Contemplating the Structure of the World in Swirls and Spirals

by Mami Kataoka
Published in We Came Whirling Out of Nothingness by TKG+, Taipei, Taiwan, 2015

The Milky Way, the motion of stars and sun, the Earth’s rotation, typhoons, whirlpools, tornados: the natural world is full of swirls and spirals, actualizations of gyrations in the vastness of space, and the flow of energy. Having no orientation, circles can potentially expand in all directions, and their rotational movement possesses both centrifugal and centripetal forces. Swirls and spirals are found everywhere from the plant and animal kingdoms — snails, spiral shellfish, and vines — to fingerprints, intestines, semicircular canals, and even the DNA molecules that make up our bodies. Our lives unfold as an accumulation of repeated days consisting of the cycle of day and night. While seemingly a cycle of the same time, this pattern is also a spiral time axis that never returns to the same exact point, hence the spiral’s status as a symbol of infinity.Since antiquity many religions and cultures have perceived swirls and spirals with awe, and considered them symbols of hope. This feeling of awe is also connected to the spatial centrality, fluidity, and acceptance of the transitory nature of life found in different views of our world and of the cosmos. Among Hindus and Buddhists, a worldview centered on Mount Meru is also manifest in Buddhist pagodas, temple architecture, and mandalas. The ensō circle motifs in Zen paintings are also said to manifest the absolute truth of the cosmos and the cycle of all living things.

The Heart Sutra, a core element of Mahayana Buddhist thought that relies on the theory of “emptiness,” is at the heart of Charwei Tsai’s practice. In the sutra, all material phenomena exist interdependently, and therefore do not exist as separate entities or in a subjective role. Furthermore, all things are in a constant state of flux, and nothing remains the same for even a second. Material phenomena are therefore “voids” without substance, and the state of being without substance is a material phenomenon. The sutra teaches the importance of concentrating our awareness at all times on the here and now, as all things are invariable uncertainties that do not exist.

This worldview is evident in Tsai’s choice of gradually decaying materials on which she wrote the Heart Sutra, including tofu, leaves, mushrooms, and octopuses. This process is subject to the laws of nature and the impact of the physical environment, such as weather conditions, temperature, and humidity. Just as the Heart Sutra teaches, this decay is prescribed by the interdependence between the work and its surrounding environment. One could even say that the work does not exist as an entity in its own right, and are only physical works when they appear in photographs and videos. The circles Tsai draws in her videos Circle (2009) and Circle II (2011) gradually lose their forms as the ice melts, but the looping video infinitely regenerates them. As with Tibetan sand mandalas, the repetition of creation and destruction is the very truth of the universe.

If these are representations of the world’s structure on a metaphysical level, Tsai’s practice in recent years is also a critical voice of this structure, of modern society where the laws of nature clash with values that allow science and economics to dominate. The 2012 Lanyu series, for instance, touches on the unresolved issue of a radioactive waste storage facility built by the Taiwan Power Company in 1982 on the island of Lanyu, home to a community of Taiwanese aborigines, off of Taiwan’s southeast coast. Although initially set up as a temporary measure, the facility is still in operation, and has been releasing contaminated water into the sea since it first opened.  In Tsai’s work, footage of Lanyu’s breathtaking coastline evokes images of invisible radiation and the visible landscape takes on a totally different significance.

The use of nuclear power and the construction of the plants that supply it, is a very important matter for Japan, which in 2011 experienced Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant nuclear disaster. The accident in Fukushima, triggered by an earthquake followed by a tsunami, demonstrated the mighty power of nature that transcends all human capabilities, and served as a reminder of the myths of nuclear safety. The Fukushima disaster also shed new light on the Japanese government’s aspirations for economic revival in the aftermath of the Second World War, the country’s subsequent rapid economic growth, and the close-knit yet delicate power relationship with the United States.

Following the war, science and economics became overwhelming priorities in Japan. Consequently, people turned away from the ancient respect for nature in the Japanese and Asian views of the natural world, and the delusion that nature could be controlled continued growing. However, the Fukushima incident revealed not only man’s inability to control natural forces, but also the simple fact that no matter how much money or advanced science and technology we use, it is impossible to safely dispose of radioactive waste in order for it to return to the ecological cycle.

Casting a critical gaze, the Lanyu series highlights the dependence on science and technology despite its impact on nature shared by modern mankind. The indigenous man praying toward the ocean and the women performing the hair dance in a circle in Lanyu recall a time when human beings, once consciously in awe of nature, sensed the spirits of their ancestors in the sea and land, and felt the presence of gods in natural phenomena, such as the movement of the sun, stars, typhoons, and tornados.

In Tsai’s seductive piece Baptism (2009), an adult and child are shown washing hands. While the title evokes the idea of religious rituals or spiritual purification, it also conjures an apocalyptic future where humanity’s indulgence of desires destroys our planet; in the way that radioactive waste can never be completely purified.

I hope the exhibition Charwei Tsai: We Came Whirling Out of Nothingness will incite feelings of hope and awe toward the mysterious and innate power of swirls and spirals, and inspire viewers to take a fresh look at the infinitely changing structure of the world.

Translated by Pamela Miki Associates