we, like flowers
with patterned motion
One can think about art in many ways. What do you see, what did the artist intend, what do others see? What is the meaning? As many have said “what you see depends on where you stand”. Here I look at one work of art and think about what the artist might have intended and then take the standpoint of buddhist Dhamma. Any object, image or photograph, even of the “mundane”, is much more than it appears.
A work by Liu Xiao Xian called Our Gods features in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. Here I examine that work, the artist and his ideas. These are used to create an initial interpretative framework based on what might have been the artist’s intention. Then I examine the implications of an alternative viewpoint – that of a student of the buddhist Dhamma (Dharma Skt). This perspective provides an intriguing interpretation that reveals parallels with buddhist teachings and suggests a viewpoint on seeing art more generally.
The observer’s “viewpoint” is critical in discerning meanings in a work of art. This idea can be illustrated in the following quote from Mark Epstein made in discussion about the role of buddhism in psychology and contemporary art:
“The observer and that which is observed are both part of an interpenetrating reality, and what we do with our attention determines how we experience reality” (Epstein 2007, p. 181).
An art work, once brought into existence by the artist, has a kind of life of its own. This idea is very well observed in the following (as cited in Baas 2005, p. 53):
“In a mysterious, puzzling, and mystical way, the true work of art arises “from out of the artist.” Once released from him, it assumes its own independent life, takes, on a personality, and becomes a self-sufficient, spiritually breathing subject that also leads a real material life: it is a being ... [and] possesses—like every living being—further creative, active forces. It lives and acts and plays a part in the creation of the spiritual atmosphere.”
This quote is from a work by Peg Weiss on Kandinsky. Kandinsky also believed that a work of art has an Innerer Klang or internal spiritual reverberation or sound. The interpretation of meaning in art is a subjective experience and may vary from person to person depending on their perceptions. However, it is important to understand and take account of the artist’s intentions, particularly if they are seeking to make an explicit or implicit reference to a subject matter. Nonetheless, taking Kandinsky’s view, it is reasonable for a viewer to consider the work as having it own “life” and as being independent from the artist. Therefore the observer is able to overlay the work with personal ideas or experiences, and, alternative philosophies.
The contemporary artwork I have chosen to critique is Liu Xiao Xian's Our Gods. It contains both Christian and buddhist religious iconography. The artist has stated that he does not adhere to any particular religion. Rather he has been influenced by a European concept of Dialectical Materialism. Further, the artist has given only limited explanations of the chosen work. Given the artist’s statements about his works there are unknown limits on the extent to which an interpretation through buddhist concepts can be thought of as being intended by the artist. However, as Jacquelynn Baas has said in addressing buddhism and art:
“The relationship of Buddhism to contemporary art practice can be explicit, implicit, or the work may resonate with insights characteristic of Buddhism.” (Baas & Jacob 2004, p. 25).
It is the latter that I intend to explore – how the work resonates with key buddhist concepts – its buddhist "Klang".
Liu Xiao Xian (1963- ): Our Gods, Art Gallery of NSW. Acquired in 2000. Image Source: https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/168.2000.a-r/
Figure 1 shows Our Gods. It is a large scale digital photographic work comprising of two religious icons. It is made up of 9 one metre square panels. Each large iconic image is made up of smaller figures of the other icon with a total of 22,500 smaller figures in each large icon (Menzies J ed. 2001, p. 180).
Importantly, the work is recent. It is not one where its original context or cultural milieu are largely unknowable; as it is for ancient art. Rather, it is in its intended context – that of a modern art gallery or similar large public space. Therefore it is reasonable to assume it has a reference point relevant to contemporary society.
