sacred shapes

 

Sacred Shapes draws together three recent groups of works that explore visual encounters between me—a British artist—and East Asia, where I have lived for over 30 years. Through an evolving series of woodblock prints, I describe two-dimensional and three-dimensional shapes adapted from several cultures.

Near universal digitisation in the developed world suggests that a global society follows and is moved by the same trends and thoughts. Yet of course each culture’s taste, etiquette, sense of duty, moral system is different. Away from my homeland for many years, my sense of identity is reasonably fluid. I feel distant to structures that once shaped me, and mostly alienated from structures and living patterns that surround me now. I’m used to this in-between world, happy to lie between the gaps, nurture my skewed orientalism and puzzle over nationalism.

All art is about distributions of colours and shapes into arrangements that please us or challenge us. The eye interprets these shapes and the mind and body respond. Different cultures apportion different shapes and colours with powers and taboos. A shape sacred to one may not be sacred to another. Sacred is a subjective quality applied to an object, a person, a thought, a law, and so on, according to the value system of that social group.

FIVE ELEMENTS

That all living things in the macrocosm are combinations of five elements is a concept that appears in ancient belief systems across the world. The elements vary between earth, water, fire, wind and ether in ancient Greece, for example, or earth, water, wood, metal and fire in China. The five elements may be interpreted as energies, changing states, or qualities of solidity, fluidity, temperature, mobility and spirituality.

A group of prints made on a residency near Mount Fuji form a visual essay using colour, shape and abstraction to describe the five elements according to a blend of concepts from east and west.  The format loosely interprets the flat-to-pointed shape of Mount Fuji, ie earth to ether, which ancient Japan—pre-Shinto, pre-Buddhist—first identified as sacred. This hierarchy of spiritual attainment was adapted in the shape of Japanese temple lanterns, or toro, which follows the order of the five elements in Buddhist cosmology, beginning with the cubed lantern base touching the ground and moving to the finial, which is the jewel. Stupas and pagodas follow a similar evolvement of shapes from cube to finial.

In this visual essay of the five elements, each description contains several parts that float on the neutral background of the paper. For example, the descriptions include interpretations of mathematician Marcus du Sautoy’s discussion of five important mathematical shapes: cube, sphere, pyramid, torus and unshape (or ‘blob’ as he called it); and use five colours traditionally ascribed to the elements: yellow, blue, red, green and white. Additional forms carved into the woodblocks are based on shapes cut out from paper, or appear as inked strokes made with a calligraphy brush. The wide format of the five elements prints mimics horizontal emaki scroll paintings read from left to right. On the other hand, the print Five Elements: Black to White shows the elements in ascending vertical order from earth to ether.

TWELVE SACRED SHAPES 

The twelve sacred shapes, which are also mounted as a double-sided accordion book, interpret and pun the tapering kranok shape, a ubiquitous flamelike motif seen in Thai decoration, which is derived from organic forms such as buds and leaves. While kranok gives a delicate and often glittering appearance to Thai objects, costumes, painting and architecture, it is adapted from decorative motifs that arrived, along with Buddhism, statecraft, literature and art, in a process of Indianisation that spread, with Sanskrit, Brahman rituals and Hindu myths, across Southeast Asia. Rather than being an exclusive symbol of Thailand, kranok represents the flow of ideas and cultures from one people to another, and demonstrates that nothing is confined to one place alone.

In Twelve Sacred Shapes, a group of apparently unrelated international objects from science, geography and nature translate the kranok shape. These shapes mimic the upward curving forms and pointy flicks seen in, for example, temple decoration, Thai writing and in the long fingernails of temple dancers, all of which rise auspiciously toward a better, more sacred, place than the earth on which our feet stand.

Through kranok, Sacred Shapes also reflects on the pleasure and discord of being alien, how living abroad leads one to adapt and change. They also assess the presentation of Thailand, a popular tourist decoration today, as exotic and ‘other’ to foreign eyes, as well as the fluid assimilation of foreign ‘things’ into Thailand.

The book follows the twelve shapes reading from left to right on the front, and then left to right on the back.

The twelve shapes

Front

Land Upside down, Thailand resembles kranok. As a political entity, Thailand assumed this shape through negotiation with foreign powers. Leaf Many Thai decorative motifs are adapted from scrolling natural forms such as leaves, buds, bamboo and flowering vines. Radiolarian The lattice-like structure protects and keeps the single-celled radiolaria buoyant while it drifts through the sea. Its shape is like the Thai headdress chada. Cypress Van Gogh’s Provençale cypress from Wheat Field with Cypresses, painted at the mental asylum in Saint-Paul-de-Mausole between 1889 and 1890. Worm The convoluting body of a tapeworm recalls sacred Sanskrit insignia and calligraphy, but also royal ciphers. Fractal A rough woodblock version of the Mandelbrot Set, which Benoit Mandelbrot describes as ‘a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole’.

