Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Dialectic of Space: Anselm Kiefer and Tibetan Sand Painting

A tension exists between human activity and the natural environment as reflected in both human and geologic history. The uniqueness of our experience of the landscape is manifested in both the visible topography of the land and evidence of human interaction with the environment.
This dialectic compels us to understand and experience landscape art by asking specific versions of the general question: “How is Art” rather than “What is Art”(which Mary Anne Stasniszewski asks in her book, Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art.)  With regard to landscape, Trevor Paglen in his essay, “Experimental Geography”, tells us that art production itself is based on two things, materials and space. The “how” of art in the case of landscape therefore addresses the spatial dimension of our experience, as well as how this is conveyed through the materials used to create the image.  It answers the question, “how is the land experienced?” by considering materiality, spatial dimension, time, and topology, all of which are key factors in this dialectical exchange. 
In this critical analysis, I compare two treatments of landscape from widely different traditions and approaches to this concern: the art of Anselm Kiefer, specifically his masterpiece Osiris and Isis; and the genre of Tibetan sand mandala paintings, particularly the sand painting created in five days by the Drepung Loseling monks at Sonoma State University in 2011.  Though representing vastly different cultures and histories, these two are intertwined in the convergence of past and present – Kiefer’s allusion to the ancient Egyptian myth on the one hand, and on the other the emergence of Tibetan sand painting into the full glare of modernity from its origins and centuries of practice cloistered not only in the monasteries of Tibet, but also behind the Himalayan isolation of Tibet itself. 
The Nazi regime was a particularly convulsive cultural and political turning point in modern human history. German artist Anselm Kiefer, born at its dying moment, confronted Nazi myths and tropes and the devastation it wreaked on all of Europe, but particularly on the German landscape. Kiefer’s work Osiris and Isis is one record of this devastation. Tibetan art, on the other hand, linked as it is to the spiritual enterprise of Buddhism, has survived mostly unchanged for hundreds of years, even through the violence of Chinese subjugation and exile.  But despite the obvious contrasts, there are many important points of contact between these two oeuvres: both use landscape, space and architecture toward compelling spiritual ends.
Let us begin with Kiefer’s Osiris and Isis. This large (12 ½ x 18 foot) painting shows a large steppe, a temple mount, seen from below, towering at a skewed angle in forced perspective, filling the entire picture plane with a massive sense of volume and weight.  We are situated nearby, as if we could almost touch it.  We are in its space, directly confronting its huge presence. This is an axis mundi, a focus of energies that leads in a circular fashion around its square circumference to its pinnacle. Like a burial mound, this stepped architecture alludes to death, but its gradual stages of elevation and evolution seems to point to hope and promise. We are invited to walk the path from bottom to top in a kind of ancient, mimetic ritual. There is a sense of the ominous here too, by the dark palette of rust browns and blacks that smear the surface of the painting.  Kiefer disrupts the surface and accentuates the surface topology with debris such as a television circuit board, copper wire, organic matter and porcelain shards, a technique that viscerally elicits a sense of tactile discomfort. The spatial torque of the over-extended, two-point perspective further adds to the disorientation.
Author Simon Schama, in his powerful book, Landscape and Memory, writes that Kiefer reinvented the traditional forms of landscape and history painting, by turning “back to German Expressionism, for the raw texture, the gritty materiality, of historical truth….Kiefer was concerned with a different kind of integrity: that of the undisguised storyteller, the orchestrator of a visual Gesamtkunstwerk: a total experience, at once operatic, poetic, and epic. So he pushed the plane back down, using aggressively deep perspective to create the big operatic spaces in which his histories could be enacted.”
Besides the inherent and implied meaning of the materials and spatial techniques in the painting, the title Osiris and Isis points us to a mythic level of meaning, wherein the story of the Egyptian gods helps us understand through allegory the meaning of the cultural and historical heritage of postwar Germany. In the epic Egyptian myth, Osiris’s brother Set kills him out of jealousy and scatters his body parts around the kingdom. Isis, both the sister and wife of Osiris, finds her husband’s remains and ultimately resurrects him. By both the title and method of the painting, Kiefer clearly refers to the trauma and destruction of Germany and the hope for reunification and purification. Kiefer thereby questions contemporary German history, in terms of its totalitarianism, use of technology, and implementation of its policy “the Final Solution “– all dangerous tropes that dehumanize, separate, and demonize the “other”.
