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No Earth Without Space: No Space Without Blossom

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In his essay The Dharma Gate of beauty Soetsu Yanagi, the distinguished Japanese scholar of Zen Buddhism, informs one that the following words could often be seen written across the straw hats of Buddhist pilgrims making their way from shrine to shrine:

Really there is no East, no West,

Where then is the South and North?

Illusion makes the world close in

Enlightenment opens it out on every side.

The Zen-inflected point which Yanagi drew from such words is that the path to spiritual enlightenment is a path that either avoids or transmutes such familiar dualisms of language and experience as: the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong – and even enlightenment and non-enlightenment (a dualism often transmuted in the liberating laughter of Zen)(1) In terms of visual art practice, one could add the following: the ancient and the modern, fine art and craft traditions, the figurative and the abstract, three-dimensional and flat space, the improvised and the structured, the materials and the spiritual, the finished and the unfinished.

Art historians and aestheticians enjoy discussing, debating, sharpening such categories, or dualisms: and why shouldn’t they, since such activity is, to a considerable extent, their role in life? But as the bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker once remarked, aesthetics can be to the artist as ornithology is to the birds. Over the past hundred years, this has been particularly the case. Artists of all genres and media have been concerned with precisely the sort of activity which bodies forth a world in which the ostensibly ugly may be the beautiful (think of the saxophone sound of Sonny Rollins or John Cultrane), emptiness plentitude (remember Tapies’ various reflections, both written and painterly, upon the Eastern idea of the void), improvisation structure (Hamsun and the Beats, for example) and the intimate the infinite (imagine the impact of a square inch of stained Rothko canvas upon someone like Gaston Bachelard).

What links all such examples, of course, is the extraordinary impact which Eastern art and spirituality have had upon the art and thought of the Western avant-garde, from at least the late nineteenth century to now. In the art of Choong Kam Kow one is offered an intriguing, enriching example of how that impact of East upon West within the history of Modernism can be both absorbed and provisioned by someone clearly able to bridge cultures, very much in the open hearted manner of Yanagi’s wandering Buddhist monks. As the artist himself has said: ‘The treatment of forms (simple and bold), the choice of colours (complementary contrasts of orange and blue, red and green etc.), the combination of geometrical patterns and organic forms (ready existing patterns and expressed or expressive shapes), the juxtaposition of drawn forms and printed shapes/texts (horizontal and vertical repetition) and the alternation of positive and negative (back and forth movements) are intended to create a distinctive personal identity with Oriental flavour in my work, as a response to the cultural and social environment surrounding me”.

That environment has many aspects to it. Deeply rooted in his own Eastern traditions of culture and spirituality, with the ancient Chinese traditions of (socially-oriented and ordered) Confucianism and (Nature-oriented and organic) Taoism infusing the yin-yang marrow of his work, artist and lecturer Choong Kam Kow is at the same time keenly aware of major developments in Western art, especially of the last century or so. The restless, experimental pulse of such art – from late-nineteenth century symbolism and early-twentieth-century abstraction to Abstract Expressionism, Pop and beyond – can be felt in many boundary-crossing works which marry traditions of fine art and craft a s surely as they do the historical and the archetypal, East and West.

Just as the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu honoured his spiritual and musical affinity to Claude Debussy by placing aspects of Debussy’s initial debts to the East within an aural landscape as Eastern and primal as it could be Western and historical (A Flock Descends Into The Pentagonal Garden, for example) so does Choong Kam Kow implicitly acknowledge the fructifying spirit of such Western amateurs of the East as Klee, Rothko and Tobey, returning that spirit to its home in what Taoism would call the Primal Virtue of the great oneness of life. And Choong Kam Kow does this with no sense at all of heavy-handed academicism: the spirit of wu-wei (what Taoism calls unforced, or right action, and what Christianity might call grace) informs a considerable portion of his work. (2)

Born in 1934 into the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society of Malaysia, Choong Kam Kow graduated from the Art Department of the National Taiwan Normal University in 1961. He then pursued graduate studies in the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, USA, where he received his Master of Fine Arts degree. Explosive and multi-faceted as it was, the American art scene of the 1960s offered much that might have seemed completely alien to someone steeped, as was Choong Kam Kow, in the traditional techniques of Chinese brush painting. However, as such a lucidly organized early work as Sea Beach (1967) reveals, Choong Kam Kow absorbed the various impulses of Abstract Expressionism, Hard-Edge Painting and (emergent) Minimalism with an intelligence as subtle and discriminating as it was broad-based and synthesizing. Later, the impact of both Op and Pop art, conceptualism and ‘Matter’ painting can be sensed in work which is as refreshing in its formal and material diversity as it is assured in its measured execution (the 1970 Vibration, 1975 Sea-Thru/Flow and 1976-1990 Festival Mood series, for example).

