Andrea Miller talks with artists Miya Ando, Sanford Biggers, and Chrysanne Stathacos about the Buddhist inspiration behind their work.
Miya Ando, Steel Horizons
Miya Ando is wearing head-to-toe black, except for the pearly Buddhist prayer beads around her wrist. But greeting me at the door of her Brooklyn studio, what she wants to show me is pure, vibrant color: the robes she inherited from her grandfather. Ando’s grandfather was the head priest of a small Buddhist temple in Okayama, Japan, where she spent half her childhood. She remembers clearly the sound of chanting through the paperthin walls and seeing her grandfather dressed in these robes, which she is now carefully unwrapping. They’re made of almost luminescent purple and orange damask and still smell faintly of temple incense.
Purple is an unusual color for Nichiren Buddhist robes, Ando tells me, because it’s reserved for those who have been priests for fifty years or more. It is this purple and the contrasting orange that’s got her thinking about the impact of color and how she can incorporate it into her art.
This is a departure from the gray scale that has long been Ando’s focus. She’s a descendant of the celebrated samuraisword maker Ando Yoshiro Masakatsu, and following in his footsteps, her principal material is steel. She has made whimsical steel sculptures of traditional Japanese shoes, steel kimonos emblazoned with her Japanese family’s crest of wisteria, and even a steel skateboard. But over the years her chief passion has been creating twodimensional steel panels. They are, effectively, steel canvases on which she “paints” by sanding, grinding, and applying heat and patinas. Look at these panels in one state of mind and they are abstract fields of nothingness. Look at them again and they are vast vistas and distant horizons. “I am putting forth imagery that is universal,” explains Ando. “Anyone can look at a rectilinear form that is bisected and say horizon—land and sky, or sea and sky. That is a natural division of space to any human. It’s a universal language and, I hope, a comforting language.”
Wanting her art to speak to everyone is important to Ando because her personal experience straddles East and West. Her mother is Japanese and her father is a first-generation Jewish Russian American. Growing up, she split her time between her family’s temple in Japan and living off the grid on twenty-five acres of redwoods in California. “I very much feel American,” she says, “but I’m also greatly inspired by my Buddhist background and living in Japan.”
The Buddhist concept Ando keeps coming back to in her work is impermanence. There’s sadness in it for her, but also beauty. Ephemerality is what connects everything and everyone, she says. Steel holds up bridges and buildings and conjures up a sense of permanence. Yet even steel, one of the strongest substances we have on Earth, will at some point dissolve. This industrial metal reminds us of its vulnerability by reflecting the fleetingness of light and absorbing shifting color. Sparked by her grandfather’s robes, soothingly colored squares of steel canvas are now hanging on Ando’s studio walls, and near the door there’s a majestic steel kimono with shades of pink and red on the sleeves and skirt. She places in my hands a cube of solid aluminum, tinted lilac. “Monochrome color meditations” is how Ando describes her new steel panels in blue, gold, green, and purple, as well as the circular “mandalas” that she makes from a variety of metals. Not only do her color meditations invite the viewer to find stillness, the process by which Ando creates them—applying one layer of pigment each day—is also meditative. She has always approached her studio work as a contemplative practice. As soon as Ando enters her studio, she does sitting meditation. Then, following her family’s Nichiren tradition, she chants and prays. After that, mindful of her actions and her breath, she works on her art, fully absorbed in each task. She calls the way she works “walking meditation” but explains that it’s more meditation of movement that is based on traditional walking meditation.
Ando doesn’t have a particular temple that she attends in the U.S. because, as she sees it, her family’s temple is something she carries within her. “I’m not a Buddhist who feels the need for a certain cushion or 100 percent silence,” she says. “In my upbringing, I learned that practice—being conscious, being mindful—is like brushing your teeth. It’s an everyday thing.”
Sanford Biggers, B-bodhisattva
The disk of glass is seven feet wide and hand etched with an image of a lotus. Crisp, clean, and modern, it’s a calming and pretty piece—until you get close enough to see the details. Each lotus petal is the cross section of a slave ship, based on actual eighteenth-century diagrams depicting the most efficient means of storing human cargo. The people are packed shoulder to shoulder. The lotus is a Buddhist symbol of transformation. For artist Sanford Biggers, making a lotus out of slave ships was a way of transcending a painful history. Biggers does not consider himself a Buddhist but he is strongly influenced by Buddhism. Buddhist teachings on the Middle Way were what first captured his attention because, as he sees it, they relate to growing up black in America and learning to cope with both subtle and overt racism. For Biggers, living the Middle Way means not letting things that are good or bad take him too far away from being centered. In Biggers’ haunting installation Blossom, he explores the experience of African Americans. This large-scale piece can be viewed as a tree growing out of a piano or a piano hanging out of a tree. The instrument is playing Biggers’ version of “Strange Fruit,” a song made famous by Billie Holiday. It is about lynching. “The tree sees the good and the bad,” Biggers says. “The tree sees everything.” Trees have indeed been used for lynching, but it was also under a tree that Siddhartha obtained enlightenment. The tree transcends dualities.
In 2004, Biggers spent four months in Japan doing an artist residency and practicing meditation at a Soto Zen temple. To prepare for the residency, he went to various shops in his Harlem neighborhood and bought hip-hop jewelry. Then, once in Tokyo, he had the collection melted down and shaped into singing bowls, which were polished and engraved with the words Hip Hop Ni Sasagu, meaning “Farewell to Hip-hop.”
