Conference Panel: Western Appearances

Saturday, July 7, 2012, 1:30pm – 2:45pm

“Legend of the Colfax Buddha Heads: Landscape, Race, and the Visual Cultures of Buddhist Modernism”

Gregory Levine (University of California at Berkeley). In 2005, the artist Casey O’Connor surreptitiously seeded hundreds of porcelain objects cast in the shape of the Buddha’s head into the American River near Colfax, California. Before O’Connor’s identity as the artist was revealed, Colfax, located in gold country, found itself in the middle of a Buddha rush. Local residents and Bay Area visitors sought out the Buddha heads as part of a rural mystery and speculation grew: What were Buddhas doing in the river; where they “religious” or “historical” objects; who had made them and when; were they Chinese, Japanese, or Thai in appearance; how much might they be worth? This paper takes up the “Legend of the Colfax Buddha Heads” and its place within broader histories of landscape, race, and multi-religious society in order to re-think conventional perceptions of (and desires for) the Buddha’s image in contemporary culture—challenging feel-good, cool-culture, and post-racial notions of Buddhism and its materialization.

“Resounding Stillness: Reflecting on the Bardo of the Present Moment”

Laurie Milner (Bishop’s University and Concordia University). Tacita Dean’s Stillness (in three movements), 2007, features six life-size projections of Merce Cunningham seated, almost motionless, before a wall of streaked and spotted mirrors in his dance studio: Cunningham, aged 88, is performing 4’33”, a composition for any instrument(s) composed by his life partner and collaborator, the late John Cage. The six films capture the quiet restraint of the dancer as he rests through the movements of the composition; at the same time, they invite awareness of the ambient sounds and events generated at the time of filming and in the moment of viewing. This paper explores Stillness (in three movements) through the lenses of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy – a view shared by Cage and Cunningham – and film theory; it considers details in the filmed performance – such as a faint tremor in Cunningham’s body – and in the film installation, as reflections on the nature of embodied experience in the bardo of the present moment.

“Contemporary Tibetan Stūpas in Modern Europe: The Opportunities and Risks of Constructing Buddhist Monuments in a New Cultural Context”

Eva Seegers (Canterbury Christ Church University). A Buddhist monument in the middle of a highly frequented public park?  Who is responsible for this project? What is the benefit of having such an exotic monument in the modern Western world? Is there a deeper meaning to it or do some freaks or hippies want to create “Little Tibet” in the middle of our society? Since the early 1980s the striking number of more than 200 contemporary Buddhist stūpas (Tib. mchod rten) has been erected by Tibetan Kagyu organisations across Europe. My paper shines light on the basic questions which arise when such exotic monuments appear in a new cultural context. The aim of my interdisciplinary research approach—religious, architectural and art historian—is the analysis of the reasons for the construction of stūpas in Europe, the parameters of authenticity, the possible inherent conflicts, and the variations in construction and function. The paper includes the debates that ensue when an age-old tradition finds itself again in its formative years, trying to suit a new cultural context. The presentation will include photo material collected during several research-trips across Europe.

“Contemporary Adaptations of the Oxherding Pictures and the Globalization of Buddhist Culture”

Marwood Larson-Harris (Roanoke College). As Buddhism has become more common in the West, traditional Buddhist art forms have been adapted to new ends. This is most dramatically true of the Zen Oxherding Pictures, a visual parable of the life of the Zen novice. Ubiquitous in Asian countries for roughly a millennia, it is now common in western countries as well, with numerous American Zen teachers, for example, using it for their lectures. But western Buddhist artists have also explored the malleability of the parable, and have adapted it into new media–film, theatre, music, children’s literature, poetry, and novel. For several years I have been collecting examples of these adaptations, which together demonstrate some of the transformations occurring to Buddhist concepts as Buddhism spreads around the world. On the one hand, some adaptations testify to the watering down affect common to popular Buddhism in the west, but at the same time other artists have seriously engaged the ideas in the Oxherding Pictures and applied them to new contexts. My paper will examine how adapting the Zen parable into new media has reshaped the Buddhist ideas, and how this process illustrates both the flexibility of the Zen original as well as the needs of new constituencies. Modern adaptations of the Oxherding Pictures are a unique window into the globalization of Buddhism.

This entry was posted in Abstracts, Conferences, Contemporary Buddhist Art and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.