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Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to Host Research and Exhibition Project on Contemporary Buddhist Art

Research assistant Su Yen Chong with Haema Sivanesan examining woodcut prints by Shiko Munakata. From
Research assistant Su Yen Chong with Haema Sivanesan examining woodcut prints by Shiko Munakata. From

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV) in the Candian province of British Columbia, is this month hosting a major multiphase research and exhibition project on the impact of the Buddhist tradition on art in North America from the post-war period to the present day, and the role of artists in evolving patterns of Buddhist thought.

The three-day project, titled “In the Present Moment: Buddhism, Contemporary Art and Social Practice,” kicks off on 25 October with a research gathering with New York-based art critic Kay Larson, and a public lecture with the co-founder of CODEPINK Suzanne Lacy, and producer and global activist Jodie Evans on 27 October. Both events will be held at the University of Victoria.

According to the AGGV website, the project, which encompasses artist residencies, an international research gathering, publications, and ultimately an exhibition, “considers how Buddhism has contributed to the development of new ideas in contemporary art. It examines how Buddhism proposes new meaning and social purpose for art and artists.” (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)

The event also explores how artists have contributed to the development of modern Buddhism, especially the patterns of Buddhism that have adapted to contexts of modernization and globalization, and in doing so trace a history of transnational and cross-cultural encounters. 

The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation in Hong Kong and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York provided research support for this project, with the research gathering held in partnership with the University of Victoria’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Multifaith Chapel, and Centre for the Study of Religion in Society.

In an interview with the gallery’s inhouse magazine, AGGV curator Haema Sivanesan, who has been working on this project since being awarded a grant from The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation last year, noted: “The AGGV was invited by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation to submit a proposal for innovative projects on Buddhism and art. I’ve curated several projects related to Buddhism in the past, both historical and contemporary. This project extends from that background but allows me to pursue a new, largely unexplored territory of art historical and curatorial research.” (AGGV Magazine)

AGGV curator Haema Sivanesan. From
AGGV curator Haema Sivanesan. From

When asked about how works are selected, Sivanesan said: “The starting point is the AGGV’s collection, where we have a good selection of work by Northwest Pacific artists, including Mark Tobey and Paul Horiuchi. Tobey was one of the first artists in North America to spend time in a Zen monastery in 1934 and was deeply inspired by his experience in Japan. He also attended the first firing of the Mingei pottery kilns in the village of Mashiko with Bernard Leach, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship.” (AGGV Magazine)

Using the AGGV collection as a launchpad, the exhibition adopts a historical and thematic approach, telling the story of Buddhism’s contribution to significant shifts in approaches to the visual arts. Mark Tobey exerted a particularly strong influence on avant garde composer John Cage, urging him to attend D. T. Suzuki’s lectures on Buddhism at Columbia University in 1952, said Sivanesan. “Cage, in turn, influenced a generation of artists who formed the Fluxus movement, which privileged new art forms of performance, ephemeral scores, happenings, and inter-media art. Fluxus included some extremely innovative and provocative Japanese women artists, including, for example, Yoko Ono and Shigeko Kubota. Since the 1970s, Tibetan and various Southeast Asian communities of Buddhist practice have had an impact on contemporary art. The last section of the exhibition will look at the idea of the mandala as a recurring theme in modern and contemporary art,” she said. (AGGV Magazine)

“I think Buddhism has relevance for contemporary artists because it is a practice of self-discovery and self-transformation. Buddhism is a practice of the mind, of disciplining the mind, to ‘surpass’ the mind. Both the discipline and enigma of this, alongside the ethical and aesthetic potential of Buddhism seem to hold great appeal for artists,” Sivanesan noted. (AGGV Magazine)

Other artists explored at this event include Nobuo Kubota, Jack Wise, Kalsang Dawa, Tomoyo Ihaya, Dylan Thomas, Chrysanne Stathacos.

See more 

In the Present Moment: Buddhism, Contemporary Art and Social Practice (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)
Granting Buddhist Research: Q&A with AGGV Curator Haema Sivanesan (AGGV Magazine)
Q&A: Art Gallery curator talks Buddhism and contemporary art (Monday Magazine)
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria explores relationship between Buddhism and contemporary art (Lion’s Roar)

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