Friday, April 10, 2015

'Vergangkelijkheid' in Antwerp.

'Chapter 2' Koosterstraat 106, Antwerpen 

The Buddhist Pali term 'annica' often translated into English as impermanence would be  'vergangkelijkheid' in Dutch which means perishableness, transitoriness and instability. 

Riding down the Kloosterstraat in Antwerp on Friday I came across a temporary exhibition in a rented gallery space that captured my attention by both its strong visual and conceptual unity, creative economy of means and by its quality of  'Vergangkelijkheid'.  

The apparent fragility of the two and three dimensional materials and the seemingly bleached and faded quality of the colours with their luminous layered and transparent 'skins' evoked a similar feeling to the one I get when I see bones or shells. It was as if something living and human had shed its skin, leaving behind an outer layer, an implied presence, an impression or a stain which was both personal and impersonal, animate and inanimate at the same time. It seemed also as if something was simultaneously being created and dissolving and disappearing.

 As Gert Van Dessel, one of the three artists in the exhibition explained to me, this kind of work is not to every one's taste. For me it seemed to undermine the very idea of satisfying the constantly fuelled desire for the bright shiny, new and 'permanent' objects of our advertising driven consumer culture even while it appeared to conjure this context in a shop-like space.    

The exhibition runs from 4th April until 3rd June 2015 and is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11-18 hrs. This Gert's website

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Towards a Buddhist Aesthetic.......

The American painter and 'mystic' Morris Graves, with his preoccupation with birds and still-lives as subjects for paintings informed by a fusion of Eastern and Western influences, seems to have been intuitively drawn to Zen Buddhist sources like so many of his artistic and literary contemporaries in  America in the mid 20th Century.   

' Better than any other American he could reveal to the Far East that we of the Western world also have our mystics who feel, in the contemplation of nature, the relation of man's life to the poetry and meaning of all life........'

Duncan Phillips in the introduction to 'Morris Graves, Vision of the Inner Eye' published in conjunction with the exhibition in Washington in 1983
Morris Graves. Winter Bouquet #4
(seedling chrysanthemums, astrantia and helebrore), 1976.

Thich Naht Hanh has said that any teaching that does not bear the three Dhamma seals- impermanence, (anitya), nonself (anatman) and nivana - cannot be said to be the teaching of the Budhha. Any Buddhist aesthetic must surely correspond to these Dhamma seals. 

     'We think that being born means from nothing we become something, from no one we become someone, from nonbeing we become being. We think that to die means we suddenly go from something to nothing, from someone to no one, from being to nonbeing. But the Buddha said, "There is no birth and no death, no being and no nonbeing," and he offered us impermanence, nonself, interbeing, and emptiness to discover the true nature of reality 

Thich Nhat Hanh. The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. 

Thrush's nest discovered on the floor of the forest during a walk in the Ardennes.
Applying these insights towards observing the inter-dependant arising and cessation of things could make the transition/translation of nature into art and art into nature appear a seamless continuity in which boundaries are blurred or simply evaporate and the seeming duality is returned to one whole entirety which can be simultaneously as small as a nest, a tea bowl, a leaf or a flower and as big as the world and the cosmos, and whilst retaining human proportions, as dimensionless a space as both point and infinity. 

Tenmoku Teabowl with leaf decoration in the glaze. 
 Impermanence, change and transience surely must be part the process of making. It defines the very nature of the emergence, growth and maturity and the final decay and disintingration of a work of art, or indeed of any thing. This quality of change need to be allowed to be seen, integrated into and openly acknowledged by the work itself rather than denied or suppressed. The ageing process, like its growth, is part of both the beauty and truth of any work. 

Pinch pots drying ready to bisquit fire -made as demonstrations for a 9th grade ceramics project 'Empty Vessels'. In making these bowls I am not trying to impose a 'design' on them but let them emerge out of the hand to take the form they will naturally assume through the process of pinching in a revolving motion.

  In the same book he goes on to talk about the three doors of Liberation.

 'The First Door of Liberation is emptiness, shunyata. Emptiness always means empty of something. A cup is empty of water. A bowl is empty of soup. We are empty of a separate, independent self. We cannot be by ourselves alone. We can only inter-be with everything else in the cosmos.'  

Is the nature of both absence and presence implied by both form and space as indeed the great 'Heart Sutra' refrain puts it  'form is emptiness, emptiness is form' which resonates with this apparent awareness of 'shunyata'?  Perhaps when there is a presence to 'emptiness' there is no absence of light, space and consciousness........ indeed with emptiness it might be possible to form an appropriate receptacle in which to appreciate their true qualities as they constantly unfold and change in unlimited ways. 

Early stripping back and cleaning of the bedroom  in Bruges.
later on after some patching and priming in a breathable white clay paint ......
.....still much more to do to create 'nothing' out of 'something'.  
Stripping, cleaning, patching, repairing and sanding the lime plaster surfaces of these walls ready to take a neutral white paint is a process very similar to making the oil paintings for the series 'The fugitive Image'. Both are concerned as much with the inner and outer boundaries of space, light and colour and the scale and proportion of the human body and the experience of sensory perception. Both are not so much about making or filling space as revealing and defining it by 'emptying' it, in the latter case making the absence of the image the image itself.   

The Fugitive Image:  Title: Fugitive 5 Size: 40 x30cm  Media: Oil on wood. 
The Second Door of Liberation is signlessness  animitta..........The greatest relief is when we break through the barriers of sign and touch the world of signlessness, nirvana.  Where should we look to find the wold of no signs? right here in the world of signs.

Does this mean that we should see all conceptual formations in art and language as just that and not get caught by them into thinking these conventions are any more than that - rather like the Belgian surrealist painter Magritte suggests we do in his famous image of a pipe?

     "The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe", I'd have been lying!"

La trahison des images, Rene Magritte, 1928-29

Elsewhere in the same book Thich Nhat Hanh has said that, "Things in their true nature and illusions are of the same basic substance" suggesting that both the pipe and the image of the pipe are 'empty' of any absolute essence or reality even while they exist in a relative way as part of our day to day conceptual and perceptual construction of conventional reality 
In the Third Door of Liberation it seems that what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying is that whether sitting still and breathing or walking backwards and forwards in meditation, settled or nomadic, rooted to the spot like a tree or making the round trip from home to work and back again, the journey is the destination. The present time and place, here and now, is sufficient in and of itself and can encompass all that is necessary to take care of the past and future.

The Third Door of Liberation is aimlessness, apranihita. There is nothing to do, nothing to realise, no program, no agenda. This is the Buddhist teaching about eschatology. Does the rose have to do something? No, the purpose of a rose is to be a rose.   

Mulagandhakuti  - the remains of the Buddha's hut at Jetavana Monastery, Savatthi, Bihar,  India.  
      'The four establishments of mindfulness are the foundations of our dwelling place without them our house is abandoned, no one is sweeping, dusting, or tidying up. Our body becomes unkempt, our feelings full of suffering, and our mind a heap of afflictions. When we are truly home, our body, mind and feelings will be a place of refuge for ourselves and others.'  

The heart of the Buddha's teachng, Discourse on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta)

The Chinese Tang dynasty poet and painter Wang Wei clearly sought to integrate his artistic practice with his Buddhist practice of the way increasingly retreating into greater solitude after the loss of his wife and his retirement from court duties.

Lamenting white hairs. 

Once a child's face
                  now an old man's

White hairs soon replace 
                        the infants down

            How much can hurt the heart
in one life's span

                 We must turn to the gate to Nirvana 
                       where else can we end our pain 

Translated by G. W. Robinson 
Poems of Wang Wei. Penguin Books 1973