"Water, Earth, Air"
by Suhanya Raffel
It was blacker than olives the night I left. As I ran past the
palaces, oddly joyful, it began to rain. What a notion it is,
after all – these small shapes! I would get lost counting
them. Who first thought of it? How did he describe it to the
others? Out on the sea it is raining too. It beats on no one.
The happiness of the circle puts an end to the all vertical
happiness of the gods who take advantage of the distance
they have from the earth. Francis Alÿs2
A rider goes by, but his dust
of passing hangs in the air.
Look down this road through
the particles into infinity.
‘Water’, ‘earth’ and ‘air’ describe, in the simplest terms, our
world. Charwei Tsai chose these words for the title of her
exhibition because, together, they are the touchstones for
her practice. She explores these three vast elements through
intimate gestures. It is her way of sensing the world.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1980, Charwei Tsai attended
the local elementary school until fourth grade, when she
was transferred to the Taipei American School so that
her education would be conducted in English. Her family
prospered, like many others who were involved with the
economic boom years of the 1980s and 1990s in Taiwan, and
in 1990 she was sent to Pebble Beach in California, United
States, as a boarder to finish her schooling. However,
despite her formal education being very much United
States-based, the connection with her Taiwanese culture
and home continued.
Outside of my studies, I was very attached to my Taiwanese
upbringing. My family still lived in Taiwan, so I would go
home every summer and winter and bring back local music,
films, books, and even food. Most of my close friends in high
school were Taiwanese who shared a similar background,
so I never felt a need to assimilate with Americans and was
quite at ease with mixed cultures. Perhaps this is why, even
after all these years of living abroad, some of my works are
still rooted in Asian references.4
The earliest work in this exhibition, Tofu Mantra, 2005, marks
the beginning of Tsai’s practice and is part of the ongoing Mantra
series, in which the artist uses brush and ink or felt-tipped
pen to write the Heart Sutra (262 characters in Chinese) onto
a multitude of surfaces. Initially these were organic materials,
such as a slab of tofu, the petals of an iris, mushrooms, a lemon,
olive trees, lotus leaves and the skins of frogs. Recently, however,
she has expanded this practice by using mirrors, so that the sky,
clouds, sea, sand and earth are captured as reflections on which
the sutra reverberates. Sea Mantra, Earth Mantra, both 2009, and
Sky Mantra, 2008, are glorious poetic works that vibrate with the
joy of the Heart Sutra.
The Heart Sutra (prajnaparamita in Sanskrit) is a key
Buddhist text that describes the concept of emptiness, an
idea that is central to Buddhist philosophy, and the transient
relationship between the individual and the universe. It is one of
the most popular and widely known Buddhist mantras. Briefly,
it describes the experience of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara
(also known as the Bodhisattva of compassion) reaching
towards enlightenment through meditation. The experience
leads to the profound understanding that all is ‘emptiness’ or
‘void’ and offers solace to those with this insight.5 Thus, the text
captures the Buddhist wisdom that the inescapable flow of time
– the cycles of growth, decay, rebirth and release – leads to the
realisation of the impermanence of existence.
Charwei Tsai claims that it was a Tibetan friend she met
during her college years in the early 2000s who ignited her
interest in Buddhism. Although they did not discuss religion or
politics particularly, his presence was sufficient to act as the
catalyst for her curiosity. When she subsequently moved to New
York in 2002 to search for work, Tsai volunteered at Tibet House.
While archiving a repatriation collection containing Buddhist
art, statues and prayer tools, she began to learn more about
Buddhism.6 Tsai had just graduated from Rhode Island School of
Design, where she studied courses in fine arts, industrial design,
landscape architecture and architectural history. The courses
were deliberately cross-disciplinary and, importantly, included
travel to Arizona where she visited the Frank Lloyd Wright
School of Architecture in Taliesin West and James Turrell’s
Roden Crater project.7 These varied experiences brought into
focus concepts about art, nature, sustainability and spirituality
to form the seed bed from which her practice has sprung.
