Water, Earth, Air

by Suhanya Raffel
Published in Water, Earth, Air by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney, 2009

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.

Anne Carson

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 Alys
A rider goes by, but his dust
of passing hangs in the air.

Look down this road through
the particles into infinity.


The title of this exhibition was given it by the artist whose work it features, Charwei Tsai.  Although they are big words they describe, in the simplest terms, our world.  Chosen because together they are touchstone for her practice, Tsai explores these three vast elements through intimate gestures. This is her way of sensing the world.

Born in Taipei, Taiwan in 1980 Charwei Tsai attended the local elementary school till fourth grade before being transferred to the Taipei American School so that her education would be conducted in English. Her family, like many others who were involved with the economic boom years of the 1980s and 1990s in Taiwan, prospered, and she was sent to Pebble Beach in California, USA in 1990 (?) as a boarder to finish her schooling. The connection with her Taiwanese culture continued for, despite her formal education being very much a US based one, her experience of growing up was shaped, also, by her continued contact with home.

‘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 to 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.’ (1)

Her earliest works are from the ‘Mantra’ series that date from 2005 and in their first incarnation incorporated the artist writing the Heart Sutra on to the petals of an iris, a slab of tofu and on the surface of mushrooms.  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.  The Heart Sutra is one of the best known and popular Buddhist mantras.  Briefly, the text describes the experience of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (also known as the Bodhisattva of compassion) of reaching towards enlightenment, gained through meditation, and the insight this experience awakens.  The insight referred to, is the release made possible when sentient beings come to the profound understanding that all is ‘emptiness’ or ‘void’. (2) Thus the text captures the wisdom of Buddhism in which the inescapable flow of time, the cycles of growth, decay, rebirth and release, lead to the realisation of the impermanence of all of existence.

In Chinese the sutra it is made up of 262 characters and this is the form that Tsai chooses. Using brush and ink or felt tipped pen, Tsai writes the Heart Sutra on a multitude of surfaces in her ‘Mantra’ series, encompassing a range of organic matter such as orange, iris, olive trees, lotus leaves, mushrooms, the skins of frogs and most recently, using mirrors, so that the sky, clouds, the sea, the sand and the earth are captured as reflections on which the sutra reverberates.

Charwei Tsai has claimed that it was a Tibetan friend who she met during her college years in the early 2000s ignited her interest in Buddhism. Although they did not discus religion or politics particularly, she recalls this presence as being sufficient to have been the catalyst. When she subsequently moved to New York in 2002 she volunteered at Tibet House working on archiving a repatriation collection and it was then that she began to learn more carefully about Buddhism. (3) She had just graduated from Rhode Island School of Design where she had studied courses in fine arts, industrial design, landscape architecture and architectural history before moving to New York in search of work.  The courses that she had completed were deliberately cross disciplinary and importantly included travel to Arizona where she visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture school campus in Taliesin West and James Turrell’s Roden Crater project. (4) Together these experiences brought into focus concepts about art, nature, ideas of sustainability and spirituality to form the seeding 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. (5)

She learned the Heart Sutra by memory as a child in Taipei even though her family are not especially devout. (6) It is only as an adult that she has explored the possibilities inherent in using the sutra and to germinate an art practice. 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 also a doorway or aperture through which art making and its the performative elements such as writing are framed, so the temporal aspects of doing, waiting and seeing are manifest; and lastly there is the calligraphic element itself that writing the sutra evokes.

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..(7)

In learning to write Chinese characters, its practice becomes the practice of calligraphy by extension.  Indeed, historically calligraphy in China, where the East Asian calligraphic tradition originated, was defined then as the practice of writing clearly. The aesthetic value is only perceived in its rendering and over time this act has been refined through the work of the scholar artists into an art form.

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 Ufan

In June 2009 Tsai made a site specific work at the Church of Saint-Séverin, Paris developed as a dedication to the catholic Saint Ursula. (8) Titled ‘Rose Project’ in this work Tsai used as her text ‘The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world’ by US literary theorist and cultural critic Elaine Scarry.  Using fragments of sentences from this seminal monograph on pain, Tsai inscribed, in English, each petal and scattered them around the vaults and antechambers in the church that housed bone relics.  The swathes of coloured petals surrounded and settled on to 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. (9)

Considering the symbolism of plants is fascinating and has long culturally specific histories.  The literature on the rose is vast.  Thought to have originated in Persia and brought to the West by Alexander the Great the abundant variety of this plant ensures that there are several indigenous species across many part of the world.  There is a long history of the rose being 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’, J. E. Coirlot 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’. (10)

For the Singapore Biennale in September 2006 Tsai created ‘Lotus Manta I’ and ‘Lotus Mantra II’ as site specific works at a local Buddhist temple, the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple.  Again using the Heart Sutra the work was her first intervention at a place of worship. In ‘Lotus Mantra I’ she placed a number of lotus buds with the Heart Sutra written on them and placed as an offering, one of many placed by the congregation who come to pray and meditate. Over time the buds steadily decayed and became desiccated husks.  In ‘Lotus Mantra II’ she wrote the sutra on to the leaves of a living lotus plant that was located at the entrance to the temple in a pot where it grew, the leaves expanding and multiplying over time.  In Buddhism the lotus is imbued with a myriad of meaning that includes the state of Buddhood, purity, enlightenment, wisdom and in Tantric Buddhism as the symbol of the feminine principle. The context of the temple ensured that its congregation viewed the plant with the sutra, and would recognise the mantra, with this added emblematic knowledge.

