BUDDHA AS A PERFORMANCE ARTIST?

 

Buddha as a performance artist?  Not so far fetched according to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman:

Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama

Say you are a buddha and you’re free of suffering and you feel totally great–as happy as a bee and a clam and at one with the universe- and then you see all of these miserable people.  Yet what good would it do for you to go and give them a big grin and a hug, or smother them with joyfulness?  They’ll just get freaked out and be paranoid and say, ‘What does this person want?  So instead, a buddha has to develop some strategies – some art – to, first  of all, open that person’s imagination to the fact that there is a world where they don’t have to be miserable all the time.  And then he has to help them with a method of how to move from their paranoid corner of misery into the great ocean of the bliss of the universe that you, a buddha, perceive. (The Wonderful Ambiquity of Art, Inquiring Mind, Spring 2002, pg. 7)

Thurman points out that the term upaya is usually used in Buddhist literature to refer to the “means by which compassion- the universal compassion of an enlightened being- manifests in action to enable other beings to find freeedom from suffering”  (pg. 7)  Usually translated as “skillful means”, Thurman suggests that upaya is best translated as “art”; art in the broadest sense, as in “liberal arts”.

One of the simplest definitions of “art” that I have seen says essentially that it is a set of skills learned to create something.  This is a pretty broad and useful definitionas it allows us to talk about artful skills in all aspects of life, not just what we traditionally think of as “the arts”.  It should also be pointed out that whatever it is that is being created, whether a painting, a garden, a dinner or one’s self/life, there can be variations in how creatively it is done.

 

 

 

Interestingly, even in “the arts”, the definition of art is constantly changing.  Back in 1917, when Marcel Duchamp entered a urinal in a prestigious art exhibit the boundaries of art were being challenged.  Since then, as creativity, as I defined it ( See Art, Zen and Creativity) has become an integral value in the art world, artist have been coming up with new ways of expanding the boundaries of this world. It is commonplace today to hear comments such as “That’s interesting but it is really art”.

So, given all this, it does not seem too far fetched to consider Buddha, Christ and a variety of other spiritual leaders as performance artists.  Like Marina Abramovic, they realized that their insights were better demonstrated than talked about.  What are the insights to be shared or taught?  Essentially, to be present, alive or awake.  But, this is not easily conveyed through didatic teaching and, as Thruman says in the quote above, people need to know that it is possible to be present, alive or awake and what that might look like.

What all of these “performance artists” have in common is that they found it necessary

Montano and Hsieh Performance Piece

to supplement didatic teachings with demonstrations of their realizations by performing them in their everyday lives.

The other thing all of these artists (the spiritual artists as well as the performance artists) have in common is that their practices consist of setting up obstacles that provide them with challenges that, when overcome, can lead to self-transformation.  Usually these take the form of some sort of  “rules” governing their performances.

Montano and Hsieh restricted how far apart they could get, the time they would remain teathered, and specified that they could not touch.  My last post on Abravovic specifies many of the rules that she set up for herself during various performance pieces.

In fact, the taking on of restrictions or obstacles is something found among all creative people.  It is common in all of the arts to hear of people setting up certain boundaries or restrictions for themselves as means for challenging themselves to greater creativity.  In fact, I think that committing oneself to any creative pursuit necessarily involves confronting barriers.  For instance, I commonly hear painters say something to the effect of “my painting is going badly” which simply means they are in the midst of resolving some issue in the activity that they voluntarily have decided to take on; one that can lead to a “creative breakthrough” later on.

So called spiritual artists do the same thing by, for instance, committing to a certain amount of time for meditation or committing to follow certain vows or codes.  For example, in formally becoming a Zen student a person commits to following four vows and to following 16 precepts.  Within Zen these “restrictions” are not seen as equivalent of “sins” in that transgressions will lead to going to hell or something like this.  Rather they are restrictions that one voluntarily takes on in “performing” everyday life and like the “obstacles” set up by artists like Abramovic are ultimately designed to help heighten self awareness; in other words to become more alive, awake or present.

In the next post I will look at this phenomena more closely and see how it relates to both artists in the conventional sense as well as “spiritual artists”.

 

WHAT THE______ WAS THAT VIDEO ABOUT?

I’ve received lots of feedback on the video contained in the the last blog post, and none said anything like  “I loved your video, I couldn’t stop playing it over and over”.  Most of the comments I received I’ve placed in one of two categories:

1) What a Yucky experience!

2)  What the ______ was that all about?

The two are interrelated but let me start with “What the ____was that all about?”  I relate to this question as I imagine that I’ll be thinking something like that to myself during my final minutes here on earth. I think this is another way of asking “what does it all mean?” Whether talking about art, Zen or life in general, this is an important question and one that is hard to answer.

Whenever I’m asked what my art means, I think of Choreographer Isadora Duncan’s response to a similar question.  She said “If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

Or, what about this?  People say that what we are all seeking is meaning for life. I think what we are really seeking is an experience of being  alive……Joseph Campbell.

I  get it. There are things in life and art that are hard to put into words.  On the other hand, we humans need to communicate about things- that is how we connect- and so I can not completely dismiss such queries.  Even though he disputes the importance of meaning, Campbell’s quote above provides meaning. As Lehrer points out in Imagination: How Creativity Works, both the right and left brain is integral to creativity. Often we artists don’t want to explain ourselves because we are just lazy.

