Contemplating the Everyday
An exhibition of practice-led PhD fine art research
Contemplating the Everyday is the result of my practice-led PhD fine art research based on the title The Mind of the Everyday in Contemporary Fine Art and Zen Buddhist Practice. It emerged from my personal experience and discoveries as an artist working from a Buddhist background. The core of the research is my studio practice with the theoretical framework operating in the intersection of personal and social perspectives. It seeks to develop an enhanced understanding of the everyday in contemporary fine art and Zen Buddhist practice in new and original ways, through bringing forward and integrating the physical and theoretical components of my studio practice as presented in this exhibition.
Devoting attentiveness to and contemplating the everyday is central to my art practice. The everyday that I refer to is contained within the trivial, ordinary and inconsequential objects and activities that people tend to take for granted such as found in the act of cooking and having a meal. Everyday objects there are such as the cutlery we use for eating, something we are so familiar with that we are unlikely to give them a second thought when we encounter them. Besides assembling everyday objects into sculptural forms and installations, part of my work involves using food and cooking to perform with and interact with people visiting my exhibition.
My studio practice operates within subjects, time and space using the everyday, and engages aspects of mindfulness, self, memories, social, cultural and symbolic form. My cultural upbringing and life experience are often revisited, examined and evidenced in my work. The work embraces ideas of as-it-is-ness, nothingness, the impermanent nature of things, and the interconnectedness of objects and people, all of which are relevant to Zen Buddhist discourses of the everyday.
In the Spirit of Beginner’s Mind and Attentiveness
Making an effort to examine and contemplate what we are aware of is an attentive attitude which is opposed to ‘indifference’ and which I consider to be a hindrance to art-making. I try not to carry fixed views in my experience of the everyday. I make basic enquiries such as ‘what is that?’ in the art-making process. This is my way of dealing with the tendency of indifference, and it is comparable with the practicing of a Beginners’ Mind 初心 (shoshin in Japanese and chū xīn in Chinese) in Zen as suggested by Shunryu Suzuki when he said that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are a few.”
I consider the trivial to have the potential to be transmuted into something extra-ordinary and that what seems to be insignificant may be transformed into something significant and therefore able to be appreciated. When John Cage was asked by Henning Lohner about how he thought uninteresting things could become interesting, he replied, “When and if you pay attention to them.” This is comparable to Zen Buddhists practice of Mindfulness, where they pay attention to the most ordinary circumstances of everyday life such as cooking, washing the dishes and sweeping the floor.
The circle derives from that part of Chinese culture that is closely associated with Taoism and Buddhist teaching. It signifies a sense of unity, harmony, infinity and perfection in Chinese culture and it is often evident in both their everyday life and arts.
Roundness signifies a sense of unity, harmony, infinity and perfection in Chinese culture. ‘圆’ (yuán) means ‘circle’ in Chinese and it is often associated with reunion 团圆 (tuán yuán), fullness 圆满 (yuán măn) and completeness 圆美 (yuán měi). As revealed in the format of the dining room, the Chinese place their own emphasis on family values. They prefer to use the round table because it represents those qualities of harmony, peace and completeness.
The Circle embodies a sense of Co-arising and Oneness as suggested by the Buddhist teaching in which they see everything is in everything else, one in all and all in one. This teaching is often revealed in their ensō (Zen circle) paintings where a simple circle is drawn on paper using brush and ink in one attempt or a single breath, to reveal a sense of one cyclic return and wholeness through a clear and focused mind.
(Remade due to the original piece was destroyed in Malaysia)
In the everyday life of my own family and some traditional Chinese families in Malaysia, before they leave home to work in the morning they present joss sticks to the ancestors and deities, to pay respect, and to entreat safety and prosperity. The piece corresponds to the idea of entreating and wish-making that shuttles between the time and spaces of now and the uncertain future. It makes reference to the light circle over the head of the images of their deities, and the used joss sticks represent consumed hopes and dreams that may or may not be or have been realised.
