Artists: Notes on Art Making

Singapore-based artists of Japanese and Indian origins, Sachiyo Sharma and Sunaina Bhalla together created a conceptual installation at the Japan Cultural Centre inspired by the Japanese concept of Ma. Here Ma, void or space in-between does not mean absence of space, but an awareness of a transition, or invisible energy. This concept of space can be applied in visual and performing arts as well as architecture and landscape where exterior and interior of a built space conjoins with transitional terraces, porches, doors and windows wherein the ‘absence’ refers to the ‘presence’ - implying pause, anticipation, and hope. In music and dance - notes, rhythm and movement of a dancer’s body or a musician’s voice and hands or brush strokes applied at intervals in calligraphy - all resonate with Ma. Ma is present in Noh theatre, Ikebana, sumi-e as well as Zen rock gardens. The practice of living and submitting oneself to the present moment is explored by both artists in their own ways, where birth and death, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain are but different sides of the same coin, complimenting each other.

The concept of void, Hsu is also found in Chinese Buddhism, and Shunyata in the Madhyamika school of Indian Buddhism which consider void as the ultimate reality, characterized by tranquillity and indistinguishable dualities. Shunyata is explained by Shankara and Nagarjuna in Hindu and Buddhist philosophies as not void or absence, but awareness of presence that is beyond non-existence. Kshanabhangurata, or evanescence in Sanskrit refers to the ephemeral nature of life forms which bloom and wither away in a short interval of time. I have been fascinated with void or khali, time beat of a metrical cycle, taal in Indian music. They rise and fall like waves in the ocean, existing momentarily in time and space. Ma or void, or shunyata is the opposite of Horror Vacui, fear of empty space spoken of in visual arts and design by Italian scholar Mario Praz, who suggests that this psychological fear to fill up every empty space with patterns applies to visual presentation from ancient manuscripts and murals in Egyptian and Byzantine art, Islamic carpets, Indian trade textiles in Victorian fashion to ‘dressing’ shop windows with contemporary haute couture in Paris, London and New York. The approach to minimalism is what connects the eastern and western philosophies and creativity in today’s worlds which are drawing much closer and connected, even though the concept of Ma did not exist in western cultures traditionally. Both artists have addressed the idea of Ma in their own respective art practices which starts with a minimalistic expression using materials they have either inherited or encountered through life-changing experiences that bring to life their quests through a combined installation.

This thought-provoking homage to Ma explores the impermanence of life, evanescence of life forms, emergence of calmness from trauma of life-threatening conditions using materials like woven linen paper, cocoons, gold and silver threads, cotton cord, bandages, and pins, through intense contemplative processes.

The artists deliberately draw our attention to Ma in their works by focussing on the transitory nature of the very existence of life - by creating an awareness of silence and varied sensations. Created from scratch through an introspective process, these works exude simplicity and spirituality on different planes. The idea of transformation due to the passage of time recurs in the works of both the artists and through that impermanence of beauty, forms in nature, pleasure and pain which wither away and disappear. The artists transform not only their materials, they even play with the forms creating a mindful array of evanescent forms which coexist for a small duration of time to convey a meaning cognised through their respective existences. These experiential woven and block printed works are more to be ‘felt’ than ‘seen’, sometimes ‘entered’. They envision Ma through a sensorial resonance of rhythm at different levels through imprinted patterns and floating cocoons occupying the space of an entire room in a combined installation.

Sachiyo’s association with linen paper goes back to her Japanese calligraphic background and familiarity with paper, brushes and ink. She finds her inspiration in the Zen rock gardens. Sachiyo painstakingly spins the Japanese linen paper yarn with silver thread from Nishijin inspired by traditional Kimono sashes to weave her works into large paper tapestries. She weaves the tapestries with uneven texture and the texture replete with silver shines forth in some spots when it catches light. Sachiyo gives a new twist to traditional weaving with metal thread where asymmetry and irregularity of hand-made creations is the hallmark.

The tapestry works based on flower series titled ‘every life is beautiful - I, II, III’ and a larger work titled ‘Momentary - I & II’ are a reflection of her interpretation of Ma. Her works hold a very powerful message of the transience of life of flowers that are laden with beauty of immense proportion for a few moments after which they disintegrate, wither away, sometimes fossilize. In ‘Momentary’, she further disintegrates the image of a flower into squares and rectangles of different colours and sizes and places them asymmetrically slicing every stage of the bloom drawing our attention to the changing colours and shapes and the effect it has on the beholder. In this silent ‘performance’ of life, often trivialised and generally taken for granted, Sachiyo holds our attention and leads us to meditate on the vast arena of natural forms and phenomena that are perennial, although they change every moment - such as rivers, oceans, mountains, trees, flowers, even human bodies, to an extent.

