Liberation Through Writing
by Kit Hammonds
When we turn to talk about the spirit in contemporary life, we are more often than not reflected back to the self-determining individual. Deeper metaphysical connotations have been side-lined to be about personal ‘choice’ in religion or other forms of beliefs. An authentic spirituality seems romantically out of time.
In her work Charwei Tsai reinvestigates spirituality to assert its contemporary relevance. Far from outdated, her works are timely contemplations onbelonging, where the inner self, the outer worlds of nature and culture, and whatever might lie beyond our senses are connected. Her use of mantras from Buddhism and other religions, while being genuine within her personal life, are not merely articulations of a religious sensibility. They are practices that are reapplied in order to access some deeper connectedness that transcends the anthropocentric world today. In this greatly expanded sense of presentness, history and future are more readily connected to today’s experience than contemporary discourses imply.
This is especially manifest in her latest photographic series Universe of Possilbilities. At first we find ourselves overseeing a constellation of what appears to be planets in high resolution. Craggy aspects of mountains, canyons, and plains are picked out on their luminescent surfaces that vary from lustrous flesh to cool mineral tones. Unusually for an series, each has a different size suggesting the comparative scales of astral bodies. On closer inspection each is inscribed with a handwritten note: ‘Multiple Truths’; ‘Self Liberation’; ‘Profound Simplicity’ among them. Each might be read as inspiring mottos, or place names in keeping with the poetics of astrogeography such as the Moon’s ‘Sea of Tranquility’ or Mar’s ‘Nepenthes Plain’. Looking closer still we see beyond these worlds and words, and realize they are, in fact, more earthy objects, the surface of shells captured in detail.
The transformation of nature’s intricacies into something of wonder is not in itself of this time, but more consistent with 19th-century European Romanticism. But we should not forget that such sensibility was bound up with a dehumanized industrial world. The Romantic’s desire to escape into an oceanic emptiness was its mirror. While no longer seen as relevant in post-industrial world, beneath the layer of beauty and serenity Tsai’s work connects to the current conditions that remain in developing countries today. For Tsai’s shells are not collected from any raw coastline for special lustres or textures, but from among the waste dumped on the river by the fishing boats in Tsai’s adopted home Vietnam. And so, in the Universe of Possibilities the transcendent spirit is bound up with more earthly cycles of economy and ecology.
So to see Tsai’s practice as a purely spiritual one would be to ignore its connectedness to the realities of the contemporary world. Tsai’s contemplation on ‘emptiness’ is far from a metaphysical sanctum. Cycles of growth and death, waste and renewal are present in her work through the overlay of writing on objects. Whether a religious mantra on a rotting tofu; a map of Greater China made from meat inscribed with the One China Policy, or her passport number on the legs of an octopus, texts from different fields of existence converge into a single lexicon. The Universe of Possibilities echoes this intermeshing of belief and materiality. Its allusions to the movement of planets evoke Marx’s economic seasons or Weber’s ‘spirit of capitalism’. The choice of shells is equally precise. While unvalued today, they have long been objects of exchange, economic and devotional currencies now disposed of en masse as excess. Nothing is truly pure, even the apparent emptiness of a dead object.
Likewise, writing is the objectification of language, and its characters, like Tsai’s shells, are both individual and part of a multitude that find their meanings in relativity, placement, and repetition. Tsai uses writing as a medium through which she dissolves boundaries between things, spirits, and ideas in its form and its content. We might describe Tsai’s shells as entrancements that bring objects into different realms, to focus attention. Even when based in religion, in fact it is resolutely not religious, but aesthetics reflects on interactions across these planes of existence. That is to say it portrays, or perhaps comes to terms with, a conception of the self that transcends individuality, while not simply losing oneself entirely into the void.
This is further conveyed in a video based on a reading of the Buddhist text known as the ‘Liberation through Hearing’ from the Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead. For Buddhists, and more recently supported by medical science, consciousness is maintained after the corporeal systems have ceased to function. While the physical sensations at first mount and then subside, the consciousness continues to hear until it breaks away from the body. This is the ‘Bardo’ –the intermediary state of existence between one life and another. The text is recited by Buddhist monks to guide this process and allow the consciousness to transcend in the most harmonious way, and this experience is imagined in Tsai’s film in affective, sensual and pictorial images as an allegory for our place in the world.
Originally part of an installation for the Sydney Biennial, the film was situated in a ‘waiting room’ of the Mortuary Station, but not one for its living passengers. The room was the resting place for the coffins before being transported to Rockwood Cemetery. The video was accompanied by large incense spirals on which the artist had transcribed a mantra that slowly burned away over the course of the exhibition. While related to the passing of the spirit after death, Tsai’s meditative work is far from deathly. Its ritualistic methods are not ones of mourning but of reconciliation and reinvigoration of life as a larger entity than mere everyday experience. Be they films or performances, degenerative sculptures, writing or images, her work are objects through which to access different registers, or possibly cycles of existence. Seen as one within another these cycles offer liberation from the individualistic self, to reflect a more nuanced understanding of the spirit as affective and affected in the multitudinous aspects of today’s world.
 Nepenthes is a mythical drug in Homer’s Odyssey that banishes grief or dispels a troubled mind, and is both therapeutic and addictive.