Wolgang Laib and Milkstone

The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art is like the pocket-sized Shinto shrines that can be found all over Tokyo—an oasis of calm in a complicated and complexifying urban landscape. I have been a member since it opened in 2004 and spend time there on almost every trip to New York.

The current exhibit, Grain of Emptiness, features contemporary artists who have been impacted by concepts that we equate with Buddhism such as the void, the fleeting nature of life, the power of ritual. The works by these artists—Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand—are quiet, navigating that space between maker and viewer with dignity and mutual respect. The work ranges from installation to video to painting. An accompanying lecture series that happened over the fall and winter was reason to make me wish I lived in New York City again. The speakers included several from my list of favorites—Bill Viola, Wolgang Laib, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Patsy Rodenburg, Charles Renfro, among others.

Laib’s work has been one I have followed for a long time, and his installations of plates of rice and marble stones that are topped off with milk always move me to some place still in me. The images by Atta Kim are extraordinary as well.

Is it possible to describe what these works have in common or are trying to achieve? Hard to do. Apropos to the exhibit is a passage from the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (The Heart Sutra):

Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form:
emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness;
whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form.

And from the catalog preface by Martin Brauen:

Although, or just because, emptiness is such a central idea in Buddhism, approaching this Buddhist principle is hard for several reasons: first, because emptiness evades definition, it resists description or analysis. Emptiness is beyond conceptuality. It is nonconceptuality par excellence. Second, in the West emptiness tends to be equated with nothingness, a way of interpretation that can scarcely stand up to more precise examination but is nevertheless widespread. And third, even within Buddhism emptiness is a concept that is discussed and described in a variety of ways, which makes clarification more difficult.

One of my favorite phrases is from Wolgang Laib: “The ephemeral is eternal.”

So in the spirit of that ekphrastic urge to use poetry to describe art, here’s Alice Fulton’s contribution to the mystery.

Mahamudra Elegy

Then emptiness grew more empty,
the scent of scentlessness.
How could it be?
When emptiness is that which can’t be

emptied any more, neither malicious nor
a state that welcomes us
with munificent alohas.
I fingered it like an incision, fondled it

like a rosary of thorns, thinking
if every instant holds
the maximum abridged, tranquillity must be
somewhere in the mix. So concentrate.

A live volcano is the recommended site
for certain meditations. Think time
exists because a dropped glass
breaks and here we are existing,

witnessing the ornaments,
decorative yet dear. Mundanities
that dazzling seem extruded by a star.
Stellifactions. Mahamudra.

Words to conjure with. The great
seal, great gesture, the mahamudra
holds snowflakes to their certitudes of lace.
While fire thinks fire

is what everything aspires to, time thinks
through its helpless locks: its ambergris
flocked with a sailor’s buttons, its mud wasp
buzzing like a mini vac. Every solid is a clock.

–Alice Fulton

This poem appeared in the Atlantic and came to me by way of Carl Belz.