The Life of Buddha and contemporary Art
The Life of The Buddha
‘The Buddha’s Garden’
De Nieuwe Kerk
Dam Square, Amsterdam,
through 03 February 2019
Siebe Tettero Designer and guest-curator.
This article on the role of contemporary art in the exhibition was included in the publication Het Leven van Boeddha, published by De Nieuwe Kerk 2018, p. 106. Translated from Dutch.
The art of the now
The 20th century has been pretty hard on the classic ideas of art. A torrent of new insights came with the arrival of the last century. But a tidal wave really arrived after the Second World War, when artists everywhere in the war-torn world began to embrace alternative ideas which quickly gained influence everywhere and made the artist detach themselves from the established media as painting or drawing or sculpture.
In the United States, where the Buddhist thought has emerged since the late 19th century from Japan, had made steady progress in places like the Black Mountain College, set up in 1933 in North Carolina, or in progressive cities such as New York or Chicago. Buddhist teaching inspired art visions. Artist John Gage (1912-1992), associated with Black Mountain, composed in 1952 the famous piece 4’33 “in which for the duration of 4 minutes and 33 seconds the orchestra remained silent in order to enforce an awareness of all ordinary room- and street sounds which we usually ignore, while his partner, the choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), turned the whole Western tradition of dance upside down with a new, non-linear choreography, that focused purely on movement, free from any story line.
Also in Europe, especially in Paris, artists such as Yves Klein and his friend the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely were strongly influenced by Eastern philosophy in the early 1950s. Together they investigated the role of movement and performance in visual art. Especially Tinguely, who animated his sculptures, tried to draw our attention to that pulsating moment of life which only takes place in the present.
Since then, interest among artists has quickly developed as a source for new art movements. Especially the 1960s saw an explosion of artists who were inspired by the thought-worlds of India and East Asia.
In this exhibition we selected works from this beautiful and long period, from artists who have been at the cradle of this development and artists who are inspired by these thoughts at the moment. We can distinguish between works that relate to the specific theme of the exhibition and the 5 steps of the life of The Buddha and works that relate to Buddhism in a much more ephemeral way.
The tree as token
The first eye-catcher of the exhibition is the arrangement in the heart of the church with works by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the Japanese artist Kohei Nawa, which are visible on entry. Ai’s work Tree (2010), and Nawa’s PixelDeer #55 (2018) form a bond, both visually and conceptually.
Of course, the tree of Ai refers initially to the tree in Bodh Gaya under which Siddhartha Gautama after years of intense self-sacrifice and meditation took place and found enlightenment, while the deer, which is a real, stuffed animal that the artist bought at auction, is a reference to the transience of life and in particular of beauty, and our inability to deal with this.
But the reference is broader, and deliberately placed at the beginning of the exhibition. Together they are a reference to ancient myths, which circulated in India long before The Buddha’s enlightenment and show that despite his new pioneering insights, Buddha’s life and experiences are deeply rooted in the culture of his native soil. The Ramayama, a narrative that maybe dates back some 3000 years, tells of an evil spirit Marisha, who seduced Sita, the wife of the hero Rama. He does this in the form of a beautiful golden deer with a silver aura. Overcome by greed Sita insists on owning the deer and demands that Rama give it to her. Rama is also no match for the temptation and goes hunting. This gives Marisha’s friend Ravana the opportunity to abduct Sita, which is the beginning of a long agony, not only for Rama and Sita herself, but for all those dear to them and also those who want to bring their damage.
It is at the moment of enlightenment that The Buddha, led by this ancient local wisdom, sees a way out of the fact that desire and aversion form the basis of all suffering.
The tree not only played an important role in his enlightenment, but in all five stages in this exhibition.
Matthijs Schouten beautifully writes about all the meanings of the tree in context with The Buddha and the role of nature in Buddhism in his article Buddhism and Nature, included in this publication. Schouten also writes extensively about the life story of the Buddha with background information about the 5 stages in his article The Life and the Teaching of Buddha.
There are works that directly relate to these 5 steps and the theme of the garden. For example, the work of the Japanese American artist Yoko Ono (1933) refers directly to the first stage, that of birth. Her work, Three Mounts (1999 / 2008-2018) consists of three mountains of earth, each taken from a place related to abuses against women. This can be sexual violence by parents or violence by partners, or by governments, by imprisonment in institutions or by facilitating prostitution. It is Ono’s hope that from the mountains of earth new life grows as a sign of hope over the duration of the exhibition.
The installation of the American artist Carolee Schneemann (1939) refers directly to the second stage in The Buddha’s life. At this stage the realization in Siddhartha Gautama develops that suffering is an inescapable aspect of life. This work from 2000 is based on earlier protest works by Schneemann from the 1960s, aimed at the specific practices of the American army in the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Now the wrongs of many conflicts from the beginning of the 21st century have been added. Through this shared suffering, often too fearful to identify with, to mix with small personal suffering, Schneemann knows how to make a connection between the universal, collective suffering and the small personal suffering from our daily environment. In Buddhism, the ability to face suffering and physical pain and to give it a place in your personal experience is free of rejection and judges an important exercise*.
Meditation is in fact nothing else than practicing with yourself to awaken a consciousness of the floating moment in which life manifests itself. Many artists have specifically focused on translating this experience into their work. We have included a few of these in the exhibition. The artist Allan Kaprow, known for his attempts to show daily life through his Happenings (a term he conceived) in the 1950s and 1960s, gave drawing lessons in the 1970s where he took up breathing as part of the creative process. In doing so, the man had this students draw a line and also sweep it away, a cadence related to breathing in and out. This action could continue until a balanced and harmonious overall picture emerged.
The Dutch artist Salvador Breed works with sound, and examines how hearing, and not hearing, of sound can be manipulated both in time and in space. Breed uses the new technology, which is capable of limiting noise to specific locations in a space and time. Through this manipulation of sound waves, Breed achieves that we become aware of the sounds we unconsciously absorb. The work of Alicia Framis delves into another aspect of sensory perception, and also takes on another very relevant theme of our time. Through social media we are more aware than ever of the unrestrained amount of abuses in the world. The most common reaction to this knowledge is perhaps a form of indignation and anger. And although anger may be a perfect source of action, it is a bad motivator for the long run because it exhausts itself. In contrast to anger, love and compassion provide a much more effective and sustainable breeding ground for activism. Framis’ work leads us to the awakening of that compassion by inviting us to embrace each other and to see what the visual effects are of this exchange of energies. Finally, I want to introduce another American artist who has dedicated his whole life to the development of our awareness of looking at the here and now. Tony Feher (1956-2016) has developed a specific goal in his career to make us look at what we are ignoring. Packaging material, which is a billion industry in itself, is the stepchild of our consumer society. Feher’s goal was to make us look specifically at this cinderella of the industrial world. But his goal and his fascination was not only to draw attention to the often beautiful design and clever constructions of packing boxes or Styrofoam TV protective casings, or the beautiful lines of a plastic Coke bottle, but he also wanted us to look at how it light passes on different facets of that same bottle, how this light pushes through the meshes of a blue piece of packaging tape, or how the reflection of that same light changes on the bottom of a soup can as time passes. Feher wanted to show us that the essence of life, that intangible flow of snapshots that we can experience if we pay attention, can fully reveal itself in something as obscure as a thrown-away water-bottle.
* The book The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in the Difficult Times (2001) by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, can be an interesting source of information on this subject.
Read the associated posts Introduction and The famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho 松尾芭蕉