Of all the works, my work is the least visually engaging work there, but I would like to think that it has more depth than some of the other works.
I don't think anyone would bother to squat and view the work (considering that it is rather inconvenient and my work is so wordy), but it's okay since the curator has very kindly included my work in the exhibition catalogue.
My proposed work for the “Is that a temple?” exhibition:
In this writing, the question of “Is that a temple?” is directed at three things: a) the building b) the body and c) the images.
I cannot remember when I first discovered the temple at Marne Road. It was concealed by a tiny forest and I thought it was in ruins. The first time I wanted to go near it to take pictures, I saw two black dogs and I decided to go back another day instead.
It was two to three years later when I returned to the area. I deliberately took a different and longer route to avoid the black dogs. I made a detour round a canal and avoided the grass area.
To my surprise, I stumbled upon a red-light district near the temple. There were a few old uncles and foreign workers; not a single lady was in sight. The quarters had narrow passages lit by pink fluorescent tubes. I was afraid, I did not know why. Perhaps the black dogs would suddenly appear. Or perhaps it was obvious that I was at a place where I was not supposed to be. I quickly slipped my camera into my bag. Then I left the quarters and hurried towards the temple. There, I managed to take one or two pictures before I saw one of the black dogs a few metres away. I quickly left the place.
I never found out what gods they worshipped at the temple. I only guessed that it was a Chinese temple, for there was a brick joss burner. I never found out why there is a red light district near the temple. Perhaps someone more adventurous and daring can find out the answers to these questions.
Is that a temple? I know for sure that the physical building is a temple, and it is neither abandoned nor in ruins. However, it is interesting that the temple is next to a red-light district where people sell their bodies.
The question of ‘Is that a temple?’ is now directed at the human body. According to the Bible (1 Corinthians 6:19 – 20), the body is the holy temple of God, and one should honour God with one’s body and not defile it.
Even though we do not sell our bodies and not all of us are believers, the idea that one should honour one’s body like a holy temple is worthy of consideration. What about junk food, smoking, alcohol, sleep deprivation, working overtime, slimming pills, plastic surgery etc.? It might be easy to point out that the prostitutes are defiling their bodies, but how are we treating our own bodies? What about your body – is that a temple? How do you treat it?
I am digressing. Let me return to the beginning of the story. I wanted to take pictures of the temple. Here are two of the photographs I had taken:
In the first picture, the grass area and the forest seem to be the main subject; the temple is almost invisible. In the second picture, the temple is concealed by the vegetation, and the details of its architecture are not clearly visible.
Even though I had taken two photographs of the temple, it is not clear that the main subject of these photographs is a temple. Because the temple is concealed rather than revealed, it prompts the viewer to ask “Is that a temple?” when confronted with these images. One might be thinking that I was taking pictures of a forest if not for this written text or without the context of this exhibition.
These images were created as a result of how I viewed the temple, and the viewer’s interpretation of these images is influenced by this narrative-discourse. It might be of interest to the viewer that these images show what I saw when I walked past the area for the first time… …
It began with a walk which led to the discovery of a hidden temple. Photographs were taken, and the question of ‘Is it a temple?’ was raised and directed at the building, the body, and the images.
I do not want to end this discourse here, for there are still other issues to consider. We have not asked ourselves exactly what a temple is. Surely it is more than a building with unique architectural features? We need to consider the practices within a temple, as well as how the temple is managed. What if the priests and members of religious orders take advantage of their followers? What if there is a mismanagement of funds? What if a temple is managed like a multi-national corporation? Is that a temple?
I am afraid Kenneth had told his students to throw away my Sarawak painting because the glass pane protecting the work was broken. This means that one of the most important paintings of my life is irrevocably lost.
I have also misplaced the red folder containing my painting "Wuthering Heights" done in 1994. If I cannot find it, the story of my art is lost forever.
This is a very badly taken photo of the work:
2. The river drawings
Besides the two works above, I have also lost one section of my river drawing. There are four drawings altogether, but the last piece has been misplaced. This set of drawings was done during a geography fieldwork session back in my college days. The drawing is a study of a river channel. What is a drawing? Honestly, I think this drawing is better than most of my other drawings even though it seems more related to geography than to art. Currently the remaining three drawings are framed as separate drawings. One of the things I want to do is to remove the old frames, put the three drawings together, and frame them together as one work.
3. 2008 to 2010
There are many stages in my art, but I shall just focus on the period between 2008 and 2010. What do I have to show? One self-published art book in 2008 (though one might argue that the drawings were done from 2002 to 2007). Three exhibitions in 2010, with several drawings in between. The drawings for Sorrowful World are also ready -- I just need to save enough money to print the book.
4. (?) Two strands of work/On experimentation
Before Maxine left for Sweden, I told her that from now on my work can be divided into two strands. One strand consists of my black-and-white drawings, the other consists of experimental works. The experimental works should always be new and inspiring, or unpredictable. For the experimental works, I draw my inspiration from diverse sources and work to arrive at my own expression and meaning.
Experimentation is important. Experimentation allows one to arrive at completely new and different things, which can be surprising and delightful. I do not want to do only one or two kinds of art. I believe I can do different kinds of art without losing my style, and more importantly, my integrity.
In some works, the idea is more important than the process or the product. In others, it is the execution process that is more important.
5. Where do I go from here?
Yesterday, I managed to complete my drawing of the hidden shrine at Marne Road. I also did some experimental pieces which I am not very pleased with at the moment. For now, what I really want to do is to touch up and complete my painting of the graffiti wall at Teban Railway.