“Hip-hop had gone from a rebel type of music that often had political and poignant messages to something that’s all about bling and money,” says Biggers. “In that respect, I thought the spirit of hiphop had died.”
As a memorial, Biggers performed a bell ceremony at the Zen temple. He was joined by the head monk and fifteen other participants, none of whom were professional musicians. Each participant was invited to strike their assigned singing bowl whenever they felt it was appropriate. By improvising in this way, different aesthetics came into play and all participants were able to take part without having to train or read notation. Returning to the United States, Biggers— a former b-boy—began creating dance floors that he calls his B-bodhisattva series. They were made from surplus rubber tiles that he got from an old factory in Chicago—the kind of tiles that used to be on high school floors in the sixties and seventies. They had a particular color saturation that reminded him of Buddhist mandalas, so he hand cut the tiles and arranged them into mandalas of his own design. Biggers then took the mandalas/dance floors to breakdancing competitions, where he’d put a video camera above the floor and record dancers as the circles of their movements echoed the circular gestures of the floor itself. He would later show these videos and the floors—with all their scuff marks—at museums. He’d invite b-boys to the openings, and for a few hours each week the floors would usually be available for the public to dance on. The idea, he says, was that a floor would “collect more and more scuff marks as people danced on it. It would be like a patchwork quilt made by many different people—a dance floor made by different dancers.”
“Art exists, but it doesn’t really complete itself until the viewer has some interaction with it,” Biggers says. “This is the same exchange as playing in a band. As an artist, all I do is propose something visually. The viewer has to do a bit of work to make the piece complete.”
Chrysanne Stathacos, Impermanence of the Beautiful
Chrysanne Stathacos looked over the fence and saw a man in yellow and maroon robes jumping up and down in her friend’s yard. It was the spring of 1975 in Vancouver, and this was the first Tibetan lama she had ever seen. Later that day, the lama was going to give a public teaching, and Stathacos piled into the car with her friend, the lama, and the lama’s translator. When they stopped at a red light, however, Stathacos suddenly bolted from the car. “It’s not time for me to do this yet,” she blurted out.
Now Stathacos speculates that she wasn’t ready to go with the lama in 1975 because her focus was so much on art that she had nothing to spare for spiritual life. She was only five years old when she announced to her mother that she was an artist and “that was that,” she says. Stathacos—born in 1951 in Buffalo, New York—was raised Greek Orthodox. But, she asserts, “I was precocious in Sunday school. I never understood why there wasn’t a female in the Trinity and I would always ask, ‘Where’s Mary?’ At that time women couldn’t go behind a certain point in the altar, so I would ask, ‘Well, why is Mrs. Pappas allowed there to clean?’” It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Stathacos finally connected with a spiritual female voice. She was traveling in India when a friend invited her to a talk by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a Western Buddhist nun who’d been in retreat in a Himalayan cave for twelve years. In the middle of the talk, Tenzin Palmo asked the audience, “Do you understand?” And Stathacos thought: Oh, God, I understand that I don’t understand, and now I have to get a teacher.
Today Stathacos is a student of Gehlek Rinpoche and a founding director of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Initiatives. It’s an organization dedicated to reclaiming the lost traditions of Tibetan women practitioners by supporting nunneries in India and Tibet. Stathacos’ Buddhist practice also informs her art. This can be seen most clearly in her Rose Mandalas, one of which she made for the Dalai Lama when he attended the 2006 conference Law, Buddhism, and Social Change at the University of Buffalo.
The Rose Mandalas range from ten to sixty feet in diameter, and Stathacos makes them by plucking apart roses and circling the petals around mirrors. When the mandalas are fresh, they’re florally fragrant. Then over time the petals shrivel. Finally, the mandalas are dismantled in a ritual performance; they’re swept up or blown away with human breath.
In Tenzin Palmo’s words, “The Rose Mandalas symbolize the gradual unfolding of our innate spiritual potential. Conversely, these mandalas remind us of the inherent impermanence of even the beautiful.”
Ritual is at the heart of much of Stathacos’ creative output, particularly the ritual of wish-making. In 2001, Stathacos visited rock gardens in Japan and at one temple in Kyoto, the monks showed her some large stones covered with snow. They said that taken together these stones were in the form of the Buddha reclining. This inspired Stathacos to create Refuge, a Wish Garden, an interactive public artwork that she has presented on both German and American soil.
Refuge, a Wish Garden comprises a circle of sand with a large tree in the center. Around the tree there are eight wooden benches, painted eight different colors, and between the benches there are baskets filled with strips of fabric, rocks, sticks, and flowers. The public is invited to sit and engage in quiet contemplation. Then they can make a wish and take an action—to tie a piece of fabric to the tree, place a rock or flower, or use a stick to draw in the sand. Stathacos is fascinated by the fact that people across the globe tend to make wishes on natural objects, such as when they see a shooting star or when they toss a coin into a body of water. More than that, she’s fascinated by wishes themselves and has collected them from the public worldwide, including from homeless youth.
“When you give people the opportunity to write down their wishes,” Stathacos says, “you might think most of them would say they want something material.” But in fact people frequently think beyond themselves. They think compassionately. Here is one that has touched her: “I wish that bullets would turn to roses and hatred to friendship.”
Photos by Liza Matthews and courtesy of the artists.