Book Review: In the Now: Buddhism, Contemporary Art, and Social Practice


In 2021, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV) in the Canadian state of British Columbia was to host an exhibition titled In the present moment: Buddhism, contemporary art and social practice. This exhibition was curated by Haema Sivanesan, a curator at AGGV specializing in contemporary and historical art of South and Southeast Asians and their counterparts in the diaspora. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the gallery to postpone this remarkable exhibition to 2023. Fortunately, between last year and next year, the AGGV published a volume, edited by Sivanesan, of the same name as the exhibition. . The book, supported by the Robert HN Ho Family Foundation, is a collection of essays written by Sivanesan, Canadian writer Lydia Kwa, York University English professor Marcus Boon and Dutch artist Louwrien Wijers. It also contains a transcript of a discussion on “Buddhism and Socially Engaged Art Practice”, which was a moderated conversation between artists and scholars at the University of Victoria in 2019. At the end of the book is a list up-to-date reading. writings by selected artists on Buddhism.

Sivanesan’s research during his curatorial career has thus far covered the North American context. “Embedded in this is a long history of East-West exchanges and the globalization of modern Buddhism,” she explains, reflecting on the purpose of the exhibition and the content of the book: “However, I would be really very interested in developing this research by looking at the work of artists in Asia. I think there would be comparable approaches, but also, I think, important differences that would help deepen our understanding of the impact of Buddhism on developments in contemporary art.

Haema Sivanesan. At

The excellence of the works chosen for In the present moment only demonstrates that nothing can quite replace a physical, in-person encounter with the exhibition in 2023. In this informative book, Sivanesan notes that the exhibition and the volume explore both the “concept of art as that multi-sensory, lived and embodied a relational experience suited to the dynamic nature of the world, rather than a form of representation.(3) By encountering the art of the artists in the exhibition, viewers are invited to “the actualization of self and society”. (2)

This concept has its roots in the principles that underlie Buddhist art, the influence of Buddhism on Western artists, and the cross-cultural influences that have shaped Buddhist concerns in the West and specifically in North America. It also denotes a different way of encountering art, no longer “simply looking at on a work of art with a disinterested look. (71) Curiosity and open-mindedness are required not only in terms of the art or subject matter itself, but in terms of the methodology of creating and viewing the art.

Howie Tsui, Mount Abundance #1. 2010. Image courtesy of Haema Sivanesan

In his essay for the book “Towards the Experience of Emptiness: Buddhism as Artistic Methodology,” Sivanesan traces an artistic lineage that manifests in a creative engagement with the complex and abstract teachings of Buddhist philosophy. This commitment, in turn, contributed to the spread of Buddhism in the West, and, more profoundly, made artists “conduits of East-West exchange processes” and facilitators of “cultural expression” for the Buddhism. (7) Yet, how is Buddhism a methodology for the practice of contemporary art? Sivanesan observes, “I believe that contemporary art, especially since the mid-twentieth century, is an investigative practice, using the imagination to investigate social, political, and cultural issues, and the human condition. In general, professional visual artists are trained to develop their art practice in this way. What is specific to the artists I have researched has to do with how the practice of art intersects with the investigation of Buddhism. I argue that these artists draw from Buddhism as a methodology of artistic practice, in the sense that Buddhism provides a framework of thought and a system of methods that shape the inquiry that results in a work of art.

Chrysanne Stathacos, Pink Mirror Mandala. 2013. Image courtesy of Haema Sivanesan

Sivanesan proposes that Buddhism contributed significantly to what is called the “dematerialization” of the work of art. “This means that since the mid-1950s, Buddhism (and Zen in particular) has played an important role in the development of conceptual art,” she explains. “Conceptual art is more about the idea than the object or the image. At the heart of that is the experience of a work of art, which can result in an experiential openness of the mind, as you say. For example, you might think of John Cage’s famous composition 4’33” (1952) or one of Yoko Ono’s instructional pieces published in the early 1960s. These artists used plain language and simple gestures to conjure up a visual idea or image – like “spirit art”, we might say, often without producing a material object or image.The experience of traditional or figurative art is quite different from that of conceptual art.

Here she makes a distinction: “Conceptual art is not necessarily easy for the average visitor to an art museum. So I’m not sure it’s fair to compare with traditional painting and sculpture. But the conceptual art that many of these artists have engaged in can lead to a deeper experience, in my opinion. To some extent, I think it’s because a lot of these types of works have an interpersonal aspect – so there’s a way in which the viewer is directly engaged or involved in the making of the artwork. The impact is cognitive – a kind of realization or opening of the mind – rather than just a visual or aesthetic experience.

Michael Zheng, Learning (Diamond Sutra). Performance picture. Image courtesy of Haema Sivanesan

What about the “real world” in which art manifests, especially a post-COVID world that finds itself in a series of global crises and upheavals? “It’s a difficult question because artists tend to develop their research individually. But in general, contemporary artists interested in Buddhist ideas are also very concerned with issues shaping the contemporary world – climate change and environmental crises, refugee crises, issues of social and political trauma and healing. , cross-cultural healing, and so on,” says Sivanesan. “Obviously, artists can’t solve these crises, but they can humanize some of these issues, and by working with social practice as an approach, they can connect us to these issues – either to engage us more deeply in these problems, or to offer levity and respite.

In the present moment is much more than just an accompanying text to the exhibition – its rich and insightful essays alone deserve analysis and commentary. In particular, I want to explore in a future article the discussion of Buddhism and socially engaged artistic practice towards the end of the book. In the present moment is a wonderful volume on an upcoming exhibition, but it is an informative collection of essays on contemporary Buddhist art. The essays written by contributors push the conceptual boundaries of Buddhist art and in doing so challenge us to think about Buddhist art in distinctive and innovative ways. However, this is only the beginning. When the exhibition finally opens to the public next year, visitors will go to the AGGV and encounter the art, hopefully in the way Sivanesan suggests: by allowing the encounter to touch its interior, the place the most important of the transformation. Engagement with art, an outer form filtered through the five aggregates, stimulates general gender meditation in the inner self. In the present moment is a rich volume that offers a multifaceted, nuanced and thoughtful contemplation of many diverse voices.


Sivanesan, Haema (ed.). 2022. In the present moment: Buddhism, contemporary art and social practice. Vancouver: The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

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