1. I drew a black rectangle on a photocopied background. 2. I made a few photocopies of the 'drawing' (of the black rectangle). 3. The photocopied images are crumpled/crushed/folded to create the 'drawings' of the circle, triangle, and square. 4. The crumpled/crushed/folded aesthetic is intended to be part of the art.
Can this be called a drawing? Can this be called Conceptual Art? Can this be called conceptual drawing?
I am putting up my work at Tickleart (the window display area between Citilink and Esplanade) tomorrow at about 2.15 p.m. The show will run till 1st October 2010. I am showing some photocopied images this time, not drawings.
I ask myself: How do these drawings come about? Why did I create these drawings?
I did not create these drawings as a response to Sengai’s Circle-Triangle-Square painting. (Note: Sengai’s painting is read from right to left.) In fact, these drawings were done separately over a period of about twenty months and they were not done in the Circle-Triangle-Square sequence.
Triangle (Feb 2007)
I was reading Dogen’s Shobogenzo and these drawings were influenced by some of the things I had read:
Once firewood is reduced to ashes, it cannot return to firewood.
Long ago, a monk approached Daisho Koshuki and asked, “What is the original Buddha Mind?” He replied, “Wall, fence, tiles, stones.”
Of my three drawings, I did the drawing of the firewood first. I saw the pile of firewood in a Hindu temple, and it took me four hours to complete the drawing.
Square (Nov 2007)
While most of my drawings were done plein-air or worked from photographs, the wall is a drawing done entirely from memory and imagination. According to the Shobogenzo, the wall symbolises “everyday mind” – life and death, coming and going enter freely. I had hidden the word mu in my drawing. Mu translates into emptiness or nothingness in the Buddhist context.
Before I continue the discussion of my drawings, I need to talk about Ozu. Yasujiro Ozu (1903 – 1963) is a Japanese film-maker famous for works such as Tokyo Story, Late Spring, and Equinox Flowers. I was inspired by Ozu’s films, especially Late Spring. The story is about a father who wants his daughter to get married. In a moving scene, the father and his friend discuss the vicissitudes of life and shortly after, the camera films the Zen garden and the white quadrilateral space of the garden fills the screen. To me, the whiteness and emptiness fully capture the idea of mu. In that three seconds or less, I felt I had completely understood what Ozu was trying to express. Back to the story, the daughter eventually marries, and the father would live his final days in solitude.
In his essay Two or three things I know about Yasujiro Ozu, Jim Jarmusch, director of Stranger than Paradise, mentioned that Ozu’s grave has no name and no date of birth or death on it. Instead there is only the single Chinese character mu.
Circle (Nov 2008)
The circle (or enso) is a recurring motif in Zen painting (See Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment by Audrey Yoshiko Seo).
When I was in university, I was interested in Zen Buddhism and I discovered the works of Zen painter Sengai. Of these, the Circle-Triangle-Square is one of the hardest to grasp. Zen scholar Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki interpreted it to mean the universe. In those days, I never really thought about describing the universe in a shape (be it a circle, square, or triangle) until I saw how Ozu filmed the Zen Garden in Late Spring.
How does one describe the universe or other big words like ‘infinity’, ‘life’ etc. in a line, a shape, or a colour? It is entirely up to the artist. Even mathematicians have a mathematical symbol (∞) to express the concept of infinity, and quantum physicists have tried to quantify the universe in various equations.
Zen, however, is not concerned with the physical universe in a scientific way. All heaven and earth, all life and death, is present in each moment, symbolised by something as seemingly insignificant as a sneeze. Dogen wrote in Shobogenzo (see the Shinjingakudo chapter):
For me, a sudden and unexpected sneeze is like an echo that symbolises the instantaneous co-existence of life and death, heaven and earth in each moment. The entire content and meaning of heaven and earth and its relationship to the mind reduces itself to one eternal moment.
The circle in Zen therefore does not describe the physical world or universe. Instead, I think it symbolises everyday existence, the cyclical seasons, life cycles, hydrological cycle etc., and the Buddhist belief in reincarnation and cyclical existence. Hence the circle symbolises all of life and the universe itself.
In 2008, I saw the joss paper furnace after I wandered aimlessly into a Taoist temple. What attracted me most was the circle. When I was looking at the ashes in the brick furnace, what I saw was the reality of death in the cycle of life. That was the reason why I had chosen to draw the furnace instead of all the other objects in the temple. I took a few photographs of the furnace and worked from them. The drawing took me about six hours.
When you put these ideas together, it becomes clear how my drawings were influenced by Dogen, Ozu, and Sengai. I return to the beginning: I did not produce these drawings with the intention of having a discourse with Sengai, Dogen or Ozu. However, I think it is important for my audience to understand that these people have influenced the way I view the world.
To be honest, even after completing the three drawings, I saw them as separate drawings until I was compiling my drawings for a second book which I am working on. The tentative title of the book is Sorrowful World, the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists seek release. I was thinking of having two drawings for the cover, and it was then that I thought my wall and furnace drawings might relate to each other because both drawings are of bricks and they share the themes of impermanence and nothingness. At that time, I had already noticed that one is a ‘square’ and the other is a ‘circle’, but it was only months later that I thought my drawing of firewood could be a ‘triangle’ to complete the discourse between the three drawings. These drawings could also begin a discourse with Sengai’s work and the other Zen influences.
The art, therefore, cannot be reduced to my drawings or this writing alone, or the Zen influences. I have put all this information together as one work in this exhibition, and the art is the discourse between this work and the audience. Only when this is understood, then the Circle-Triangle-Square discourse is complete.