The masterpiece of a contemporary Chinese artist tells us a tale that is relevant for promoting a safe environment and reflecting on the Tai Ji Men case.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*Introduction to the international webinar “A Safe Environment for Tai Ji Men,” co-organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on June 5, 2023, World Environment Day.
I would like to introduce our webinar on World Environment Day by inviting you to a visual experience. It is about a peculiar work of art called “Fu Dao.” It has been celebrated as one of the most important artistic reflections on the environment in contemporary art.
There are also several reasons why I selected this specific work. First, the artist, Chen Zhen, was Chinese, as he was born in Shanghai in 1955, although he moved to Paris after the Cultural Revolution, became a French citizen, and died there in 2000. Second, just like Dr. Hong, the Shifu of Tai Ji Men, Chen studied traditional Chinese medicine, in which he was very much interested also because he suffered of a rare form of hemolytic anemia, which led to his premature death at age 45. Third, Chen, while maintaining an ambiguous relationship with his youth during the Cultural Revolution, was deeply interested in esoteric Buddhism and Taoism, which he saw as an antidote to the evils of an anti-ecological and consumerist society. Indeed, he saw his art as a Taoist experience. “In Taoism, he stated in an interview, the Void is only what is ‘between.’ Within this perception, the world can be seen as a ‘juncture’ in space. So why not see art the same way?”
“Fu Dao,” created by Chen Zhen in 1997, is a typical contemporary work of art consisting of a site-specific installation. That means that the work is installed for a limited period in a gallery or museum and adapts itself to the location. Each installation is slightly different from the others, and new versions can be installed after the artist’s death. Two of the most famous versions of “Fu Dao” were installed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2018, and in 2020–2021 (during the COVID pandemic) at the Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan.
“Fu” (福) is the Chinese character for “good luck.” The character also indicates the Buddha. Two different Chinese characters, 倒 and 到, meaning respectively “upside down” and “to arrive,” are both pronounced as “Dao.” Thus, “Fu Dao” may mean “Upside-Down Buddha” or “Good Luck Upside Down,” or “The Arrival of Good Luck.” Chen used all these titles in English for his installation.
The work consists of a pagoda-like structure with a roof made of real bamboo wood and leaves. Two kinds of objects are suspended to the structure, upside down. In the upper level, there are objects typical of modern consumeristic and materialistic society such as discarded parts of bicycles, tubes, aluminum and plastic toy cars. At the lower level, small Buddha statues are suspended, also upside down.
The use of real bamboo indicates the glory of nature before pollution. Interestingly, Tai Ji Men dizi (disciples) also build the dragons for their dances with real bamboos, while today most such dragons are made of aluminum and plastics. And Tai Ji Men dizi do not buy bamboo, they pick it up in mountain bamboo forests.
However, this uncontaminated nature is attacked by pollution, symbolized by the industrial and consumer product wastes hung upside down from the first level of the structure. It seems that spirituality is also lost, as the Buddha statues are small, are placed in the installation upside down themselves, and hangs from the lower level. However, the message of the work does not end here. “Fu Dao” means “good luck upside down” but also “the arrival of good luck.” Good luck and spirituality have a possibility of “arriving,” of coming back. It is up to us. We have a real bamboo roof, i.e., a loving and caring Mother Nature, upon us. The process of pollution can be reversed, and we find how to reverse it by looking at the “in-between” Taoist space.
Although for Chen the ultimate Taoist experience of self-cultivation was the production of art, we are not far from the message of Tai Ji Men. Dr. Hong teaches that pollution is a dramatic problem. Speaking at the 65th Annual United Nations DPI/NGO conference in 2014, he warned that the degradation of our beautiful ecological system has gone so far that it even causes “poor food quality and food supply shortages. Food insecurity threatens mankind’s survival.” However, Dr. Hong also explained that this dramatic cycle may be broken by making “changes to the foundation; that is, the heart of people.” In more spiritual terms, it is self-cultivation that changes the heart. This is not impossible, he said, since “justice and courage are in everyone’s heart” and an action “rooted in conscience and justice” may change the world.
Here we have the three elements of Chen Zhen’s masterpiece: the beauty of the environment, the drama of the pollution, and how to solve it. While Chen’s work expressed the hope that the Buddhas can get back on their feet from their present upside-down condition, Dr. Hong tells us how to achieve this result: by changing our hearts and going back to conscience.
Note, however, Dr. Hong’s repeated reference to justice. There is physical pollution and there is the moral pollution of injustice. The two of them go together. We will not eliminate physical pollution if we do not eliminate moral pollution as well. Dr. Hong speaks from personal experience. Getting the Buddhas back on their feet and creating a safe environment means changing our hearts, acknowledging the primacy of conscience, and facing and resolving injustice. Listening to the message of conscience of Tai Ji Men and denouncing and rectifying the injustice of the Tai Ji Men case are two sides of the same coin.