Emily Gong, a Canadian artist, shares her experiences creating a sand malala artwork and her field research from the Gobi Desert Grottoes and Tibet.
Exhibiting artwork is a strange phenomenon. It suggests an end to a work of art. A work of art starts with ideas that continue to transform, never truly finished – thus having no beginning or end.
The makings of the week long art exhibit took over the course of one year, right up to the closing reception (see sand mandala below). Pieces in this show draw on my 2014 summer field research in the Gobi Desert Grottoes along the Silk Route, and in Tibet- which sparked my fascination in the local cultural beliefs and practices.
Tibetan sky burial. Oil on canvas. five ft by eight ft. 2015
In Tibet, sky burial is a funerary practice performed daily on sky burial platforms, framed by prayer flags.
The majority of Tibetans adhere to Tibetan Buddhism, which believed in the transmigration of the spirit. Hence, after physical death, the body becomes merely a vessel. The sky burial is regarded as a virtuous practice since making an offering of one’s flesh saves the lives of animals vultures would consequently feed on. As well, vultures take on the role of ‘sky angels’ in this ceremony by cleansing the sins attached to the flesh and carrying the soul into the heavens – into a favourable next incarnation.
Friends and relatives of the deceased are permitted to watch the ceremony, as the viewers are encouraged to confront the impermanence of life.
Conclusively, people are but a trans-migratory network of souls that inhabit different bodies, within different lifetimes, in a larger circle of life.
If this funeral practise ignited your curiosity, please check out my Sky burial article link here.
The skullcap drum, conch horn, shinbone, and hipbone trumpets are used for ritual practices in Tibet, such as the sky burial.
The skullcap drum is made using the top of the skullcaps of a male and a female. This composition represents the union of opposites, in Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism) –the formation of a complete entity.
Sound travels through the bones to reinforce the belief that material being is merely a vessel for tapping into deeper existence.
The vultures near the bottom are depicted as ghostly creatures. The behaviour of vultures’ in the sky burial was both interesting and frightening. Vultures stood in organized rows, waiting for and watching the body being prepare – resembling the spectators at a performance.
Predestined Relationships; Karma; Reincarnation. Installation. 2015
This piece is based on the Chinese and Tibetan Buddhist belief ‘yuan fen,’ meaning the predestined relationships between people. All beings are connected with their intimates by countless life threads.
The translated Chinese saying goes: If you are friends in this lifetime, then you have met each other before in another lifetime. Consequently, your significant other in this lifetime, you would have encountered over a minimum of seven different lifetimes.
If you observe each individual thread, when one goes out, it inevitably comes back, perhaps not in this lifetime but in the next, similar to karma. Some threads travel to higher forces and some lower. This belief represents Buddhist thought of the goal to cultivate positive karma throughout different lifetimes – to ultimately achieve Buddhahood.
“Each life situation is influenced by decisions of past lives and major events of one’s present existence are conditioned by moral decisions one made in the past”.
Comparatively, the delicate threads against the metal contrast the permanence and impermanence of one’s physical and emotional attachments in one lifetime. As Buddhism teaches, “all worldly entanglements are ultimately unsatisfactory”.
Predestined Relationships; Karma; Reincarnation. Painting. 2015
This piece forms a direct dialogue with my installation. Here, the intertwined threads have become intertwined bodies.
Countless hands lift, tug, and support what it comes in contact with.
Highlighted in the top right are the elegant and elevated hand gestures similar to the multi hand deities in Vajrayana Buddhism, which corresponds to the higher and lower life forces that influences one’s decisions and behaviour.
Embedded throughout the painting are the eight auspicious symbols of Tibet, which reappears in my sand mandala below.
From the show’s opening, I began to create this sand mandala. Mandalas are believed in Tibet to house a deity. Recreating the mandala reactivates the aura of that deity and assists oneself in their meditative journey. I worked from the centre outwards, making the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan, which represent home, safety, and protection. I intended to create a meditation sanctuary for the creator and viewers, and to challenge the act of gallery going today, in which most viewers spend less than thirty seconds in front of an artwork. To my delight, viewers slowed down to observe the creation process and took part in creating the meditative atmosphere.
The mandala became the rotational point viewers moved around in my show. Some viewers were hesitant to enter the space when they saw me working. Their concern of intruding represent people’s perception of art making as a private activity and traditional views on how art is presented in a gallery.
Six days later, the finale performance took place at the show’s closing reception. I stood beside the mandala and the crowd became silent. The room had become overheated by the number of bodies that had gathered around. I asked for and received two eager volunteers.
But when I held brooms out for them to take, their faces registered shock, then fear, then realization. One of the volunteers expressed, “This is too beautiful to destroy.”
In merely a few clockwise rotations later, the sand mandala was returned to its origins.
Once again reiterating the Tibetan Buddhist belief in the impermanence of life and the lesson on detachment through attachment. In creating and returning the mandala within the natural cycle – proves there is no beginning or end.