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Impermanence: The Art of Charwei Tsai

Impermanence: The Art of Charwei Tsai

I have to admit that I don’t often encounter modern Buddhist art or poetry that I like. It’s hard to convey the insights and experiences of dhamma practice in conventional terms without relying on cliche. This is something that often happens with “spiritual” art. When I do find Buddhist art I like, it’s grounded in practical social issues, or everyday material experiences, without pretense.

This is why I like the work of Taiwanese multimedia artist Charwei Tsai. The recurring motif she comes back to often is the Heart Sutra, a key text in Mahayana Buddhism, which she hand paints in ink on a variety of impermanent materials—shells, wood, mirrors, mushrooms, lemons, trees, leaves, even light. She then documents the changes and decaying of these painted objects over time, which of course reflects a key teaching of the sutra—in form, emptiness, in emptiness, form. One of my favorite iterations of this is “Tofu Mantra II”—seated at a large slab of fresh tofu, she writes the sutra on it. After completing the sutra, she slices the surface off and begins again on a fresh layer, repeating this until the last possible layer is covered—a process of several hours. Using mundane materials including the passing of time itself, she is able to explore and convey an important teaching on emptiness (anatta).

Another of Tsai’s works I love is “Day 4 – Hermit Crabs.” After painting the One China policy and Taiwanese independence statements on hermit crab shells, she places the crabs in a small enclosed arena with bricks. Over time, the crabs exit their shells and move into the others. The One China policy is a political stance of mainland China’s government that claims Taiwan as a province, while Taiwanese independence is a stance that seeks to solidify Taiwan as a separate sovereign nation. It is a political difference with deep historical roots that has brought the two sides (and the US by proxy) to the brink of war numerous times. Tsai’s “Hermit Crabs” is intriguing in that it raises more questions for me than answers—is the piece equating these two political stances in some way, and if so, is the simple back and forth of crabs between homes meant to place such politics in a larger context, one that sees these quarrels as without true essence? At the same time, Tsai’s identity as a Taiwanese citizen comes through strongly in her other art work, so I am still left wondering about the hermit crabs.

For me, “Hermit Crabs” helps me question nationalism and patriotism, rendering them parochial and limited—after all, in today’s world, products and capital so easily cross from one country to another under global, corporate capitalism, but human beings are severely restricted by national borders. Tsai’s work provokes a more internationalist point of view for me.

I enjoy Charwei Tsai’s work because it clearly draws on Buddhist teachings in a very material, grounded way. It doesn’t spend any time trying to be “Buddhist art” and instead gets right to business, revealing the workings and insights of impermanence in our lived experience as social, political, and economic beings. It doesn’t answer questions or try to be grandiose. It simply evokes and provokes in a socially relevant way, which for me is what makes for great art.

Photo credit: Charwei Tsai

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