The iconic images presented are common symbolic representations of their respective religious traditions: a crucified Jesus; and, a distinctly Chinese form of the Buddha – the so-called “Laughing Buddha”. The Laughing Buddha is derived from an eccentric Chinese Chán (Zen) monk (circa 907-923 CE) called Budai (Chinese) or Hotai (Japanese) after the “Cloth Sack” he carried. He is usually identified as an incarnation of the bodhisattva Maitreya – or the future Buddha. In folklore, he was said to travel and give sweets to poor children, and only asking for money from Chán monks and lay practitioners. Today he is one of the most commonly seen images of Buddhism. He is often seen in homes, temples, restaurants, businesses or jewellery as a bringer of good luck, good fortune and contentment. The vision of Christ is at crucifixion. At this moment his earthly body is said to have perished with considerable anguish. There are differing accounts of last words spoken by Jesus but the Gospels indicate a combination of desperation at being forsaken, and hope and confidence of resurrection in heaven. The representation of Jesus on the cross, or a crucifix alone, has become a common symbol of Christian beliefs in life after death and the divinity of Christ. Crucifixes are also often seen in homes or in jewellery etc. providing some "everyday" materialist parallels with Budai.
A recurrent theme in a number of Liu Xiao Xian's works is reincarnation and presence of a residual spirit after death. For example, on the work Reincarnation-Mao, Buddha & I, version II (Figure 2) the artist described the work in this way (RMIT Gallery 2009):
“Adapting the idea of reincarnation, this work speaks of the constant transformation of the cycle of life. The images of Mao – a political icon once worshipped like a god, Buddha – the icon of Buddhism, and myself, are used to explore the relation of a political figure, a religious icon and an ordinary man. Furthermore the delicacy of changes from the small scale to that of the whole may lead us into thoughts about micro verses macro.”
Liu Xiao Xian, Reincarnation: Mao, Buddha and I, version II, 2002, University Art Museum Collection, University of Queensland, Brisbane, courtesy the artist.
Reincarnation: Mao, Buddha and I is important to interpreting Our Gods as it uses a similar techniques, with one image being made up of small pictures of another. In explaining this method of construction of Our Gods the artist referred to a Chinese saying that:
“if you are inside a mountain you can’t see it, you have to go out of (the) mountain to see the whole image” (RMIT Gallery 2009, mp3 audio).
That is, if the viewer is close to one of the large icons and able to see the small images clearly, then they cannot recognise the whole image for what it is. But when you step back it changes into another image.
The Artist: “In-betweenness” and Dialectical Materialism
The Artist, Liu Xiao Xian, was born in 1963 in Beijing, and came to Australia in 1990 following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. This event seems to have been pivotal in is decision to leave China. His art focuses on the cultural dislocations of being Chinese and living in Australia, a phenomenon he has described as “in-betweenness” (Roberts 2009, p. 221). In his interview with Claire Roberts he says the sense of in-betweenness came after he began travelling back and forth between Australia and China. It refers to his mind and heart being in neither China or Australia but somewhere in-between. This simultaneous outsider and insider perspectives gave him a new vision and interest in comparing his two cultures – Chinese and Australian – both their similarities and differences. Salman Rushdie is quoted as having said that: “The truest eye may now belong to the migrant’s double vision” (as cited in Clark ed. 2005, p. 11).
This is a consistent message about his art. As noted by Christine Clark, Liu Xiao Xian’s art practice investigates the experience of living “in-between two diverse cultures, to investigate the differences and similarities between his two worlds” (Clark ed. 2005, p. 46).
However, when asked about his own religious beliefs (e.g. in the Roberts interview) Liu Xiao Xian indicated he did not believe in an after-life, and only that his constituent matter will remain in a material universe. Further, as he grew up through Mao’s cultural revolution and he was heavily influenced by communism’s materialist ideology. There were no Gods or religion at that time, only Maoism. Liu has suggested his use of religious icons may be partly a reaction to that upbringing. He described himself as a “Dialectical Materialist” – a philosophy adopted as the official philosophy of the Soviet Communist Party. The ideas stem from work by Hegel, and were interpreted by Marx and Engels. Later Mao Tse-Tung introduced the philosophy into his own Communist ideology In an essay on the topic Mao quoted Lenin (Mao Tse-Tung 1937): “The law of contradiction in things, that is, the law of the unity of opposites, is the basic law of materialist dialectics. Lenin said, ‘Dialectics in the proper sense is the study of contradiction in the very essence of objects.’ Lenin often called this law the essence of dialectics”.
