Meeting Point

by Melissa Lee
Published in Meeting Point by Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hong Kong, 2013

O Sariputra, the characteristics of the void are not created,
not annihilated, not impure, not pure, not increasing,
not decreasing.Heart Sutra (English translation)

What is the significance of inscription onto the universe?
In Meeting Point, Charwei Tsai and Chi-Tsung Wu explore
the nature of transience in the impermanent human ties
to our culture and the micro / macroscopic universe. Both
artists explore and interrogate this question through their
practice converting cultural traditions into new mediums
in the current Edouard Malingue gallery exhibition with a
series of new works. Tsai paints the ancient Buddhist text of
Heart Sutra, a cultural cornerstone of East Asian culture for
centuries on perishable organic natural objects. Reaching
back and referencing centuries of tradition, Chi-Tsung Wu
acknowledges his classical Chinese painting background by
mimicking the texturing techniques of traditional Cun-Fa
in his work but adding a contemporary twist by using a
cyano-type photo printing process rather than traditional
Chinese ink. Both artists are interested in themes of
impermanence, balance, and distilled harmony found in
multiple universes, both large and small.

Tsai’s work, in collaboration with Tibetan filmmaker Tsering
Tashi Gyalthang consists of a series of chronological
photographs and a single multi-media video. Incense Mantra
is inspired by locally sourced incense grown in the rare trees
of Hong Kong’s Koon Wing Chan, less than two kilometers
away from the Mainland Chinese region. The photographs
and captured video of slowly diminishing ash evokes
everything from the burning of incense at temples, to the
fragrant wood used in herbal teas and Chinese medicine
for healing properties. The use of local incense also evokes
the origins of the very naming of Hong Kong—as centuries
ago the city traded on being a regional supplier of incense
for the rest of Asia. The very “Hong” in Hong Kong is the
Cantonese word for “Fragant” and thus, the city’s nickname
“Fragant Harbour”.

There is a rich textural aspect to the Incense Mantra
photographs as the thick smoldering quality of the incense
ash transforms the photograph into a grainy landscape
with multiple depths and plains. In particular, Incense
Mantra III photograph shows the moment in which the
incense has burned midway between ash and text and
thus unrolled a voluminous rich quality of lushness that
speaks of jagged plains and uneven grounds evoked in the
landscape. The words of Heart Sutra are delicately etched
and yet languidly extinguished at different stages in the
four photographs. The slowly dissipation of the Heart Sutra
words in Tsai’s photographs evoke the impermanence and
sublime emptiness of Buddhist existence. “Emptiness”
here and in Buddhist mythology refers not to the common
Western conception of “lacking”, but instead to Buddhist
term Sunyata, evolving from the concept that nothing in this
world has ultimate substantiality— including the human.
All objects and beings become transient and impermanent.
The second stanza of Heart Sutra explains that: one is “not
created, not annihilated, not increasing or decreasing”.1
Incense Mantra’s gradual obliteration of these words by
fire further emphasizes the message of transience and
impermanent existence.

Tsai’s photographs reveal a three dimensional pictorial
quality to the work. The series of four Incense Mantra
photographs reveal particular phases in the life of the
incense as it slowly burns to ash. From almost completely
intact (Mantra I), to Half extinguished (Mantra II), three quarters
smoldered (Mantra III) to ashes (Mantra IV). Tsai’s
work involves the process of precisely inscribing ancient
language engraved on nature—a text with a subject that
involves the very theme of impermanence, and illusory
objects and illusions. The inscription is made in traceable
materials reinforcing a sense of the ephemeral to the works.
Tsai’s A Pilgrimage through Light & Spells, a book project
published by Idem printmaking shop in Paris (also part of
the exhibition) reveal and recommit to her fascination with
language and inscription.

Incense Mantra is a further continuation of Tsai’s regular
oeuvre of work that involves a ‘Mantra Series’ site specific
in each of its iterations. Tsai’s previous mantra installations
include Mushroom Mantra presented in the 6th Asia Pacific
Triennial (2009) where Venerable Elders from the Buddhist
Light Association were invited to inscribe the Heart Sutra
in ink on the mushrooms conveying themes of growth,
decomposition and decay. Olive Mantra, another related
work located on Hydra Island Greece, inscribes the Heart
Sutra on an olive tree, a flora species of special significance
to Judeo-Christian religion. As the olive tree grows, as
does the inscribed Buddhist text evolve with the tree and
eventually disappear in keeping with the theme of transitory
inscriptions. Each ‘mantra’ installation engages with local
organic materials related to the region. Other comparable
works include Lotus Mantra presented at the inaugural
Singapore Biennial, as well as A Dedication to the Victims
of the Tsunami of March 11, 2011 – Turbo Marmoratus, in which
Tsai invited local participants to write the Heart Sutra on
permeable seashells.