Ok, so I’m  going to try to energize my left brain and try to provide an answer to “What the ________was that all about?”  For this video, the meaning for me is something that  evolved over time.  The best I can do is tell the story of how it evolved.

Most of my paintings have been abstractions using forms and colors etc. that I found pleasant or attractive.  I was not concerned with telling a story or with making commentaries on suffering.  There were a couple of exceptions, one of which was a collage/painting of a woman who looked very sad.  Most of the woman was painted except for the nose, eyes and mouth.  For these features, I pasted on cut-outs of these parts from an enlarged photograph’s of my wife’s face. My wife is not a sad person but the result was a very sad looking woman.  That prompted me to glue dowel rods vertically on the frame so she looked like she was in jail.  When finished, I concluded that , in some vague way, the piece said something about the way we all restrict ourselves by putting up conceptual barriers;  nothing very original and based primarily on my study of Zen.  I called it “Zenda Gets Blue Sometimes” (see painting below).

Sometime later, a group of artists at The Vista Zen Center were asked to put on an art show at the annual Anti-Trafficking Awareness Walk” sponsored by Soroptimists International of Vista.  Not having ever thought of depicting or commenting on human trafficking in my art work, I chose a couple of paintings, including “Zenda Gets Blue Sometimes” to display at the exhibit. A picture of the painting was included in an article on the Walk published in the Union-Tribune..  In a backhanded way, I had produced art that meant something and not a particularly pleasant something.  I was left with the weirdness of having a painting constructed out of parts of my wife’s face as a poster for the victims of human trafficking.

The artist’s at the rally also set up a tent intending to call to mind the reality of human trafficking.  The tent contained a circle of chairs around a small empty bed with a teddy bear on it.  Viewers were invited to sit in the tent and “bear witness” to the horrors  of human trafficking.  Again, I saw that art can be something more than just pretty pictures and that there may be some value in creating yucky images; bearing witness to the reality of horrors that our culture would rather forget.

Later, when I started making art videos I began working with abstract and engaging imagery combined with spacey music, similar to my paintings.  However, I was struck by the narrative potential of video and began wondering how I could combine pleasant and unpleasant images in the same video.  Life consists of both of these poles and, as a Zen student, I felt that I needed to embrace both. The video in question is one of my experiments in this vein.

The title of my video “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing one Sees” is also the title of Lawrence Weschler’s biography of artist Robert Irwin. It is clear from this book that Irwin believed that the viewer is the key ingredient in the “seeing” of art and that he hoped to create art that had a “presence” for the viewer.  For Irwin this meant that the art should help the viewer let go of or “forget” about its meaning.

Garden Designed by Robert Irwin

What does the video mean?  Life is sometimes Yucky?  More than one viewer tried to speed up the video or turn in off turning the realistic beating clip.

So, yes the video was supposed to be yucky.  But, as the title suggests, there is more.  I was interested in whether  I (and others) could basically forget the Yucky feelings and thoughts, if presented with something comparatively pleasant and distracting.?

In the art world, as well as the Zen world, we talk a lot about being in the present moment which inevitable means letting go of thoughts and expectations about the past or future. Zen writer Eithe Dogen wrote

To understand the Buddha Way is to understand the

Self.  To understand the self is to forget the self.

                                                   

When we forget the internal dialogue that fuels our sense of self, we actually are remembering something as well.  We remember the joy of doing something just for the pleasure of it.  Yo Yo Ma told  Lehrer that he always tells professional musicians to aspire to the state of the beginne where one plays only because it feels good.  This sounds a lot like Suzuki’s “Beginner’s Mind.  But, we might also remember the unpleasant sensations of earlier times.  In fact, I will argue in future postings, that we need to experience the unpleasant as well as the pleasantness of being in our bodies.

The kind of remembering that happens by forgetting the ordinary self reminds me of the Shamanic use of the term “remembering”.  According to Eliade, prospective shamans in a variety of cultures have a dream-like experience, either while sleeping or triggered by illness or hallucinogens of being torn apart (“de-membered”) by a spirit or wild animal.   Later the person with have a “re-membering” experience, ” which leads to a feeling of being whole again and becoming a shaman. By facing the unpleasantness of our somatic being, we are free to experience the joy of the same.

In “forgetting” self-concepts, we open ourselves to a wider, more wholistic experience of whatever is happening.  Lehrer, who sees this forgetting as an important component of creativity, cites Yo Yo Ma as having the ability to forget himself when performing and remember the joy of simply playing the cello.

Most artist speak of their practice as their meditation where they can forget themselves by playing in the present moment and hoping that those who view or hear their work will also forget their ordinary selves and “be in the moment” if only momentarily.

That’s the reason the video begins and ends in a museum or gallery.  In-between are potentially positive and negative experiences that mirror our everyday lives.  But as I’m sure you know, no song or painting or performance can pull us into the present if we are not willing or able.  A new painting hanging in our house may transfix us for a while but before long it is likely to become another piece of furniture.

Meditation and other spiritual disciplines can help us learn techniques for being in the present moment at more and more times as both pleasant and unpleasant  present moments roll by.  In so doing Life becomes Art.

 

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