Meditation has become increasingly popular. It’s not specifically about Koan meditation in Zen Buddhism, but the ‘mindfulness meditation’ itself is a hot topic. There is an increasing interest in such practices: the major daily newspapers publish series of editorials and ‘I am spiritual but not religious’ is a popular mantra that meditators chant. We know that mental disorders such as depression and panic disorder have become as common as a cold in today’s world. It is somehow obvious that many people leave religion behind to look deeply within and heal themselves through mindfulness of slowing down and breathing. After coming across with meditation by chance, the experience prompted me to conduct research on various techniques and theories of meditation. The languages and records from Buddhist meditation of all seemed to best explain my personal experience and I have been studying and pursuing such practice. Then one day, I found out that my perspective on artists and artworks has changed.
Samatha and Vipassana are two paramount techniques of meditation, which reflects early development in Hinduism as well as combination of three teachings - Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism - as part of the path toward fundamental awareness. Setting aside the methodology, the practitioners are able to bring the mind to a balance and advance to the path of wisdom and truth. Though there is much controversy, Christian meditation and prayer hold fundamental qualities in common. Visual arts, too, is based on ‘tranquility (samatha)’, which concentrates the mind, and ‘insight (vipassana)’, which enables one to see. They are realized via the artist’s method of expression(medium and technique) and creation(labor and making). The repetitive process of creation often leads the artist to the state of samatha, free from distraction. The viewer then sees the work and reflects on the artist’s thought. Whether the viewer is aware or not, the wholesome meditative practices of samatha and vipassana are unfolding within visual arts.
Starting from understanding and healing oneself by the process of discerning the self, this path of mindfulness leads to the realization of the interconnectedness of the universe as described by Indra’s net. Celebrating the Day of Buddha’s Coming in May, we would like to weave the practices of meditation together with artists - Yongho Kim, Goun Seo, Fi Jae Lee, and Sun Choi - into a story.
“Meditation on Impurity (不淨觀): Disciplinants, with your body full of many impure substances from head to toe, you distinguish them by each skin pocket and think on this wise. You shall see that ‘the body is filled with hair, nail, tooth, skin, flesh, sinew, bone, marrow, kidney, heart, kidney, pleura, spleen, lung, intestine, substances in intestine, stomach, substances in stomach, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tear, oil, saliva, nasal discharge, joint fluid, urine, etc.’
Sun Choi creates abstract imagery using breath, sewage, wastewater, and such. The abstract patterns with intense colors in his work are based on chance effects like Pollock or de Kooning, and in fact, they are directly taken from the marks of waste or discharge and brought onto the canvas. The work ‘Butterflies’ is created with coincidental patterns through the process of blowing ink by breath. Breathing, one of the four great material elements, is the beginning of life and the first key to meditation. The artist fills people’s breaths onto a canvas. Each breath contains a life. The imagery in the work ‘Wastewater Painting’ is a visualization of patterns of oil floating on wastewater and the wastewater itself. ‘Everything depends on the mind(一切唯心造)’. Like Master Wonhyo’s water from a skull depends on the mind of viewer, Sun Choi’s abstract images before learning about the actual substances of materials seem just beautiful.
Fi Jae Lee’s work swings across various mediums - sculpture, performance, and painting. What is more interesting is that the artist is said to be a Christian and at the same time using the technique of Buddhist painting. She sometimes assists her mentor who paints altar portrait of Buddha and taught her the technique. Overall, the main subject across her works is to see the self. Borrowing from other’s eyes, mirroring, and practicing samatha and vipassana, Fi Jae Lee discerns, breaks down, and restructures her five skandhas(五蘊) and her body, which result in surrealist art. The work ‘Egg of Ego’ is illustrated in remembrance of the seeds of life upon altar, which fail to bloom due to social oppression against female artists. However, you need not resent nor mourn for the transience of things that are conditioned to change and die out.
As Francis Goya and Romantic painters of the 19th century tried to find the answer to a depraved reality from within the imagery of death and horror, Goun Seo’s paintings illustrate meat hanging, skulls, and dead bodies. She overturns the imagery of death often conflated with the Gothic and the Occult into beauty and haunts the ideas behind it. The work ‘Four Paintings’ is inspired by the ancient Japanese Buddhist kusõzu, which depicts the nine stages of decay of a corpse. The work can be seen as contemplation on the human skull to realize the impermanence of life and body, which is a practice of meditation, Baekgolgwan(白骨觀). “Disciplinants, see the abandoned body in a cemetery with its blood and flesh entangled with tendons and turning all skin and bone. Watch this body carefully and your body shall turn the same way and never break free.” Her work embodies the practice of dispelling obsession from body and the self and stepping toward the realization of transience, life’s burden, and self-annihilation.
The well-known photographer Yongho Kim has presented a series of experimental exhibitions crossing boundaries between commercial and fine art photography with his keen sense, which pierces through contemporary generations. Through his lens, various subjects including millennial celebrities, brands, and cultural heritages interact with the public in a whole new angle. The series ‘Pian(彼岸)’ is a paraphrase of ‘param’ in Sanskrit meaning ‘the hill beyond the river, the land of hope, the enlightened world’. In the work, ‘Pian’ refers to the highest beyond big lotus leaves seen from the perspective of a pond skater. In the ‘Pian’ world beyond the forest of lotus, there exists the mundane world with faces full of anxiety and anguish.
Written by Hongchul Byun
/ Director of Graywall & Adjunct Professor of the Department
of Curatorial Studies at Dongduk Women’s University