I was initially drawn to the Matter and Spirit Seminar because I’ve long been interested in how human beings assign meaning to material objects. My earlier work focused on food and meaning, depicting themes such as food and morality, food and identity, and the religious significance of food and fasting. In my recent paintings, I’ve been exploring the human drive to express our spiritual needs materially through the use of ritual objects in shrines, altars and other contemplative settings.
Participating in this cross-cultural seminar was an opportunity to expand my thinking about how matter and spirit come together in our collective search for meaning. There are many layers to how we manage our material and spiritual needs. I’m fascinated by how we use rituals to grapple with being human and how we create sacred spaces, both public and private, to help us connect to our inner world and to the numinous dimension of life.
While material comfort often seems to be of highest value in contemporary society, it was especially moving to see the dedication of the Chinese artists and how committed they are to nurturing a spiritual life, often in the face of serious political opposition. A lasting impression was the sense of urgency that the Chinese artists communicated with their words and their visual work. It seemed for them, that their faith, politics and art came together singularly and in a way that was different from many of the western artists. In the west, I think we see these three arenas as separate or overlapping only at times, and by choice.
Before the start of the seminar, participants were emailed an extensive list of books, articles and films that would inform our experience. I can’t imagine the trip without having first read the personal accounts and background information about China and its history. Without this introduction, I don’t believe that the experience would have had the depth and weight that it did, at least for me. I am an avid reader and often get inspired by ideas and descriptions in books. I don’t seek to illustrate but rather to interpret the text visually through my own lens. Two passages from our assigned readings informed the imagery for my paintings.
In Ian Johnson’s book, The Souls of China, The Return of Religion After Mao, he describes the gradual re-emergence of yangsheng, the ancient Chinese art of nourishing life. As evidence, he offers sightings of books on traditional teachings, men’s bracelets worn to show piety, religious icons on taxi dashboards, and roadside offerings of burned paper. These tangible objects, along with increased attendance at temples on holy days and other spiritual customs and rituals began to resurface organically, as grass root efforts rather than as directives from any religious authorities. Even after all religious life had been eradicated for decades, this seemingly innate drive toward a holistic view of life, a desire to integrate the material and the spiritual, began to arise spontaneously and instinctively.
My painting, Meditation: Pilgrimage, was inspired by Johnson’s explanation of Chaoshan Jinxiang, which means “to pay one’s respect to the mountain” and “to present incense”. He writes about the reverence that Chinese have for mountains, which are considered the home of the gods or the intersections of heaven and earth. Johnson also recounts a particular pilgrimage to Mount Miaofeng and the Miao Feng Shan Goddess Temple. One particular focal point of the pilgrimage was the cooking and serving of (karmic) beans to those taking the centuries-old trek. Johnson explains how this tradition stems from the practice of monks who invoke the Buddha’s name in prayer. To keep track, they would move a yellow bean from one bowl to another each time they uttered the holy word.
For my piece, Meditation: Renewal, I took inspiration from Jung Chang’s book, Wild Swans. In one passage, she describes the Mid Autumn Festival, a time at which the moon looks especially large and round. Following custom, round cakes, buns and melons would be set out on a moonlit table. Their round shape symbolizes family union. Chang and Johnson’s evocative descriptions have stayed with me and have informed the way that I think about traditional customs and rituals and their place in modern life. Their greater significance may not be so much in any of the specifics but rather as reminders that matter and spirit are inextricably linked.