Among other things, this philosophy suggests that opposites can be identical and they are intimately interconnected with one another. Somewhat ironically for Mao and communism, the ideals of communism have recently been largely transformed into their own contradiction: capitalism as demonstrated by global economic success of modern China.
Despite the apparent seriousness of such themes in Liu Xiao Xian’s art, an important aspect of the artist’s work brought out in interviews is his interest in playful humour. His humour, with its irony and subversion raises a smile in the observer. This playful means of communicating important ideas is expressed as a desire for his art to operate at a higher level in the service of life. In that regard he has also quoted Mao Tse-Tung as having said: “art must come from life” and “art must be in the service of life” (as cited in Roberts 2009, p. 224).
What might the artist have intended?
The observations above suggest that Liu’s works where large icons are made of smaller contradictory or contrasting figures draw attention to:
This review of the work and the artist’s possible intentions suggests “viewpoint” is crucial to interpretation. It can be argued that if there is no evidence that the artist had an intention to portray a particular concept, then a critical review should not over-interpret the work. However, I argue that an individual viewpoint is valid based on their perception of the spiritual reverberations in a created work; in this case reverberations of buddhist concepts. There will, of course, me many potential reverberations for any given individual’s viewpoint from cultural, historical and personal events and beliefs.
Source: Composite image: left panel from: Paul Pelliot at Dunhuang, https://32minutes.wordpress.com/2013/06/06/paul-pelliot-at-dunhuang/ (link now dead), and right panel from Pastor Scott Kramer, “Down Under” Reflections for Lent: Laughing Buddha, Suffering Christ, http://www.gowithgrace.org/down-under-reflections-for-lent-laughing-buddha-suffering-christ/.
A Viewpoint from the buddhist Dhamma
Three marks of existence
In buddhist art a dialogue between the work and the viewer is particularly important. There is a tradition of cultivating mental faculties with a focus on visualization, concentration and meditation. In this context artworks can be used as a focus for attention and devotion as illustrated by for example, Tibetan mandalas and thangkas. This is akin to the Indian concept of darshan, from the Sanskrit "to see”, where one can receive insight and visions from beholding a holy person or the portrayal of deities.
A personal viewpoint, in both micro and macro senses, reflects aspects of the individual and their personal interactions with the world and artwork. A personal starting point in a buddhist analysis is to view the work from the point of view of personal mental practices, such as mindfulness meditation, which is intended to raise awareness of internal and external phenomena. One of the four foundations of mindfulness (Satipaṭṭāna) is to experientially recognize the nature of the mind as a cluster of changing physical and mental processes/elements or dhammas/dharmas (Anālayo 2006). These processes, in common with all conditioned phenomena, have “three marks”: anicca or constant change and impermanence; dukkha or suffering and unsatisfactoriness; and, anatta or “no-self” where there is no immutable or unchangeable core in any phenomenon (e.g. Harvey, P 2013, pp 57-62).
Looking at Our Gods from this perspective, it resonates with the three marks of existence through the icons themselves and the people they represent; and, as a consequence of the interaction between the work with the viewer.
This is a somewhat fractal cosmology with an infinite reflection of the two icons within the universe of the artwork. This concept of infinite reflection has parallels in some Buddhist cosmologies and metaphysics. In particular, an intriguing parallel to this imaginative step can be found in the Hua-yan or “Flower Garland” school of Buddhism. This indisputably Chinese school of Buddhism was founded by a monk Du-shun (557-640) and systematized by Fa-zang (643-712). Their key text was the Flower Garland Sutra or Avataṃsaka Sutra. The legend of this Sutra is that the Buddha preached it immediately after his enlightenment, but the audience was unable to comprehend it. As a result, Buddha decided to preach “more simple Hīnayāna sutras” (Ch’en 1964 p. 313). This school held that the phenomenal world can be likened to a dream, where each individual’s world may be different. The Sutra says, “By the power of the perceiver and perceived, all kinds of things a born. They soon pass away, not staying, dying out instant to instant.” (Liu 2006, p. 255).