My interest in Buddhism is intertwined with my practice
in art. For me, art and spirituality are inseparable. Through
art, I am able to reach a purer state of consciousness that I
cannot do through the chaos of daily life. However, I do not
consider myself religious as my appreciation of the religion
is merely based on a philosophical approach . . . In any case,
my exposure to Buddhism and to contemporary art in New
York around that time led me to start the Mantra series.8
She learned the Heart Sutra by memory as a child in Taipei
even though her family is not especially devout. It is only as an
adult that she has explored the possibilities of using the sutra
to germinate an art practice.
My family is not particularly religious, so it is curious, even
to me, how I became attracted to the scripture at a young
age. I used to recite it when I was scared, or simply to
calm the mind. The application of the text evolves through
different stages of my life and I am still examining it.9
For Tsai, the sutra in the Mantra series functions on several
levels. It draws on the philosophical principles of the void; the
works are literal examples of impermanence since they capture
life’s flux through growth and decay; the sutra is a doorway
or aperture through which art-making and its performance
elements such as writing are framed, so the temporal aspects
of doing, waiting and seeing are manifest; and lastly, the
artworks reveal a strong calligraphic element.
I always try to concentrate on the meaning of the text and the
relationship to the material when I make the works. Most of
the materials I write on have their own natural texture, so I try
to follow the texture with my brushstrokes. This is one of the
reasons why I choose to write mostly in Chinese, because the
characters are legible left to right, right to left, up to down.10
The practice of learning to write Chinese characters
becomes, by extension, the practice of calligraphy. Indeed,
historically in China, where the East Asian calligraphic
tradition originated, calligraphy was defined as the practice
of writing clearly. The aesthetic value is only perceived in its
rendering and over time this act has been refined into an art
form through the work of scholar artists.
Even in an age when pictures are painted by robots, I
cannot give up that extremely imprecise instrument, the
brush … The scholars of East Asia have thought with the
brush for centuries, using it for both writing and painting.
The object before the eyes and the image in the mind are all
constructed of points and lines, and expressed in rhythm
with the rising and falling of breath. Lee Ufan11
A Dedication to Saint Ursula and Baptism, both 2009, were
site-specific works conceived for the Church of Saint-Séverin in
Paris in June 2009 as a dedication to the Catholic Saint Ursula.12
Tsai used as her text The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking
of the World13 by American literary theorist and cultural critic
Elaine Scarry. Using fragments of sentences from this seminal
monograph on pain, Tsai inscribed each petal in English and
scattered them around the vaults and antechambers in the
church that housed bone relics. The swathes of coloured petals
surrounded and settled onto the stone pediments, altars and
glass cases, transforming this sacred space through colour,
scent and the strangeness of the dedication, as if the air had
rained flowers with incomplete messages.14
The fascinating symbolism of plants has a long, culturally
specific history. The literature on the rose is vast. Thought to have
originated in Persia and been brought to the West by Alexander
the Great, the abundant variety of this plant ensures that there are
several indigenous species across many parts of the world. The
rose has long been cited in both literature and visual art, especially
in the West where it is most often associated with perfection,
Eros, paradise and martyrdom. In A Dictionary of Symbols, Juan
Eduardo Cirlot describes the artistic deployment of symbols as ‘an
expression that is continuous, flowing, casual and in direct relation
between the inspiration and the final representation, which is both
the means and the end of the expressive process’.15
For the Singapore Biennale in September 2006, Tsai created
Lotus Mantra I and Lotus Mantra II as site-specific works at
Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, a local Buddhist temple.
Here she has revisited and remade them to be presented in
an exhibition context. The works were her first intervention
at a place of worship. In Lotus Mantra I she wrote the Heart
Sutra on a number of lotus buds and placed them as an
offering alongside those of members of the congregation
who came to pray and meditate. Over time the buds steadily
decayed and became desiccated husks. In Lotus Mantra II she
wrote the sutra on the leaves of a living lotus plant growing
in a pot at the entrance to the temple. The leaves expanded
and multiplied over time. In Buddhism the lotus is imbued
with myriad meanings that include the state of Buddhahood,
purity, enlightenment, wisdom and, in Tantric Buddhism, the
feminine principle. The context of the temple ensured that its
congregation would view the plant with the sutra, recognise
the mantra, and understand the symbolism of the lotus.
