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Xiamen Dada and Chan Buddhism
Huang Yong Ping
Huang Yong Ping
The modern art movement in China was in full swing between 1983 and 1986; the groups founded and the exhibitions organized by young artists were extremely rich in both number and diversity. “Modern art” developed from something as terrifying as an epidemic to being a hip buzzword. Although it did not produce any laudable or historically memorable works—only all manners of compromises, awkwardness, and crudeness, full of traces of imitation—this was not important. What was important was that all this turned the art establishment upside down and contributed to the emergence of a new generation. This confusion, and the participation in creating it, was in itself of great value. This was obviously very “Dada,” and the time to promote the Dada spirit explicitly in China had arrived. Dada had never shown its face before, but now here it was. Everything that hasn’t yet appeared will certainly disembark one day—it’s just a matter of time before everything comes to China—which will bring about a more complete confusion.
We could say that only postmodernism makes explaining Chan become Chan itself, while having no trace of Chan. A work by Robert Rauschenberg can exist over a long or short time period, be made of any material, in any place, for any purpose, and have any outcome. This corresponds closely to the ubiquity of Tao, which is found “in an ant, in weeds, in a potsherd, and in urine” (Zhuangzi). Rauschenberg’s use of whatever elements he came across and his juxtaposing of diverse objects in his painting are very much in tune with Taoism’s ideas of the equality, sameness, and coexistence of everything. Marcel Duchamp comes closer to Laozi’s concept of “hiding one’s brilliance, appearing dull,” and to his contemplation and wisdom of life, than any modern Asian. Using an upside-down porcelain urinal (Duchamp) or packing the artist’s feces into glittering cans (Manzoni) to answer the question “What is art?” is exactly the same as Chan masters using “a dried feces stick” (Master Yunmen) or “three pounds of flax” (Master Dongshan) as the answer to the question “What is Buddha?”
This way of answering the question should be understood in terms of “answering without answering,” which insists on unveiling the meaninglessness of questions and answers by using this kind of meaningless action or language. Through practicing judo and experiencing the feeling of leaping into the void, Yves Klein was at one with Chan Buddhism’s spirit of dressing, eating, and transporting water and firewood. John Cage’s destruction of egocentrism, his belief that everyday life is a performance, shared the same life attitude—that of letting life and chance guide you on your way—of Chan masters who embody the highest spiritual attitude in every one of their daily acts. Joseph Beuys abundantly used the simplest materials to create works, aiming to recover the original state of life. He didn’t ask about meanings, and as long as you are sympathetic to his suggestive works, then his free attitude about supporting all manners of art making and his conversations with animals go far beyond our traditional ideas about art and painting. They embody the essence of Eastern thought—that is, greatness and vastness, nonattachment, and following nature’s lead.
Chan is Dada, Dada is Chan. Postmodernism is the modern renaissance of Chan Buddhism. Both Chan and Dada are famous for being the most straightforward and the most profound; moreover, they are basically not about aesthetic importance, but more about the impossible reality of reality, as well as extreme doubt and disbelief. In his lecture on Dada in 1922, Tristan Tzara claimed that “the beginnings of Dada were the beginnings not of an art form, but of disgust.” It is only after he had felt disgust that “non-art as no art” could start to turn into “non-art as the beginning of a new art.” This is a movement that is open to everyone—even if not everybody wants to liberate himself. In the art world, everything is permitted, but this freedom and this permission are not worth anything in themselves, because having freedom, and even the greatest extent of permission, also means that untruthfulness exists. Therefore, one of the main characteristics of a new kind of artwork, artist, and public is the blurring of boundaries.
A work of art stops being about an individual’s accumulation of masterpieces; it is now about the participation or the disappearance of the public. The artist puts down his gun and starts smiling. This means that the artist abandons his false noble image, competition and innovation, and the standard of value. The public will neither panic nor feel strongly about it when faced with “new” ideas and works; they regard Picasso’s paintings both as meaningless scrawls on a piece of white canvas and as artistic masterpieces. This is exactly the same way that Chan Buddhism sees a wooden statue of Sakyamuni: both as Buddha and as a piece of firewood. As “Buddha,” so as to connect with the living world; as “wood,” so as to go beyond it. At this point, “Buddha” and “art” exist only as an unchangeable meaning in the living world.
Still, not everything is wonderful. Everything must be abolished reasonably and unreasonably, as Duchamp pointed out. To regard art as the incarnation of Tao and Chan merely means that they are relatively close to each other, but not equal. The histories of Taoism and Chan Buddhism also show us that they are constantly facing change, just like everything else in the world. Thus, Dada is profound. Dada claimed that it was not adding another movement to the list but was opposed to all movements. This is a paradox: Dada is against itself. Thus, “wherever troops are stationed, thorns and brambles grow, in the wake of a great army, come years of calamities” (Laozi, Tao Te Ching). Yet what comes in the wake of years of calamities?