At the same time, much of this work speaks of an unmistakably Eastern sensibility. If some of the extraordinary Sea-Thru pieces are redolent of the hieratic power of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, the Festival Mood series can bring to mind both the mysterious logic of the I Ching and the seasonal pleasures of the festive cakes and other celebratory offerings of Eastern tradition. Rhythms of solitary meditation and the crowded market place are equally evident in a celebration of a life force greater than either. The multi-faceted Festival Mood series is a particularly striking example of Choong Kam Kow’s determination – and capacity – to deepen the narrative impulse of such early, landscape-based work as the 1960-65 Kinta Series: to turn observation into metaphor, prose into poetry, matter into metaphysics (and metaphysics into matter).

The titles of many of Choong Kam Kow’s subsequent works indicate how much that determination and capacity have been fed by a sensibility which is open, above all, to the source of all metamorphosis: Nature. It is intriguing to observe how, in work such as the Rockscape and Rhythmic Flow series of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Western qualities of sculptural, three-dimensional delineation and gravitational presence are set within an Eastern context of weightless, flowing metamorphosis. To a Western mind, some of these images might conjure the surreal thought of Heraclitus, philosophical poet of unifying flux, or what we today might call chaos, in dialogue with Aristotle, logician supreme of differentiation and classification.

In the recent Identity and Landscape series from the 1990s, the multi-planed sociability of the Festive Series and the earth-soaked spirituality of the Rockscape and Earthscape works attain a new register. With regard to the Identity work, the artist speaks  of his continuing fascination with aspects of the Chinese almanac calendar and of images which might be seen as a form of Eastern Pop. And with regard to the Lanscape work, it becomes more apparent than ever that Choong Kam Kow is an artist of reclamation, in several senses of the word. Just as he has used recycled waste paper in his work, turning the casual poverty of the discarded into a renascent signifier of the beautiful, so has this artist come to hymn the earth’s healing of the scars inflected on it by man, in work distinguished by that quality of organic transformation which Taoist thought calls li. Like the poetry of Gunnar EkelÖf, the great Eastern-oriented Swedish poet of our century, the art of Choong Kam Kow can speak of how “all things are in all things, at once end and beginning”. In such an art, we are encouraged to sense anew the truth of EkelÖf’s non-dualistic perception:

A window, a blossoming branch,

That is enough:

No blossom without earth.

No earth without space.

No space without blossom (3)

No earth without space, no space without blossom: such can be the simple yet profound note, as resonant as it is refreshing, which distinguishes the organic, multi-cultural path to enlightenment that is the art of Choong Kam Kow.

Dr. Michael Tucker
Professor of Poetics

School of Historical and Critical Studies
University of Brighton
October 1998

Notes

  1. The Eastern Buddhist, New Series vol XII no.2 October 1979
  2. See e.g. Lao Tsu Tao Te Ching (trans. Gia-Fu Cheng & Jane English) Vintage Books, New York 1972 (new edition, Gower Publishing, Aldershot 1996): Chang Chung-Yuan Creativity and Taoism Wildwood House, London 1975: Alan Watts (with Al Chung-Liang Huang) Tao: The Watercourse Way Penguin, Harmondsworth 1976; Ben Willis The Tao of Art Century, London 1987
  3. ‘Sung’ (Sung Dynasty) in Selected Poems (trans. Muriel Rukeyser & Leif Sjoberg) Twayne University Press, New York 1967

The preparation of this text would not have been possible without the stimulus afforded by the essays by Dang-ho Liu, Brother Joseph McNally & Teng Chok-Dee which are to be found in Choong Kam Kow: Paper Reliefs and Paintings Taiwan Museum of Art 1992.

From “The Works of  Choong Kam Kow  in The 90’s” , an  exhibition catalogue published  by University of Brighton, UK.   1999.

 

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