In both these installations, the exchange between viewers and
artworks took place through the prism of a place of worship. Tsai’s
deep interest in observing and interacting with ideas of spirituality
is enacted through her art. Like music, which is intangible while
moving through the body, her art heightens, sharpens and focuses
the mind on the senses and, through them, draws awareness to
the profound and simple logic of the transitory.
In her projects Tsai has used a number of other texts
that are not always directly about the spiritual. In the 2008
exhibition ‘7 Ideas in 7 Days’, made for the construction site
of Gallery Sora in Tokyo, two of the seven works used text.
For 7 Ideas in 7 Days – Day 4 – Hermit Crabs she wrote a set of
political statements in Chinese on the shells of hermit crabs
and then watched the crabs swap and change shells. For
Day 5 she created a miniature forest and on the leaves of this
tiny jungle she wrote the love songs and poems composed by
the sixth Dalai Lama (1683–1706). This work is revisited here
in A Dedication to the Sixth Dalai Lama (1683–1706), 2009.
The fey absurdity and joy in these works pays homage to the
great diva of performance art, Yoko Ono. Throughout the 1960s
and 1970s Ono made an influential contribution to the history of
fluxus and performance, developed as a suite of actions, films and
videos works, of which the following instruction is an example:
1. against the wind
2. against the wall
3. against the sky
Yoko Ono, autumn 1961
Often composed as haiku-like verse that combines imagery,
actions and sounds, Yoko Ono’s scores are also poetry. The
performance aspects of Tsai’s works recall the spirit of Ono’s
practice since she too calls on the imagination and interpretation
of her audience. The open-ended process is an essential element
of Tsai’s practice: the notion of continuity and sustainability
depends as much on the ongoing nature of existence as it does
on the fact of its impermanence. This paradox, the philosophical
connection between states of impermanence and sustainability,
is at the heart of Tsai’s art-making.
In Melting Ice, Circle, Gutter, Numbers and Ice Explorations,
all 2009, Tsai uses ice to celebrate the dynamic form of change.
Numbers, Ice Explorations, Gutter and Melting Ice use mirror and
ice to represent infinity – in as much as this is possible – through
reflections of sky and air. As Rumi’s verse at the beginning of this
essay reveals, it is the particles of dust suspended in the air that
give form to the unending path of infinity. Similarly, the Japanese
Zen tradition of ‘Enso’ reveals, in the form of the circle drawn with
brush and ink, the world of the spirit that is without beginning or
end. The Zen circle of enlightenment reflects the transforming
experience: perfectly empty yet completely full, finite yet infinite.
When Tsai created Circle – recording herself using brush and ink to
draw a circle on a large block of ice and documenting the perfect
black circle gradually melting as the ice changes from its solid state
to liquid – she was unaware of this tradition. Yet on learning about it
she was completely at ease with the knowledge that it existed. The
logic of arriving at expressive points in the journey of encounter and
discovery as an artist necessarily leads to numerous places already
known. It is the uniqueness of these encounters, for each of us, artist
or not, that reveals the truly wondrous fact of infinite possibility.
1. Canadian poet: Anne Carson, ‘Short Talk on Rain’, in Plainwater, Vintage Contemporary
Edition, New York, 2000, p. 39.
2. Belgian artist living and working in Mexico City: Francis Alÿs, excerpt from History of
Architecture Thesis, University of Venice, Venice, 1985, cited in Revolutions – Forms That
Turn, exhibition catalogue, Biennale of Sydney, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev,
Thames & Hudson, 2008, p. 80.
3. Thirteenth century Persian poet and philosopher: ‘Three Quatrains’, in Coleman Barks
(trans.), The Essential Rumi, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, p. 320.
4. Charwei Tsai interviewed by Tina Lai, 28 June 2009,
7 August 2009.
5. The sutra goes on to elaborate on the five expressions of life: matter, sensation, volition,
perception and consciousness. In Buddhism the way to enlightenment is to relinquish all
attachment to these phenomena, since desire and attachment lead to suffering. To alleviate
suffering one must understand and accept the impermanent character of matter, whereby
nothing possesses any essential enduring identity. ‘Emptiness’ is a state that is wanted or sought out. It does not have the negative Western connotations of alienation, loneliness and despair.
