Ourbody is a physical manifestation of impermanence and the transient quality of all life. It is in a constant state of flux and transformation. Our skin cells die and new ones are generated. As we age we develop wrinkles and sagging skin. Out hair changes colour like the leaves. We are an integral part of the natural cycle of all things. Whether the coming and going of the breath, the birth of an idea or of a living being, this moment by moment unfolding is a fundamental quality of all existence. These ideas and experiences inform my artwork.
1. Avatara, mixed media on wall
2. Ascent, mixed media on wall
“This Very Body”: The Zen Art of Hetty Baiz
For more than twenty years Hetty Baiz and I have been engaged in a dialogue about the impact of our Zen practice on how we, as women, make art and view our bodies. As her exploration of the subject through visual art coincided with the writing of my recent book, A New Zen for Women, I asked her to share her thoughts. Here is an abbreviated version of Hetty’s description of the process that eventuated in “This Very Body,” the show currently on display in RMIT’s unique and unconventional “Drawing Space” gallery headed by the art faculty’s Dr. Irene Barberis.
Imprinting the figure of her own body on torn tissue and other mixed media, “then tearing and ripping the parts (legs, arms, hands) and recombining them to make a ‘body,’” Hetty paints and stains and collages the resulting body parts in an effort “to come up with an integrated whole.” Preferring tissue paper for its transparent quality, Hetty creates her life size “body collages in mixed media,” by putting “down many layers of tissue paper and then [peeling] back and [tearing] away at it” until the form she seeks “has evolved . . . until the true ‘self’ reveals itself.”
Hetty continues: “[I]n writing about these pieces, how they were made, what I was experiencing in the process, I realize they are very influenced by my experience with Zen . . . by my years of sitting [meditation]. It just comes out and through the work. It is an integral part of the work. It cannot be separated. It’s how I see and experience the world . . . the transitory quality of all life, impermanence. It’s not something that I find horrific but, rather an integral part of what it means to be human. In making [these] figures, I am trying, through direct expression, to imbue these pieces with this very dichotomy and reality . . . [the] broken and transient [body], evolving/devolving from nothingness . . . yet substantial, right there in front of the eyes, made from . . . torn tissue and paint . . .”
Hetty’s “body parts” rendition of her Zen practice is affectionately self-deprecatory—but not self-hating. Using Chinese and Japanese traditional imagery in very nontraditional ways, her work slyly manifests the true spirit of Zen art. Those looking for a sign of Zen wisdom in the otherworldly features of a blissfully meditative Buddha are likely to be disappointed. Zen artists through the ages are known for portraying their spiritual practice in eccentric guises—like the book of Japanese art I once read that contained a scroll painting depicting the Buddha as a bullfrog sitting on a lotus throne, delivering a sermon to an audience of monkeys, cats, foxes, and rabbits dressed as monks. The same spirit of tender humility pervades Hetty’s work. Like the great comic 18th-century Japanese Zen artist Hakuin, her “body parts” collages reveal that there is no event or creature or image too trivial or base to provide an opportunity for discovering that we are all embodied “ghosts” in this world—just passing through, simultaneously physical and ephemeral, form and emptiness both.
I am especially fond of the way Hetty lambastes the seriousness people usually associate with Zen practice: the image of bald monks in black robes rigidly lined up in rows, sitting stiff-backed in meditation. The way she celebrates her woman’s body, all women’s bodies, tells us we need to lighten up, to stop being so serious about our condition. She’s prodding us to acknowledge that our women’s bodily experience of the world is as spiritual as a monk’s—maybe even more so, because monks are so removed from the everyday experience of the world. Anyway, male or female, we are all bound to break up, “till almost nothing is there.” So why not accept ourselves as we are? Why not love our bodies—temporary and broken as they may be.
Contributing Rmit Drawing Students:
Boe Lin Bastian
Elyse Mc Leary