The topological landscape of the temple mount represents the concretization of these mental attitudes. Kiefer spatially symbolizes the journey for purification and reunification by inviting us on a “walk-around”. The path we are to take begins at the bottom, and as we proceed we encounter pieces of German identity (the detritus, “stuff” of historic record), elements that will eventually aid in rebuilding a new German identity. Kiefer thus creates a visual statement about the complexity of human existence on this scarred planet. He engages the mythic figures of Osiris and Isis to deepen our understanding of that experience – it becomes a personal spiritual statement and a universal moral imperative. 
Such a statement is unusual in the contemporary Western artistic practice, but it is a major theme in Far-Eastern artistic traditions.  And in Tibet, it’s by far the dominant mode, as befits a society pervasively centered around Buddhism.  
Tibetan sand paintings are mandalas, and are therefore an integral part of Tibetan Vajrayana (Tantric) spiritual practices. For centuries, the ritual involved in the creation of sand mandalas was only seen in monasteries, but they are in recent decades “performed” by Tibetan monks in numerous venues, including art museums and college campuses. As shown in the accompanying video of the creation of the Green Tara Mandala at Sonoma State in 2011, the monks paint a spatial equivalent to a cosmogram, a “map” of the sacri mundi, the two-dimensional spatial depiction of earthly manifestation. The creation is enacted in a few days, which mirrors the telescoping of experience over time into the present moment. 
The architectonic space of the sand mandala has at once a mythic, a physical and a spiritual aspect.  It contains spiritual and historical figures and symbolic decorative elements within a complex arrangement of stepped spaces of circles and squares radiating out from a central orb.  The detritus of existence, whether from fear, ambition, power, or competition, become opportunities for growth and purification on the path to enlightenment. The process invites our memory of healing forces in the shape of deities, and evokes a better future.
The physical space is which these spiritual realms exist is represented in the sand mandala by the geometric topology of colored sand set in place, grain by grain over the time of its creation. The sacred space begins at the center and slowly “unfolds” to the outer edges of the composition. The monks apply the sand particles by vibrating a slender metal funnel. The picture plane lies flat, and the point of view is aerial, as if we were a bird floating above the creation of the world.  Elaborate shapes, religious decorations, and symbols of the religious deities define the pictorial space. Representing the earth and all its aspects, the mandala becomes an act of prayer. The process reveals a seamless connection between idea and object.  Art here is transformative and experiential. In the making and in the resulting perception of the mandala, we feel this sense of participatory and existential realities.  Worshipers circumambulate the completed mandala both physically and imaginallyduring the associated rituals.  The spiritual path is experienced through time, and marks a process of development.  In the end, the mandala, like life, is ephemeral and is destroyed in a ritualistic ceremony with the particles of sand placed in flowing water.
The cyclic nature of the process is worthy to note. Both Kiefer and the Tibetans acknowledge that the spatial element supports the act of transformation. Whether we circumambulate around the cosmic steppe, the sacred mount of German history, or the symbolically manifested universe, we experience space as inherently full of meaning. 
Similarly, the land we live on contains a mystery that can be reenacted in thought and deed. The relationship between human history and the landscape is dynamic and in constant flux.  Nature, ecosystems, the environment, the biosphere, and the landscape – all refer to a sense of space as a container in which the complexity of life is played out.  The horrific and the beautiful hold hands in this cosmic dance.   In the end we stand speechless, with a sense of awe that the world is.

Andrews, Malcolm. Landscape and Western Art. New York, N.Y.: Oxford UP, USA, 1999.
Paglen, Trevor. “Experimental Geography//2008.” Nature: Documents of Contemporary Art (2012): 104-6.

“Sacred Tibetan Sand Mandala Time Lapse.” YouTube. CSUSonoma, 18 Apr. 2011. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <>.
Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York, N.Y.: Knopf, 1995, 126.
Staniszewski, Mary Anne. Believing Is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art. London: Penguin, 1995. 1-100.