Images of transcendence

This article appeared under the title Mythic Dimension in Artesian : magazine of upwelling art and creativity.No.6 2003/4.


Early in 2002 I was on retreat in New Zealand. The retreat was focussed on the mythic dimension of the spiritual life. There was a simple program of meditation and silence - we lived simply amongst the trees and bird life of the New Zealand bush. It was an idea setting for exploring the archetypes and symbols of Buddhism. The idea was that we would set up the conditions by living a very simple life with lots of spiritual practice, and allow the mythic dimension to manifest. My own response took some time to surface, but then one afternoon I started scratching a Buddha face into a clay bank. I followed with another Buddhist symbol, but then things really began to take off. I had a vision of a life-sized standing Buddha and began to dig!

At first I had to excavate a lot of clay - for this I used my only tool, a spade. Eventually I got the general outline and began to sculpt in more detail, using sticks and stones as well as my bare hands. Each time I worked I would get covered in clay - it was very elemental work. The upper layer of clay was much finer and made a good slurry which I could use to plaster over the top and to glue other bits together. It had a rich golden colour that seemed to go so well with the myth of the Buddha who is said to have golden coloured skin.

The standing Buddha has his right hand in the gestures of fearlessness and the left had in the gesture of generosity. These two qualities represent some of the most fundamental values, and virtues in Buddhism, and two qualities I am struggling to embody in myself. The image of the Buddha is one that has become almost universal - popular culture has appropriated it to adorn CD's, bars, even drugs. But my quest was for a more authentic connection with the archetype of the Holy man who has transcended suffering.

At that time images of the destruction of the gigantic Buddha images at Bamiyan in Afghanistan were still fresh in our minds. Perhaps in a way I was defying the iconoclasts of the world. There was also a feeling of solidarity with those artists, almost always anonymous, who have created Buddha images down through the ages. And of course there was a feeling of connection with the historical Buddha of ancient India. The feeling of plastering mud over the face of the work was very sensual, very intimate - almost like caressing a lover.

Finally I do think that in some small way I did make a connection with the mythic Buddha who transcends space and time. One important aspect of this can perhaps be seen in the transitory nature of the work. Even before I finished, the drying mud was cracking, and the clay seemed to want to return to its natural state. After two months I returned to the site and re-photographed the work. Now they were crumbling, cracked, pale remnants. This impermanence is central the Buddhism, it is an eternal truth that, like the mythic Buddha, stands outside of space and time - it is always and everywhere.