One of the most important philosophical contributions of the Hua-yan school in the area of metaphysics was the doctrine of the mutual containment and interpenetration of all phenomena (dharmas). That is, all dharmas are intimately connected and mutually arising. The Flower Garland Sutra depicts a world of lights and jewels where light passes through the jewels and is also reflected in every other jewel and so on until infinity. Fa-zang likened this to the jewel-net of the god Indra – Indra’s Net (Harvey 2013, p. 147) or a mirrored room (Ch’en 1964 p. 317). For example, in chapter 30 of Avataṃsaka, “The Incalculable”, the net of jewels is made explicit within the dazzling verse portion (Cleary 1993 p. 893):
In each of those rays of light
Appear untold lion thrones,
Each with untold ornaments,
Each with untold lights,
With untold beautiful forms in the lights,
With untold pure lights in the forms;
In each of those pure lights
Also appear various subtle lights;
These lights also radiate various lights,
Untold, unspeakably many.
In each of these various lights
Appear wondrous jewels like mountains;
The jewels appearing in each light
Are unspeakably many, untold.
One of those mountainlike jewels
Manifests untold lands;
All of the mountainlike jewels
Manifest lands like this.
Reducing one land to atoms,
The forms in each atom are untold;
All of the lands atomized, each atom’s forms
Are unspeakably many, untold.
This is a Buddhist conception of an infinite and holistic universe. One thing contains all other existing things, and all existing things contain that one thing. “Truth” (or reality) is understood as encompassing and interpenetrating falsehood (or illusion), and vice versa.
In terms of the imagery of “Our Gods”, the distinctions between the two icons disappears, they simply become like two manifestations within a whole picture.
This doctrine of interpenetration also influenced other East Asian Buddhist schools of Buddhism, for example the Japanese Shingon school and the Korean Buddhist tradition.
The artist, the viewer and the artwork are part of a network of interactions. Like a devotee of early Buddhism looking at a stone statue of the Buddha; and like us looking at “Our Gods”, what we see and understand is dependent on a viewpoint within our impermanent traditions, cultures and social networks. While “Our Gods” is arguably a non-buddhist artwork, when viewed from the viewpoint of the Dharma, its imagery resonates with buddhist concepts.
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Liu, Xiao Xian, 2002, “12 April-12 May, 2002. Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Parkside” -Colophon, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Parkside, South Australia.
Liu, Xiao Xian 2009, From East to West, RMIT University, Vic. viewed 19 May 2018, http://www1.rmit.edu.au/browse/Our%20Organisation/RMIT%20Gallery/Exhibitions/2009/Liu%20Xiao%20Xian:%20From%20East%20to%20West/ (link now dead).
Mao, Tse-Tung 1937, Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung Volume 1, On Contradiction, viewed 19 May 2018, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-1/mswv1_17.htm.
Menzies, J (ed.) 2001, Buddha: Radiant Awakening, Art Gallery of New South Wales, NSW.
Roberts, C 2009, In-betweenness: the Art of Liu Xiao Xian, Art and Australia 47, no. 2, pp. 222-225.
RMIT Gallery, 2009, Liu Xiao Xian: From East to West, ITS Web Publishing Team, Melbourne, Vic. viewed 19 May 2018, http://mams.rmit.edu.au/cs1ucltu4m10z.pdf (link now dead).
RMIT Gallery, 2009, Liu Xiao Xian: From East to West (mp3 audio), ITS Web Publishing Team, Melbourne, Vic, in three parts, part 1 viewed 19 May 2018 at: http://itunesu.its.rmit.edu.au/sites/default/files/itunesmedia/RMITArtistTalk_LiuXiaoXian_part1.mp3 (link now dead)