Excerpt from “Completely Empty Signifiers: ‘Dada’ and ‘Chan Buddhism’” (1988)
Last May I came across an acquaintance in the street in Xiamen. We didn’t talk to each other but simply nodded and smiled. At that time I didn’t know the meaning of his smile, and I suppose he didn’t know what mine meant either: because I myself didn’t know why I smiled. I think there probably wasn’t even any particular meaning; it was just the contraction of facial muscles. We all experience this kind of situation many times a day; it has become the greeting ritual in modern society—a sign. Here, “smiling” is not, as is usually assumed, used to signify a sort of complicity, understanding, or even irony, because in most real-life situations, I smile before knowing what I wish to convey by it. With such an expression, however, people easily have this misunderstanding that “to signify” always exists before “the signified.” It is similar to the debate in psychological philosophy over whether we cry because we feel sad or whether it is the mechanism of crying that makes us feel sad. In psychological philosophy, this kind of discussion inevitably ends up in a vicious circle. Nevertheless, this question doesn’t exist in linguistics; there is no “before” and “after” of the signifying sign and the signified. From a linguistic perspective, “smiling”—the contraction of the orbicularis oris muscle, which has become accepted as a greeting ritual—is a sign, that is, the signifier associated with the signified. If “smiling” didn’t have “positive” meanings, such as understanding or complicity, or “negative” ones, such as indifference or irony, the sign of “smiling” would become completely empty. To put it simply, it’s a “completely empty signifier,” and I am particularly interested in this issue.
Strictly speaking, the sign as a sign results from the inseparability of the signifier and the signified, as defined by Ferdinand Saussure. Take his metaphor of “a sheet of paper” for instance: it is impossible to cut the front without cutting the back at the same time; thus, the formulation of a “completely empty sign” is in itself a contradiction. This gives rise to two questions: (1) Are there any completely empty signifiers that are used as signs? (2) How can a signifier that originally included the signified become a completely empty signifier without the signified? Obviously, if question 2 is valid, then naturally question 1 is also valid. Question 2 deals with the historical development of terms. In some aspects, it is etymology, yet here it is more about art history within the history of terms, and the history of thoughts within the history of terms. In any case, we have to start the discussion with the current situation: the completely empty signifiers that are used as signs.
Dada in Western modern art history and Chan Buddhism in the history of ancient Chinese thought can serve as examples of completely empty signifiers. Here the phrase “completely empty signifiers” doesn’t contain any ontological or metaphysical intention. “Empty” is used as the category diametrically opposed to “substantial,” without implying any metaphysical statement of “empty is substantial.” We’ll stick to the linguistic level, without going into an in-depth discussion.
Chan Buddhism as a term in the history of ancient Chinese thought can be traced back to the Buddhist classics. In the Wudeng Huiyuan, or the Collection of Five Lamps, Volume 1: Buddha, it is noted: “Buddha sat on the peak of Vulture Mountain with an assembly of monks, he then picked up a flower and showed it to them. Everybody in the assembly remained silent, not knowing what he meant by this action. Only Mahakasyapa smiled. The Buddha then said: ‘I have the eye of the true law, the secret essence of Nirvana, the formless form and the ineffable Dharma which is not dependent on speech or words; a special transmission beyond all the other teachings. All this, I pass to Mahakasyapa.’”
The latter part of this passage is purely metaphysical verbiage, while the former has the value of linguistic analysis. This is the site of signs with meanings—an assembly of monks; one versus the assembled people; the mode of the knowing versus the unknowing; the mode of the teacher lecturing; there are words to say; there is a message to pass on—this is the prerequisite, the context. Buddha picking up a flower and showing it to the assembled people is a sign, which must have some significance, although what it signifies is unclear. This hypothesis is conditioned by the context, by its mythological nature (the context of Buddha being the object of great worship), and also by the language (where there is a “signifier,” or “sound-image,” there must be a “signified,” or “concept”). Once these conditions become habits, the question of “hypothesis” no longer exists. Thus, “picking up a flower” is the signifier, and it does have the signified, although it requires the assembled people to guess. The combination of “picking up a flower and showing it to the assembled people” (the signifier) and the answer to be guessed at (the signified) enables “picking up a flower” to be passed on as a sign. In contrast, the combination of Mahakasyapa’s smiling (the signifier) and the answer that, likewise, needs to be guessed at (the signified) makes the smiling a sign one can reply with. Here we cannot regard the sign Mahakasyapa replied with (the signifier, “smiling”) as his particular understanding of “the signified” passed on by Buddha. Does Mahakasyapa’s smiling (the signifier) mean understanding or irony? That is to say, what is the signified it contains? (What did he understand, or what was he being ironical about?)
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