Samsara, and Mandalas Made From Ruins:
First Notes on the New Work of Xie Caomin
Essay by Dr. Jerry Cullum
Samsara, and Mandalas Made From Ruins: First Notes on the New Work of Xie Caomin Mandalas are a marriage of mathematics and metaphysics. Their symmetries are meant to be a point of contemplative focus in which to realize the hidden repetitions and regularities of the (not necessarily religiously defined) universe.
Thus Xie Caomin’s mandala paintings, which create order from the chaos of the ruins of the World Trade Center out of which their imagery is extracted and (re)shaped, are about cycles and repetitions, rise and wreck followed in turn by the rise of new and different forms of order and technological advancement. The falling and rising again are not one, but they are part of the same cycle, the same dialectic. As Wallace Stevens wrote in "Connoisseur of Chaos," "a violent order is a disorder and a great disorder is an order."
This is, at least, one possible reading of these immense paintings. Given Xie’s exhibition’s freighted title Samsara, it is necessary to read the work at least momentarily in a more conventionally Buddhist fashion.
Samsara is the realm of illusion in which our personal and historical existence unfolds; it is the world created by desire.
Buddhism teaches that the turning wheel of transient existence is operated by conditioned origination, by a causality that is generated by grasping and/or longing for what is not yet ours. In other words, the force that gives birth to technological progress also generates suffering, decay, and death. You can’t have one without the other.
This inevitable dialectic also propels human history. Thus Xie’s repurposed ruins of the World Trade Center become an apt focus for meditation in his mandalas. Towers rise and fall for different historical reasons, but the rise and ruin all stem from identical existential causes.
All the passions behind construction and destruction, both positive and negative, arise out of the strange fundamental desire identified in Goethe’s epic drama Faust: the wish to hold on forever to a single transient moment, to make the moment both permanent and uniquely an individual possession. The Faust of Goethe’s drama, tellingly, finally finds such a moment in a successful technological project. (Thus an earlier historical epoch called the whole European project "Faustian.")
Goethe rescues his protagonist from the consequences of his grasping by declaring that salvation comes through eternal striving upward. This doesn’t quite solve the problem, and there is a deeply significant distinction between Faustian striving and Buddhist acceptance of the fact that desire condemns us forever to go round in circles.
We don’t have to believe that there is a way out, the way of desirelessness identified by the Buddha, in order to believe in the circular dialectic of rise and ruin and reconstruction driven by human passions. Xie’s mostly unbroken symmetries contain none of the traditional emblems of higher realms of being, although they may replace them with an order that contains all that Buddhism knew as the full range of imprisonment and liberation. The central images of these mandalas echo the Buddha palaces and the symbols of spiritual fulfillment that are found in traditional Buddhist objects of contemplation, but only the shapes are traditional. In Xie’s work, that which was formerly represented as a realm of perfected beings who aid in our way out of the labyrinth of desire has become a network of new perceptions that is formed by the shards and fragments of our own catastrophes.
In the Mandalas of Ruins series, each mandala painting operates on a distinctly different geometry, even though their prevalently dark palettes are similar. (The lighter tones of #13 are the only unambiguous exception. #14 and #16 are a mix of light and dark in which the dark is the defining background.)
It is the contrast of light against a dominant dark that makes forms possible at all in most of these paintings. Only in #17 do we begin to see passages of dark on dark that, taken far enough, would lead to something like Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black canvases. Xie almost certainly will not go there; the dialectical logic of the mandala itself would forbid
such a one-sided reading of the prospects of the luminous dark — a potential luminosity of darkness itself which seems very nearly bodied forth in Mandala #14, where the light itself seems born from the uniform darkness of the background.
"Samsara" , Still Image , Video Projection
In the video titled Samsara, the jeweled geometry of change becomes a literal kaleidoscope which begins as a slow swirl and gathers speed as it cycles through the elements, of which water is the most contemplative and fire the most spectacular. The creation and dissolution of patterns yield far more illuminated and/or luminous possibilities than paint alone will allow.
The cycle devoted to the element of earth is momentarily almost stable, though it is only the slowest of the cycles and thus only seems to pause. Forms grow and dissolve and finally explode in a burst of energy not unlike the Big Bang with which, the physicists say, our particular universe arose — or, even more, like Buddhism’s Clear Light and the formlessness that underpins the shadow show of history.
Continuous flux becomes hypnotic. Different speeds of rotation produce mesmerizingly seductive visual effects. It is almost impossible to turn away from the projection’s rich pageant.
That is, of course, exactly what samsara is, an ever more complex cycle of creation and destruction that need only be stepped out of to perceive its illusory qualities. The question on which Europe and Asia have historically diverged is whether or not we want to lose our attachment to the great round of physical change, and whether practicing compassion without identifying with our actions is possible or even desirable.
The wheel of history and nature has continued to turn, however, and what was once a simple opposition has become fruitfully complicated by the interpenetration of ideas: linear history has been supplanted by a fascination with fragments and incompletion, and a once-solid faith in material processes has been decentered and displaced by an awareness of the fragile nature of the structures erected by mind in response to the cravings of mind and body. At the same time that nature has come to seem more historical, history has come to seem more governed by nature: knowledge of the human genome and of our neurological circuits has seemed to define the limits of what was once thought to be an indeterminate capacity for freely determined action, and this knowledge of our inbuilt limits comes at just the moment when human activity is changing the underlying physical structure of the entire planet on which humanity dwells.
In their combination of slightly broken symmetry and untrammeled energy, traditional realizations and technological underpinnings, Xie’s Mandalas of Ruins paintings would seem to be an excellent visual metaphor for our present situation. As Buddhist thought and the sociology of knowledge and culture would tell us, we live, like it or not, in a condition of being that might well be called Samsara. Xie’s work leaves it up to us to decide whether there is a way of escape, and if so, what.