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Buddhadharma : Spring 2011
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 11 72 is photographed in a sequence of 2,922 double-page spreads. Kim exactingly merges the exposures. The words blur, and the sutra seems to vibrate visibly. I once had a dream that I could hear the Buddha teaching and though I couldn’t make out the words, it didn’t mat- ter, because I knew them already. That’s the spirit of Kim’s work. Multiple exposures are not new, but Kim’s scale is intense. Each photo in his series “City Indala” (the title references Indra’s Diamond Net) contains ten thousand layered shutter- shots of one urban center. The “ten-thousand things” of New York City accumulate in a gray fog that seems form- less until you sense all the lives packed together in an ocean of coming and going. Displayed next to it is a golden fog contain- ing the sum total of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings. Downstairs, a time-exposure video reveals Kim’s dramatically beautiful ice sculpture of the Parthenon slowly—and gorgeously—melting and flowing away. Wolfgang Laib, one of the most admired of today’s sculp- tors, reveals an unexpected side of himself. His quiet and simple forms, which had always seemed Minimalist, turn out to be offerings—literally. Invited to collaborate on the instal- lation, Laib was given his pick of the Rubin’s collection. He chose a red, black, and white Avalokitesvara thangka radiat- ing luminosity. It’s installed on the wall above a low shelf holding Laib’s little red-lacquered house-form sitting on a bed of white rice. Along the floor, a row of gold-brass plates each holds a cone of white rice, except for one cone of brilliant yellow pollen. All of it is spiritual comfort food for famished humans. In a talk at the Rubin, Laib made it clear that “coming and going” in the great sense is his life’s work. He began his first “milkstone”—which earned him instant acclaim in 1975— after he saw Hindus pour fluid milk over a stiff stone lingam in India. The milkstone at the Rubin is typical: a floor-hugging slab of polished milky marble is slightly indented to hold milk poured fresh daily by staff members. It’s visually impossible to tell which is marble and which is milk. Form and flow have merged in lotus-like white perfection. Since that first trip, Laib has floated in the warm waters of the Buddhists, the Jains, the Sufi mystics. Too many artists use these teachings as intellectual props—but not Laib. He just “practices art” as though he’s lighting incense. Without the revealing context supplied by the Rubin, however, you might not guess that. The Rubin performs a similar magic for Sanford Biggers. Born in Los Angeles in 1970, and deeply invested in black hip-hop culture, Biggers has lived in Japan, worn Buddhist robes, and ceremonially shaved his dreadlocks like a monk tak- ing vows. He has long been making cross-cultural allu- sions. In Prayer Rug, col- ored sand poured directly onto a concrete gallery floor in New York in 2005 cre- ated Native American dia- mond designs. The pouring method invoked Tibetan sand mandalas, and the title sug- gested Islamic prayers. In the circular staircase at the Rubin hangs a seven-foot circle of heavy glass contained by a rung of black steel. Step back and you see only a sunflower-like array of petals gleaming white in the glass. Up close, each petal reveals itself as the classic diagram of the hold of a slave ship, where human beings are lined up in orderly rows like so many barrels of rum. This terrible image of unbearable suffering has appeared elsewhere in Biggers’ work. He painted a mural of the slave ship sunflower in black on a Harlem wall, for instance. But something transformative happens when the light hits. For this piece, Biggers has meticulously hand-carved each figure and etched it into the glass. Installed in the stairwell, the sunflower-lotus burns with emptiness. Each slave ship, lit- erally made of absence (the carved-away glass), is not here anymore. Each unbearable moment is gone. Each slave has become white light. Only in a Buddhist museum would this realization rever- berate down the long corridors of the dharma and speak of the immense transformative power of shunyata. The release from suffering becomes less a thought than an experience, a realization of inner light. Atta Kim ON-AIR Project 153-1, The Monologue of Ice Series, 2008 Video still Courtesy of the artist