Material: Disposable chopsticks and PVA
Dimension: 80cm (width) x 60cm (height)
The piece took three months to assemble, indicating time, and utilized all the chopsticks I collected with the help of my colleagues working in the dishwashing area indicating collaboration. The sculpture is made up of approximately 25,000 pairs of used disposable chopsticks and represents the same amount of meals being consumed, within which conversations were shared, friendships were celebrated, convivial moments were memorized, jobs were created, and trees were cut down. The piece devotes attentiveness, thought process and time consumed on a very humble material. The attitude, decision and the passing of time eventuate in form.
Action, Repetition and Meditation
Part of my work experiments with multiplying and repeating trivial objects in order to create striking visual solid and autonomous forms that indicate both motion as well as stillness. The action of repetition equates with time, and over time and through concentration a process is generated that guides the mind into the meditative state.
The lengthy, minimal intervention and repetitive process of constructing work of art may be compared to the way in which Zen Buddhists go through the ritual of chanting, with a chain of beads running repeatedly through their fingers, in order to eradicate random thoughts. Comparison can also be made with the way they repeatedly use breath-counting as a method in meditation to retrieve awareness back to the present moment and away from unrelated thoughts of the past and future.
Zen Buddhists consider sitting meditation and art-making processes themselves are a means of the practice of Mindfulness. They both serve the purpose of allowing the mind to attend to the action undertaken ‘Now’ at the present moment. Chögyam Trungpa the Buddhist teacher and artist claimed “Creating art is like meditating".
Material: Ring-pulls and staples Size: 60cm (width) x 17cm (height)
The found ring-pulls are tied together using staples according to the shape of an inflated inner tube from a car tire. As a child, I used an inner tube as a float to swim in flooded abandoned tin mines and which context suggests prevention of drowning and the saving of life. The piece embraces a sense of the social, the environmental, memory and the meditative process of making. The actions of repetition and multiplying equate with time, and over time and through concentration a process is generated that guides me into the meditative state where the existence of the self is anchored.
Material: Empty alcohol bottles
My initial intention was to experiment with a different working method - destroying the chosen objects in order to build. The piece embodies the concept of time, space, form and chance through spontaneous gestural play. It explores dualistic aspects of reality where an element of order can be embedded in chaos, with destruction as an act of building, and where a quality of calmness may be found in the frantic. The piece used actions that perform the bodily movements that are initiated by the mind, to interact with objects as matter, suggests a sense of awareness of and focuses on the present moment.
Materials: Used shoes Size: 12’ diameter & 6.5’ height approx.
Circumrotation was first shown in The Affluenza Exhibition, inspired by Oliver James’ book Affluenza, to explore the effects that the recent financial crisis has on people’s emotional health. The exhibition took place in a former meat processing factory where different meats where hung and processed daily. The hanging of shoes refers to meat hanging thereby engaging with life and death. The piece explores the human living condition of being ‘trapped’, in a circle with no beginning and no end, with no sense of first and last It also portrays life revolves in causality, where what goes round comes around.
Every Corner of My Flat, 2009 and ongoing
Material: Dust and spray glue Started in 2009 and ongoing
I use photography to document the process of removing the dust in my studio flat. Along the way I observe and become re-familiarised with myself as I recollect my life when going through my own physical personal belongings. Engaged with the distant, recent and immediate past, the piece is concerned with the relationship between objects, space, man and his behaviour and how they influence each other. It reflects the way a space can affect its inhabitant and how we arrange our living spaces to suit our needs.
Relativity of Things
We are a thing among other things therefore reality cannot exist without the relationship of accords and differences. Our life is merely a web of threads tangled together through relativity and causality, and our every action creates a chain reaction to this web of people and things that bind us together in a perpetual cycle. These undercurrents of the everyday are accessible only through utilizing attentiveness or, in Zen Buddhist terminology, Mindfulness.
Some of my sculptural and performance works explore this idea of relativity as they enter into dialogues with objects, people, and spaces rather than prioritizing projecting self-sentiment and expression. They investigate the interstices between everyday objects and people to make connections by bridging and revealing hidden threads and foreground the less attended space to be observed and contemplated.
In the Zen Buddhist teaching of ‘Truth’ and ‘Oneness’, objects and people are seen as they are, interconnected, with ‘co-conditioned origination’ or sharing ‘mutual arising’. They are interdependent and yet mutually conditioning. Everything is related to everything else under a condition of impermanence. Buddhists perceive that we exist because people are interconnected with us, and that our family, relatives, friends and Sangha sustain the ‘I’.