6. ‘The collection at Tibet House that I was archiving was composed mostly of religious objects like tangkas, Bodhisattva statues and prayer tools. Through working there I had a chance to see the process of making the Tibetan sand mandala, to attend meditation sessions, lectures by the Dalai Lama and other important practitioners, as well as having access to their library with mainly books on Tibetan art, religion and politics. Through archiving the tangkas, I also learned to distinguish between different deities and their representations, and certain religious symbols.
I volunteered there for two years.’ Email from Charwei Tsai to the author, 20 August 2009.
7. Taliesin West was the great modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home in the
desert from 1937 until his death in 1959. It is now the main campus of the Frank Lloyd
Wright School of Architecture and houses the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The Roden
Crater project is artist James Turrell’s most ambitious project to date. It was begun in
1972 and is yet to be completed. Central to Turrell’s practice is his investigation into light.
The project is being constructed in a dormant volcano in the Painted Desert of Northern
Arizona. Turrell is transforming the crater into a purpose-built complex of viewing rooms
that will provide people with the opportunity to see the magnificent, ever-changing
lightscape created in the sky by the sun, moon, stars and celestial events.
8. Charwei Tsai interviewed by Lesley Ma, 5 April 2009, in Charwei Tsai: Transience, exhibition catalogue, Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, 2009, p. 6.
9. ibid., p. 7.
10. ibid., p. 10.
11. South Korean/Japanese artist: Lee Ufan, Lee Ufan: The Art of Encounter, trans. Stanley N.
Anderson, ed. Jean Fisher, Lisson Gallery, London, 2004, p. 25.
12. According to a legend from the tenth century, Ursula was the daughter of a Christian British king and was granted a three-year postponement of an unwanted marriage to a pagan prince. With ten ladies in waiting, each attended by a thousand maidens, she embarked on a voyage across the North Sea, sailed up the Rhine to Basle, Switzerland, and then went to Rome. On their way back, in about 451 BC, they were all massacred by pagan Germans at Cologne when Ursula refused to marry their chieftain. The legend is most likely a fiction, but what is true is that a senator rebuilt a basilica in Cologne, probably at the beginning of the fourth century, to honour a group of virgins who had been martyred at Cologne. They were evidently venerated enough to have had a church built in their honour, but who they were and how many of them there were, is unknown. From these meagre facts, the legend of Ursula grew and developed. (Paraphrased from http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=325, viewed 17 August 2009.)
13. Oxford University Press, New York, 1985.
14. Tsai’s decision to use this particular text was in part due to the way Scarry discusses
pain; torture in particular. The first chapter in her book analyses the linguistic expression
of pain, including the perceptual aspects of describing pain and the extremely intangible
notion of understanding the pain of others. Scarry looks to literature and art in her
analysis and has been a professor of English literature. The Church of Saint-Séverin also
contains bone relics, which are revered across many cultures as both potent symbols of
the transience of life and powerful reminders of holiness, purity of spirit and ancestral
respect. This project was initiated following Tsai’s participation in the exhibition ‘Traces
du Sacré’ at the Centre Pompidou (2008).
15. Juan Eduardo Cirlot, ‘Symbol and Allegory – Symbol and Artistic Expression’, in
A Dictionary of Symbols, Routledge, London, 1984, p. xliii.
Suhanya Raffel is the Deputy Director at the Queensland Art Gallery.
Since joining the Gallery in 1994, she has been responsible for the development of the
Gallery’s contemporary Asian collections, profiling this work through exhibitions,
lectures and writing. She was the lead curator for the Queensland Art Gallery’s
‘Andy Warhol’ exhibition (2007–08) and most recently curated ‘The China Project’
(2009), a set of three major exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art. She has been a
member of the curatorial team for the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Asian Art (APT) project since 1996 and is the lead curator for this year’s APT6. In 2005, Suhanya Raffel was awarded a Smithsonian Fellowship to undertake research and
development of a loans exchange program between the Queensland Art Gallery and the
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. She has
previously been on the Visual Arts Committee of Asialink, University of Melbourne; was a
peer of the Australia Council; served on the board of Art Monthly; and continues to be
the Queensland representative of The Asian Art Society of Australia. Suhanya Raffel has
degrees in Fine Arts and Museum Studies from the University of Sydney.