Saturday, February 10, 2007

Daoist painting at the Freer Collection, Bradley Chriss

Since its inception more than two thousand years ago in the Eastern Han dynasty, Daoism (also known as Taoism) has permeated every aspect of Chinese life and culture, from politics, philosophy, literature, and music to chemistry, medicine, and the martial arts. Using works in the Freer's permanent collection, this exhibition looks at four aspects of Daoism: its foundations as a school of thought based on Daojia; images of Daoist immortals and paradises; ways to achieve immortality; and Daoist gods and the influence of folklore, Confucianism, and Buddhism on Daoism.- Freer Collection Curator Statement.

From The Freer Collection an exhibition of Daoist(Taoist) painting and artifacts has been organized. The function of the exhibit is to bring some light to a Western viewer on the cultural function and context of these artifacts as they existed outside of a museum. The most important idea behind the exhibit is the distinction between a “philosophical” Taoism and a “religious” Taoism, and how all of the artifacts in this exhibit could be classified as Taoist but have some culturally internal distinction(within China). To understand Taoism is a difficult task, especially in the West(limitations and indiscrepencies of translation and scholarship are two of the greatest hurdles in even beginning an approach of Taoism)Taoism over time( beginning around the third century b.c.e.) has adapted and amalgamized with many different ideas and cultural practices in China. Taoism is simultaneously part folk religion, part ancestor worship, part alchemy, part Buddhism and part Confucionism.

A painter in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 c.e.) painted Zhuangzi laying on a cliff sleeping as a butterfly the size of a human hovers above. Zhuangzi anchors the bottom left corner as the butterfly lifts the upper right corner on this small silk square. The ink shifts from sharp line to soft shape as they delicately describe nuanced folds in cloth hair and wings and insect body and sky. Zhuangzi is seperated from the butterfly only by a line( which indicates the ground) and his consciousness( he is sleeping). The seperation and odd scale of the butterfly indicate an otherness or a barrier of realities between Zhuangzi and the butterfly.The eyes of the butterfly stare at Zhuangzi contemplatively, reinforcing a sense of presence first indicated by size( the butterfly is not only more considered because of scale, but also because of gaze) The butterfly is not just as bit as a man, but as thoughtful. The work is titled “Butterfly Dream” reflecting the story of when Zhuangzi dreamt of a butterfly but awoke wondering if actually the butterfly was dreaming of him. This artifacts image represents a relativity that is present in Taoism. The artist is telling us that Zhuangzi is asking us to consider the possibilites of the unkown as well as asking us to break down preconcieved notions of human control on domains such as thought, presence and importance.

A scroll is covered by a plexiglass case, and supported at an incline on a neutral gray surface. Staring back at me through this case and their own picture plane are three creatures in the midst of a clamorous procession. The procession is ecstatic and full of humor. The Daoist Divinity of Water or Water Official is making its way on a long, tangled dragon across a storm full of thunder and wind. A boar headed thunder god bangs on drums as two demons cause a cacophony with their giant washboard looking noisemakers joined by two women deities clashing cymbals.The Water Official is one of three officials in Taoism, the other two being Heaven and Earth. The Water official can grant blessings, offer protection and forgive sins. Here he is driving off evil spirits. This Ming Dynasty painter( 15-16th century c.e.) has shown us that three members of the Water Officials entourage are aware of us and hence that the artist is also aware of us. Who is looking at us and why? Are the warriors and creatures trying to acknowledge us as part of the group, as an outside but accepted witness or possibly as a demon which they are trying to expel? Or is the artist staring at us through these creatures? I believe all of these experiences are happening in the picture through the viewer. A taoist perspective on this image would not indicate a certainty of one role, but of understanding the possibility of all roles in the image and our( the viewer) relationship to them as well as our relationship to the artist. We have become the butterfly contemplating across the line of the ground staring at the artist as he sleeps through his dream eyes in picture. If we begin to consider all of the roles: The viewer, the participant, the demon, the witness, ourselves we begin to see how these roles indicate or allow for the different types of roles occuring in this procession: The Water Official, the thunder god, warriors and creatures, all protectors and clamoring and cacophonous. The gaze from the participants in the picture shows us that we actually validate their presence and their duties and roles, and even as the artist looks at us through those eyes we also validate the artist, as they validate our viewership. It is in this piece titled “Daoist Divinity of Water” that we begin to understand Taoisms capacity to absorb so much “external” idea(i.e. confucionism, buddhism, alchemy etc) that whatever comes into contact with Taoism must be considered as a possiblity of one way to truth. The procession reflects the essential idea of Taoism which is:

The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;

The names that can be named are not unvarying names.

It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;

The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind. (chap. 1, tr. Waley[1])-Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

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