In both these installations, the exchange between viewers and art works 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 to the senses and through them to the profound and simple logic of the transitory.

Tsai has used a number of other texts in her projects that are not always directly about the spiritual.  In the exhibition titled ‘7 Ideas in 7 Days’ 2008,  made for the Sora Gallery site in Tokyo, on a site in which the Gallery had yet to be realised, 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 onto the shells of some hermit crabs and then watched the crabs swap and change shells.  And on day 5, she created a miniature forest and on the leaves of this tiny jungle she wrote the love songs and poetry composed by the 6th Dalai Lama (1683-1706).

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 such as the following instruction.


  1. against the wind
  2. against the wall
  3. against the sky

Yoko Ono 1961 autumn

Often composed as haiku-like verse that combines imagery, actions and sounds Yoko Ono’s scores are also poetry.  The performative 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 for the notion of continuity and sustainability depends as much on the on going nature of existence as it is 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.

‘Melting ice’, ‘Circle’, ‘Gutter I’ and ‘Gutter II’, the four works made during 2009, all use ice and are celebrations of the dynamic form of change.  ‘Melting ice’ uses mirror, and ice to picture infinity, in as much as this is possible, through reflections of sky and air.  As Rumi’s verse quoted earlier 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 that transforming experience – perfectly empty yet completely full, infinite.  When Tsai created ‘Circle’, she recorded herself drawing a circle with brush and ink on to the large block of ice and documents the perfect black circle gradually melt as the ice changes from its solid state to liquid, she was unaware of this tradition. Yet on learning about it was completely at east with the knowledge that, indeed, it was already there. 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. Charwei Tsai interviewed by Tina Lai on 28 June 2009 and posted on Tina Lais’ blog called id-talk, http://www.tinalai-id.com. Viewed on 7 August 2009.

2. In this way 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 is the way of suffering.  To alleviate suffering one must understand and accept the impermanent character of matter, whereby nothing possesses any essential enduring identity. ‘Emptiness’ as understood in Buddhist philosophy is a state that is wanted or sought out.  It does not have the negative connotations where emptiness as a condition is often described in western society, to which notions of alienation, loneliness and despair may be ascribed.

3.  ‘The Collection at Tibet House that I was archiving was composed mostly of religious object 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.’ Charwei Tsai in an email to the author on 20 August 2009.

4. 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 in to light. The Roden Crater project is being constructed in a dormant volcano in the Painted Desert of northern Arizona where the artist is transforming the crater into a purpose built complex of viewing rooms that will frame the perceptual beauty of light. These chambers will provide people with the opportunity to see the magnificent ever-changing lightscape created in the sky by the sun, moon, stars and other celestial events.

5. Charwei Tsai interviewed by Lesley Ma on 5 April 2009 published in ‘Charwei Tsai: Transience’. Osage Gallery, Hong Kong 2009, p6.

6. ‘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.’ Charwei Tsai interviewed by Lesley Ma on 5 April 2009 published in ‘Charwei Tsai: Transience’. Osage Gallery, Hong Kong 2009, p7.

7.Charwei Tsai interviewed by Lesley Ma on 5 April 2009 published in ‘Charwei Tsai: Transience’. Osage Gallery, Hong Kong 2009, p10.

8. According to a legend that appeared in the tenth century, Ursula was the daughter of Christian king in Britain and was granted a three year postponement of a marriage she did not wish, 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, they were all massacred by pagan Germans at Cologne in about 451 when Ursula refused to marry their chieftain. The legend is most likely to be a fiction, but what is true is that a senator did rebuilt a basilica in Cologne, probably at the beginning of the fourth century, to honor a group of virgins who had been martyred at Cologne. They were evidently venerated enough to have had a church built in their honor, but who they were and how many of them there were, are unknown. From these meager facts, the legend of Ursula grew and developed.

Cited http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint and viewed on 17 August 2009

9. Tsai’s decision on this particular text was in part due to the way Scarry discusses pain, and torture in particular. The first chapter in her books analyses the entomology of pain including the perceptual aspects of describing pain and the extremely intangible fact of understanding ‘others’ pain. Scarry also looks to literature and art in her analysis and has been herself a professor of English literature.  The Church of Saint-Séverin, Paris also contains bone relics and the ‘Rose Project’ was initiated following Tsai’s participation in the exhibition ‘Traces of the Scared’ at the Pompidou Center, 2008.  Bone relics are revered across many cultures and are potent symbols of the transience of life while being venerated as powerful reminders of holiness, purity of spirit and ancestral respect.

10.  Juan Edwardo Cirlot ‘A Dictionary of Symbols’ in the chapter ‘Symbol and Allegory – Symbol and Artistic Expression’, Routlage, 1983, p xliii.

Suhanya Raffel is the Deputy Director at the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. 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.