This inscription of language onto nature becomes a citation
imposed upon the natural creating a distinction between
the cultural and the native. Tsai’s inscription of Buddhist
dialogue in nature reveals the hidden universe of balance—
the Heart Sutra is one of the oldest texts of Buddhism—
revealing the ‘Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent
Wisdom.’ One of the major themes of Heart Sutra explaining
the concept of impermanence central to the use of Chinese
calligraphy that Tsai writes on natural materials—wood,
seashells, mushrooms, and now incense. The writing of a
text of impermanence on nature reveals the transitory and
evolving transformation of nature and life itself.

Continuing the theme of reinventing cultural languages and
traditions, Chi-Tsung Wu re-conceives traditional Chinese
landscapes on Cyanotype processed paper. Moving away
from the often used Chinese scroll calligraphy work, Wu
reveals to us hidden landscapes by using precise mechanical
and technological fascinations. Wu’s Cyanotype technique
of processing paper is most commonly used in architectural
blueprint drawings as it creates a photographic printing
process giving a cyan-blue print, which he artfully crinkles
and leaves in the sun for 10-20 minutes. Delving from both
his architectural school training as well as classic Chinese
painting background, Wu plays on the traditional Chinese
landscape painting technique of Cun-Fa, ironically using
these techniques in an unconventional way by crumpling
the traditional rice paper used to imprint Cyanotype and
exposing it under sunlight. The sunlight directly records
light onto the Cyanotype paper, delving from a historical
1830s concept of photography used in reproducing notes
and diagrams. The action of light on different sections
of the paper creates a silhouette effect, which Wu utilizes
with beautiful transformative results. The sunlight beaming
directly onto the Cyanotype rice paper creates a wrinkled
texture that is unfurled when the paper process is finished.
Wu’s crinkled landscape reveals hidden mountains and
unexpected craggy plains where the light white clouds of
untouched ink also reveal a pillowy whiteness and delicate
immutability. Revealing both mountain and water landscape
simultaneously and yet also neither, challenges our views
of the universe. It is strangely fitting that the natural
intervention of sunlight is necessary in order to reveal this
artificially hidden landscape. This method and concept
embraces a kind of studied randomness in his work, which
he embraces as a recurring theme in his artistic process.

Wu’s 2003 work Wire I reveals the presence of minute
undiscovered universes in our world. A projector with a
movable lens is fixed in front of an ordinary piece of wire
mesh. The projection created by the shadow of the mesh
and the dust in the air reveals the revolving universe of
shadow and light play transforming the hidden knowledge
of his work. The ghostly landscape reveal an invisible world
within our own that is strangely similar in which we can
identify recognizable shapes—mist covered mountains and
hills. This early work embodies similar themes to his current
Wrinkled Texture works in that they allow us to imagine
natural landscapes through the use and intervention of
technological man-made mediums. Dust (2006) continues
this theme of revealing invisible landscapes. A projector and
lights are placed in a room recording the dust that swirls
into space with people’s entrance and exit into the space. Wu
has commented that he is interested in the Buddhist idea of
infinite worlds—the smallest world universe as a speck of
dust, the largest world being the universe— with the human
world existing somewhere in between. Wu’s artistic process
and work is to capture these worlds for us to envision in our
own lives.

Meeting Point refers to a number of different collaborations
and meetings. It is a meeting of minds- both artists are
preoccupied with themes involving the reinvention of
cultural heritage, organicity, and hidden universes. It is also
a chance for the Hong Kong public to meet these Taiwanese
artists for the first time together. The show in its entirety
revolves centrally around themes of nature and our human
relationship to natural surroundings. As curator Jenny Yen
Chen Lee states, both artists meet in ‘a sensibility towards
the poetic aesthetics of the East.’

1 Heart Sutra. Trans English. USA Shaolin Temple official website.