Heart Sutra is a scripture describing the ‘Buddhist concept of emptiness and a meditative state in which all phenomena are non-dual. All forms, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness, the ways by which we relate to the world, are interdependent and each cannot exist on its own. Therefore, the state of emptiness is an understanding of the interdependence between oneself and the universe, and the transient nature of this relationship.’*
This is a common theme that runs through Charwei Tsai’s work and also is directly referenced in her first solo show Bulaubula at the Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art (CCFCA). The exhibition explores this symbiotic relationship between humanity and nature through the existence and sustainable living of indigenous Taiwanese communities, and celebrates their preservation of traditional and spiritual knowledge. The artist also explores the peoples’ natural affiliation with the sea that is depicted in two of the exhibition’s artworks; installation piece ‘Driftwood’ (2011) and a series of 3 films ‘Lanyu – Three Stories’ (2012).
‘Driftwood’ is the first piece you encounter within the exhibition and is the most visually impactive. The installation consists of large driftwood pieces inscribed with text from the Heart Sutra. The piece reminds us of both the destructive nature of the sea but also the regeneration that comes with it; reflected in the Taiwanese use of this natural resource within their buildings. The piece perfectly illustrates the concept of the Heart Sutra in its basic form, in which the natural flow of the universe constantly changes and with it our constant adaptation in reaction; the text inscription reflects this, as it is destined to fade and wear over time in a natural decay, further solidifying ideas of impermanence and transformation. This theme is continued with the adjacent piece ‘We Came From Nothingness’ (2014). These large watercolour pieces also contain the Heart Sutra text that disperses outwards in a circular motion, like the tidal waves and motion of a typhoon, depicting the universe’s natural state of flux.
The nature of the sea and its importance to the indigenous people of Taiwan is captured in ‘Lanyu – Three Stories’. It comprises of three videos played consecutively; Lanyu Seascapes, Shi Na Paradna and Hair Dance, which share the Lanyu-native Tao tribe’s folklore and deep spiritual ties to nature that are now threatened by modernity. Hair Dance shows a sensual ritualistic dance performed by the tribal women who call for the safe passage of their fishermen; Shi Na Paradna is of a similar ilk, telling the narrative of an old man who calls to the sea for the deliverance of his drowned son’s soul. Lanyu Seascapes contrasts with the latter two films that focus on the mystic and ritual, depicting instead the consequences of the new power plant that leaks poisonous waste into the sea. The sequence of films depict the changing world for the indigenous community caught between ancestral history and the infiltration of industrialism, in which they must strive to create a balance between the two contrasting worlds.
This can be seen in the final film piece within the exhibition – which carries the exhibition’s namesake ‘Bulaubulau’ (2018) – following an indigenous community of Bulaubulau Village, Yilan. It not only depicts the threat from natural disasters such as typhoons but from the rise of industrialisation as the young migrate to urban areas for employment and education. The village aims to combat this rising threat by reclaiming the old traditional way of life and integrating it with modern living, to create a self-sustaining community and in turn preserving Taiwanese traditions and culture.
The return to the traditional way of life is deeply rooted within the natural cycles of the earth and this connection is strongly communicated through the exhibition and through the audience’s interaction with the pieces on display. In the meditative space that Charwei Tsai has created, the exhibition makes us ponder the current socio-environmental climate, of the need to create a more sustainable way of living, and to hopefully take something from the Heart Sutra mantra of interdependence between oneself and the universe in the hope we may work with nature rather than against it.
*(Lesley Ma interview with Charwei Tsai 2009/04/05 New York/Paris).
Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.
Charwei Tsai: Bulaubulau, Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester.
12 October 2018 – 20 January 2019.