Back

Pinecone Typical pinecones have overlapping scales that spiral following the Fibonacci number ratio. The same sequence is seen on pineapples, artichokes and ferns. Topiary A cut and pruned shrub for a French formal garden assumes its shape mostly by manmade design. Rock From a woodblock depiction in the Chinese painting manual Mustard Seed Garden, which gives examples on how to paint landscapes, trees, hills and rocks, people and houses, and birds and flowers using ink and brush. Shell The empty shell of murex occa, a tropical sea snail found among the rocks and corals of shallowish waters along the beaches of Thailand and in the souvenir shops. Windsock Wind gives the windsock shape, while the windsock gives its form to otherwise invisible air and wind. Potato An ugly potato reveals the murky shape of Britain, itself a kranok. Like kranok, the potato has traveled from one part of the world to another. And like a potato, a westerner in Thailand may feel inelegant and lumpy.

SIX STANDING FORMS, FLAGS AND MANDALAS

Using various media, this group of works reshapes and recolours objects of cultural and national identity, such as pinnacles, mandalas, flags and stupas, offering a commentary on aspects of historic exchange between Thailand and Britain, as well as cultural slippage, craftsmanship, identity and crossover in globalized times.

Six Standing Forms

The six standing forms began as a flat two-dimensional watercolour sketch, and took me across several mediums: from 3d computer-generated graphics, to porcelain to woodblock. As with kranok, the six standing forms are also based on sacred shapes, part stupa part pinnacle, that merge Thai and English decorative features presented as flanges, knobs, chilies, spikes and crockets that suggest both Buddhist and Gothic motifs. The basic idea was to create six spires that incorporated aspects of pinnacles from my hometown of Oxford with Asian stupas.

The simple watercolour sketch I had became the basis for working with two different Thai craftsmen: one a potter at a benjarong workshop outside Bangkok; the other a computer graphics designer at a 3D print studio in Bangkok. Both craftsmen interpreted the flat pencil lines and brushstrokes of my design into three-dimensional forms, real on the one hand and virtual on the other. The process and the materiality allowed them some leeway in interpretation.

The rendering of the objects in clay involves a hands-on, full sensory experience, in which the object emerges from a formless mass in a process almost unchanged over millennia. The clay is first modeled, then dried, fired, glazed once then glazed again with added colours before reaching the finished result. In the case of these pieces, a mould was made so that the forms could be repeated.

The rendering of the standing forms on screen involves a different coordination of eye and hand skills, one that is less haptic, less messy, less fraught. With Autodesk 3ds Max, a system usually used for modeling architectural visualization, the designer creates the forms by first establishing a wire-skeleton structure over which coloured planes are stretched. The forms were then to be printed out on a 3D printer, but the process in 2015 is still hugely expensive. On screen, the forms can be rotated and viewed from any direction, including from below. 

The processes of working with clay, wood and on screen here form a comment on art and craft in the last 20 years. With the rapid digitization of many aspects of our lives there has been a corresponding growth in ‘nostalgia’ for craft. The notion of craft is changing, too. Creative processes that are hands-on, dirty, smell and involve physical effort—even oil painting—become bracketed as craft, as more and more artists, and artschools, opt for computerized or digitized methods to create art. While woodblock printing is seen as old-fashioned, on the one hand, it is increasingly embraced as an antidote to machine-made art, on the other. Working in CG, woodblock and clay involves interesting interplay between mediums.

Mandalas

Viewed from above in the CG wireframe renderings, the six standing forms become delicate mandalas, like actual stupas which, themselves if viewed from above also become mandalas. The mandala is usually an aid to meditation toward a higher spiritual plane, but here four papercut mandalas have brightly coloured themes cut out from old postcards of Thailand. Holidaying is a secular and less ethereal pursuit for the mind.

Flags 

Many of the structures that Thailand in the 19th century used to develop and define itself as a modern nation state were based on British ones at that time, when Great Britain was confident, united and hierarchical. The Bowring Treaty 160 years ago between Siam and Britain drew Thailand into a modern globalised world (then defined by the British Empire). In Six Standing Forms, some CG renderings, and other paper cutouts, the forms and images are depicted in red, blue and white—nationalistic colours associated with the flags of Britain, Thailand, France and the US, as well as many others. The flag prints are mostly uncoloured, on the other hand, and look back on themes of past glories, nationalism, collapsing unity and tourism.

Sacred Shape—Rock