x 500 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

“It all made sense to me. Therefore, during this past year where I was not able to travel, I was able to take time to develop new works from the reminiscence of these trips. Besides tracing the tantric tradition, I also started to collaborate with people who I met during this time,” says Tsai. “I feel strongly that we need to abandon the capitalist and abusive approach towards nature and to learn from the people who respect nature and who have the lineage and knowledge of how to live and work responsibly with our natural environment.”

Tsai feels that as an artist she has a social responsibility to speak about injustice, and she welcomes the shift towards more collective ways of thinking. “I think the era of emphasis on the expression of the individuality of artists is over […] How do we work together? How do we share the limited resources of water and land? More and more, I am thinking of ways to divert the resources for exhibitions to work with people who are in need.”

Returning to Kafka’s diary, we find this entry from June 1916, which seems, somehow, appropriate to Tsai’s profoundly meditative work and her acceptance of the ephemerality of human existence. “Forget everything. Open the windows. Clear the room. The wind blows through it. You see only its emptiness; you search in every corner and don’t find yourself.”

 

The Womb & the Diamond
31 January ­– 30 May 2021
Vital Space and Art Corner (National Taichung Theatre), Taiwan

 

 

 

[1] Read more about Kafka’s diary in Lithub: https://lithub.com/franz-kafka-the-ultimate-self-doubting-writer/ and about Tsai’s work Kafka Project on her website: http://charwei.com/projects/ [accessed 26.1.21]

[2] Unless otherwise acknowledged, all quotes from the artist are excerpted from an email interview with the author on 21 January 2021.

[3] In Tibetan Buddhism, Bardo refers to a transitional state between death and rebirth. It is the central theme of the Bardo Thodol, also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

[4] See Charwei Tsai’s account of her experiences with Mongolian shamanic performances in ‘et al. 2020’, CoBo Social, 22 August 2020: https://www.cobosocial.com/dossiers/et-al-2020-charwei-tsai-on-ganzug-sedbazar-davajargal-tsaschikher/ [accessed 30.1.21]

[5] Ibid.

 

 

 

 
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