Installation view of “Where Can the Dust Alight” at Pace Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

Where Can The Dust Alight

Pace Hong Kong
Hong Kong China Japan

A group exhibition at Pace Hong Kong borrows its name from a 7th century stanza by the Buddhist monk Hui-neng, which embodies the Buddhist core philosophy of constant reflection, but also the notion of life without meaning, within a few profound words: “There is no Bodhi tree/Nor stand of a mirror bright/Since all is void/Where can the dust alight?” Such an esoteric statement opens up to various interpretations and entry points; yet in the same vein, it offers the premise for the show. The five artists included in the exhibition were brought together—as stated in the press release—to create dialogue around“nothingness” and “emptiness,” and to translate that into visual, contemporary forms.  

HIROSHI SUGIMOTOSea of Buddha 001, 002, 003,1995, gelatin silver prints, three prints: 119.4 × 149.2 cm each. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist and Pace Hong Kong. 

Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s black-and-white triptych, Sea of Buddha (001-003) (1995), immediately catches the visitor’s attention upon entering the gallery with its repetitive rows of statues. Inspired by Sanjūsangendo (literally meaning “Hall with thirty three spaces between columns”), a renowned Buddhist temple in Kyoto that was commissioned for the retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127–1192). Sugimoto conceived the work as early as 1988, but faced difficulties in obtaining permission to photograph the temple, due to his specific goal of shooting within a very small timeframe during daybreak. In the image, natural light illuminates each figure of Kannon (the figurative representation of mercy) in the temple. Sugimoto orchestrated this effect by negotiating with the temple to have them turn off all fluorescent lighting within the building, so that the final photograph would reflect how one would have seen the statues during the Heian Period (794–1185)—known as the last period of classical Japanese history and the first to be strongly influenced by Taoism and Buddhism. Sugimoto’s three photographs capture a portion of the 1,000 statues within the temple’s main hall, among which only 124 are originals as the rest were destroyed in a fire during the 13th century. Here, repetition in the physical statues as well as the photographs refers to the notion of achieving spiritual distinction by replicating a deity’s manifestation. Simultaneously, the photographs of the ancient temple question the life expectancy of contemporary society’s existence and relevance.

Contrasting Sugimoto’s stark imagery is Song Dong’s Mandala 012 (2015), from his recent “Sauce paintings” series, a color amalgamation of earth tones on board that is penetrated from behind by 17 knives. Here, the artist references the traditional Tibetan sand mandala, whose ritual of creation speaks to the transience of being. Monks would meticulously pour sand onto a surface, forming intricate geometric patterns. After completion, which might take several days or even weeks, the work is wiped away, leaving no trace of the detailed art that lay there before. The impermanence reflects the message in the mandala’s destruction—that everything in life is in flux and is fleeting. In Song’s interpretation of the mandala, the pattern is made from various spices and condiments. Black sesame, cumin, mustard powder, curry, beetroot powder and other food items each present a unique color and texture. These spices come together to enhance dishes, yet none are edible alone. In this way, the artist comments on the interconnectedness of the world’s cultures, and that not all are harmonious. The knives in Mandala 012 disrupt the image, and part of the symbol is left unfinished—perhaps as a reference to the current state of our world and the obstacles that prevent such unity.

SONG DONG, Mandala 012, 2015, black sesame, white sesame, white pepper, lemon powder, curry, pepper, chicken powder, cumin, fennel, bean flour beetroot powder, beetroot powder and other condiments, 17 knives, d: 118.5 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

Zhang Huan also experiments with found materials by employing ash. Mark No. 3 (2014) continues the artist’s ongoing projects with ash collected from Buddhist temples in China. Deviating from the artist’s previous figurative ash works, Mark No. 3’s linen surface is covered with the substance. Adding another layer of texture is the alternating raised and indented portions They indicate, in Chinese Braille, passages from the Bible, which is also referenced in the title—an allusion to the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 3, from the New Testament. The accumulated ash, left over from incense burned at temples, is used as an explicit symbol of prayer. In combining ash, a material commonly used in Buddhism, with content sourced from Christianity, Mark No. 3 represents a hope for coexistence among all religions, based on the notion that each belief centers around kindness, love and generosity.

ZHANG HUAN, Mark No. 3, 2014, ash on linen, 153 cm x 100.3 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Pace Hong Kong. 

Bringing Buddhism to the forefront,  “Where Can The Dust Alight” encourages discussion and education of the concepts and historical aspects of the religion. It allows the audience to contemplate our contemporary relevance in the wider picture, whilst allowing unrestricted personal interpretations of the work. However, due to its limited size, the exhibition falls short in communicating complex Buddhist teachings as a whole; in this regard, there are large discrepancies in each work, resulting in a curatorial oversimplification that appears to suit the gallery structure more than the audience. One might be led to consider the appropriation of purist, Buddhist philosophies within a commercial gallery context, and that fact is no less disturbing when the numbers associated with the artworks place materialistic value on these philosophies.

“Where Can The Dust Alight” is on view at Pace Hong Kong until November 12, 2016.

Katherine Volk is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.