In ‘Squares’ series, the inclusion of trace colours in small coloured squares and rectangles sprinkled across a vast white textured woven paper tapestry, Sachiyo lends a pause, as if striking a musical note, an ode to Ma. There is a structure in its disorder, even the loose threads linking two salvages vertically or the horizontal piping linking several woven panels in a vast tapestry. The play of light and shade reveals these great momentary transitions in her works which sensitize the viewers to appreciate the process of weaving itself.

Another work of Sachiyo that elaborates on the concept of Ma is her ‘Cocoon’ series. Cocoons symbolise moulting, creation and transformative nature of life forms such as silkworms, moths and butterflies. It also symbolises captivity and freedom and passage of time that the cast away cocoon alludes to. Life’s impermanence and breaking of moults, boundaries and barriers to make meaning and claim freedom are beautifully captured by the hundreds of little cocoonsshe floats in the gallery space. In drawing our attention to the cocoon, the artist refers to infinity and boundless nature of life on earth, that which is born is bound to die and transform yet the universe remains in existence perennially. Life of forms on earth change, even no two cocoons are of the same colour and when woven together, they form an orb of golden colour, another transformation begins with the intervention of the artist’s imagination. The multiple cocoon installation is a celebration of life and a dynamic exchange of vibrant energy that pulsates simultaneously in all of life’s forms, and when the wind blows them, they pulsate in their own rhythms.

Sunaina weaves steel pins on strips of cloth tied around woven cotton cords alluding to the immeasurable pain and existence affirmed by the pin prick of needles encountered and reaffirmed in the lives of many including the artist herself. Her works evoke a chilling silence one submits to after bearing pain through illness. The agony of bearing pain and transformation the human body undergoes when plagued by a life-threatening disease and living with and caring for someone, has manifested in Sunaina’s works literally as well as metaphorically.

Bandages appear in many forms in her works - wound endlessly around a cotton chord and pierced by pins reminding one of the monotony of stinging jabs and how one submits to pain in a ‘routine’ of tests and their anticipatory results, daily! A synaptic knob shaped installation of multiple pins inserted cords offers a sensorial journey conveyed over two neurons in the human brain. By encouraging one to pass through this installation titled ‘Synapse’, Sunaina explores Ma through the transition of agitation to resilience and silent submission overcoming an inner turmoil while undergoing an illness. In her summation, acceptance is not a sign of weakness but of strength and positivity.

Sunaina integrates the technique of block printing in her works to evoke uniformity, precision, monotony, and sometimes lack of freedom while alluding to the hollowness of existence. An ode to Ma in her works takes a positive spin on the very ‘rhythm’ of monotony in daily care of a loved one, transitioning from illness to wellness.

In another installation ‘The Irregular Metronome’ bandages are imprinted with patterns of arteries and veins and embroidered with red silk thread reminding us of the bloodshot veins of a patient’s eyes. Here the suffering and physicality of a disease transforms into a visually pleasing but disturbing array of red streaks randomly growing on the bandage surface, as if slowly taking control of the body.

Sunaina uses the tally symbol, another leitmotif of her creative concept, alluding to a measure of count, a method to track repetitive action, whether it is of taking a daily dose of medication or undergoing tests to track one’s health. This tally symbol is embroidered as well as block-printed in different permutations and combinations referring to presences and absences and the impermanence of life. In the work titled ‘The Divine Mark’, she transforms a mundane symbol into a reverential motif of sacrosanct nature.

Finally, the imprinted and bandaged forms come together in framed art works titled ‘Rhythm #2’ and ‘Rhythm #3’. One has a central panel of four-part bandaged cords tied together with gold threat in random order, a sort of precious metal inclusion found in many Asian healing practices. In the other work she places seven bandaged cords, some with suture thread and needle intact, referencing the monotony of daily and weekly routine of care and attention that one submits to with valorous calmness. The ‘rhythm’ of life and the ‘routine’ of life pulsate in unison with calmness in these works. The oval egg-shaped imprint covers the canvas surface applied randomly as ‘presences’ and ‘absences’ of life forms that have taken birth or are just about departed. Its subtle golden hue makes them visible and slightly invisible at the same time, underscoring their reference to Ma.

Published by Japan Creative Centre, Embassy of Japan in Singapore, 2018, p. 1-22
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