Nice to Meet You, 2008
Medium: audience interactive drawing and installation
In March 2008, I took part in Paradise Stories, an exhibition in Liverpool in conjunction with the ‘08 European Capital of Culture’. The exhibition explored what ‘paradise’ meant to the artists taking part. Inspired by the Buddhist concept of Nirvana as a mental space as well as seeing that paradise exists in the everyday around us where people peacefully connect with each other, I proposed Nice to Meet You for Paradise Stories. I was interested in using people as the medium for the piece, where the idea was to experiment through drawing and installation and the interaction between the participants tracing each other’s shadows.
Cigarette Butts Formed Shadow, 2001
Material: Cigarette butts Size: Life-size shadow This was a site-specific work for the
‘Brew’ exhibition which took place at the Truman Brewery Company. The site relates to the production and supplying of alcohol. An overhead spotlight cast the shadows of the passerby to the conservatory area in dawn. Cigarette butts scattered around the building were collected and used as the material for the work. My intention was to link together smoking, drinking, the space and the shadows. I was fascinated by the action of putting out cigarettes, where cigarette butts are pushed and planted in the ashtray where the gesture suggested the act of killing off.
Material: Polythene airliner and aquarium Size: 61cm x 31cm x 33cm
The piece came to me when I visited my wife in a hospital ward. An infusion bag was connected to a polythene airliner inserted to her hand after an operation to prevent dehydration. I relate the airliner to giving life in this instance, and extend its connection to the situation of an aquarium. By relating the airliner in the hospital to oxygenation in an aquarium, I found an ambiguous association between the two, and decided to stick the cut sections of airliner to a fish tank to suggest the relationships between air, airliner, life, liquid, bubbles and the fish tank.
Seeing Things as they are
An aspect of my studio practice is to see things as they are rather than projecting subjective meanings on the material used. The works study the material’s connection with other objects and people and do not depend solely on me as the creator but also rely in part on the world around me to be able to enter into dialogue.
Seeing things as they are can be linked to Zen Buddhist haiku poetry where it records no subjective aspect of the event and contains no less and no more than what was seen and experienced. It does not go beyond the phenomenon of what was witnessed, with no gap between both as the haiku has no self-projected narrative.
Prejudice in the mind is almost impossible to eradicate completely, and seeing things as there are in my work is an attempt to be honest to the materials I use. This corresponds to the objective way of embracing things in Zen Buddhist practice of Mindfulness known as Tathatā, a non-judgemental practice which seeks to understand the true nature of things that is freed from considerations of personal reactions, to then see things ‘as they are’.
Format: Dvd Duration: 10 minutes
Taking my camcorder with me on my walk, I chose a footbridge as my location and then set my camcorder on a tripod to record on a mini DV tape for an hour. The whole footage with its original sound was later shortened into about ten minutes. The piece may be seen as the result of spontaneous play due to the footage being unplanned, undirected and unrehearsed. It captured a chance happening without changing the angle or adjusting the equipment during the filming. It records no subjective aspect of the event, and does not go beyond the phenomenon of what I witnessed as it was.
The leaf was discovered by chance trapped in between two paving stones after windy rain, and curiosity led me to document this chance occurrence until it finally disappeared after 30 days. Without prearrangement and without imposing my own opinions on the leaf, each snapshot has a poetic quality in that it describes the leaf as it is, as it captures the present moment of transition of the leaf without intervention. It embodies a sense of the transitory and of the impermanence in which people and things are like visitors in our life, as they come and go.
Some of my works are deliberately presented as banal situations in everyday life that deceptively imply the lack of content or as if ‘nothing happens’. They embrace a sense of illusion or of the simulation of the everyday. The minimum presentation of these pieces blends into the subtle everyday, and it is as if nothing happened in the exhibition space that presented the art.
These pieces use very slight indications to reveal or draw attention to the insignificant within our everyday life. The as if ‘nothing happens’ in the mind of the viewer is produced as the result of the work of art simulating the everyday, does indeed register something in the mind of the viewer when they eventually discovered that the work equates ‘nothing-ness’ with ‘something-ness’. These pieces connect objects with space and indicate the interrelationship between perception, things and situations.
Nothingness is always accompanied by something else to create form, and the negative is always accompanied by the positive or vice-versa. They are inseparable, just as we are followed by our shadows. This is in accord with the famous saying in Chinese’s Chan Buddhism where “form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.”
Labeling Tags Attached to Clothing, 2003
Material: Price tags and jumper Size: 80cm x 70cm approximately
The piece put clothing and labeling tags into interaction and suggests their permanent combination. It explores the ‘space’ between the real and unreal, the authentic and the illusionary that we may encounter in our daily life. It attempts to connect with the reality where negative aspects of things and human beings are manipulated or intentionally buried under a blanket of attractive appearance. Just as many products in the market are often ‘dressed up’ in an impressive and expensive packaging to lure the consumer.
The inspiration for this piece came to me when I was decorating my flat and it was triggered by the frustration I felt when the bristles from the paintbrush kept falling out while I was painting. I began with painting the gallery wall with a wide brush and white emulsion paint and collecting the loose bristles along the way. The bristles were then stuck to the same wall using clear glue constructed into a realistic looking crack line. The piece combined the emotion (frustration), the materials (paint and paintbrush), the space (wall), and indicates the interrelationship between things and situations.
Material: condom and helium gas
Helium balloons stuck on the ceiling are often seen in public places. I have also seen people inflate condoms like balloons for fun. This sculpture frames and connects together these two everyday situations. Instead of a balloon, a condom is filled with helium gas and released onto the ceiling of the exhibition space. The condom gradually deflates and touches the ground several hours later. The physical reaction of expanding/contracting and rising/descending of the condom can be associated with the heightened human physical sensation during sexual activity - the rising and descending of feeling, emotion and body temperature.
Entanglement of Art and Life
I admire those artists who able to reveal their mastery of their art in the activities of day-to-day living, with their being and their art inextricably interwoven with no separation between the two.
Art in my practice, is found exactly where we are already and interacts with my surroundings, consisting of opening up to and affirming the situation we are already in. Life and art exist in a complementary partnership in my art practice, with my ideal art practice standing like an island between the two carriageways of art and life, observing attentively and allowing the trivial things and actions of everyday life to inform my art, and allowing art to permeate my everyday life in return.
It is crucial in my art practice to stand at the central point between two extremes to observe equally the positive and negative, sound and silence, something and nothingness, art and life. When we position ourselves in the middle we are more capable of seeing both sides of the dualistic world. This understanding can be compared to the teaching of Middle Way in Zen Buddhism, symbolized by the gesture of two palms held together at chest level.
Medium: Audience interactive performance
Collaborated with Yak Beow Seah
Stir is my first collaboration project and the first interactive audience performance involving food, cooking and eating. The exhibition consisted of a kitchen, a communal table and a slide projection. Soup was prepared in the kitchen each day, which together with slices of bread at the side were served free to the visitors. Seah and I are interested in how dining is able to connect people. The project offers food as well as friendship, and I was interested in how we were able to connect people similar to the way in which I assemble the everyday objects for my sculptures.
P&S Recipe Shop, 2006
Collaborated with Yak Beow Seah
In this second collaboration with Seah, IMT gallery was temporarily transformed into a ‘grocery shop-cum-café’ for a period of three weeks. The project foregrounded an aspect of our (Seah’s and mine) everyday life to share with the visitors. It presented a selection of our aesthetic experience and what we liked from our findings from living in the UK and travelling around Europe over the previous 11 years. The piece took its motivation from our common interests in ideas of serving and sharing and it elaborates on the aesthetic experience that can be found within food, in gastronomic and related activities.
This album presents the summary of my personal background, life journey and experience, all of which examined in my PhD thesis and indicated how they impacted on my studio practice. It includes images from my childhood, a life-changing backpacking trip to Europe for four months, my work as a chef in restaurants, and sharing pleasant moments with family and friends through cooking and eating. My former part-time jobs as a chef helped to sustain my living, complete my BA and MA education in fine art, and fulfill my ambition to become an artist.