Realm of the Immortals

October 22nd, 2013  |  Published in October 2013

Realm of the Immortals

By: Dustin Pike

“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

It was a rainy weekday afternoon when I had visited the Cincinnati Art Museum to view their new “Realm of the Immortals” exhibition, and upon entering was greeted with warmth. However, I must admit something before I continue. To pretend that I am a learned scholar steeped in Eastern cultural study would be a grave misunderstanding. Fortunately for me, I am in good company, as these types of people are far and few between in the west. It is because of this that my review will steer clear of the historical precedence surrounding the works, and their makers. Instead, what I can offer is an analysis of the works as they are presented to the western eye.

Immediately upon entering the show from the front entrance, a practitioner of Taijiquan, or T’ai-chi, greeted me through the medium of a flat-screen television. For most who are unaware, the name roughly translates to ‘supreme ultimate fist’, which, in my opinion, is a classic case of loss through translation. This martial art is a form of action meditation whereby the practitioner gracefully weaves through the environment to attain what is referred to as a balanced polarity. This polarity is attributed to the Yin and Yang, or positive and negative force, which serves a pivotal role in the show at large. I remember being presented with the all-too-famous yin-yang symbol as a child and thinking, “I definitely don’t want to end up on the dark side.” Such are the thoughts of a young western mind. However, after a bit of maturation, the mind begins to blossom and sees things anew. Suddenly the two sides of the symbol are no longer quarrelling, but dancing. Light without darkness is void. Existence implies an extension from the void, creating the kind of dual light here personified in symbol.

Another clear focus of the show was the influence of the 8 immortals of the Chinese mythos. In legend they are considered to be transcendent saints born in the Tang or Song Dynasties. It is difficult not to compare this specific number of personai to the cardinal directions, or the 8 hexagrams of the I-Ching, which the museum does indeed make a note to point out. As with every mystic system, there are certain symbolical hallmarks for understanding. For instance, it isn’t difficult to see in large hanging scroll portraying Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi, that there is a striking resemblance to the beloved Pan of the Greeks. Cloaked in a wild ensemble of leaves and tiger-skin, Han Xiangzi enchants the forces of nature to the tune of his flute. The Red-crowned Crane is a repetitive motif throughout the works, and I drew a possible connection through the Ibis of the Egyptians. The symbolism for each implies a healthy respect for stillness and concentration (they are apparently apt at spending great lengths of time standing completely still). Also, seeing as the crown is red, there is a hint that it is a sort of ‘mark of initiation’, such as in Cain and Abel. Yet all of this is simply speculation, and possibly the product of a western mind-set. The bias of any observer upon work such as this is bound to make impossible leaps of faith along the way towards understanding.

Walking through the installations, I couldn’t help but notice that there existed a definite chasm between east and west that has not yet been bridged. I found myself ashamed to admit this, but as I looked around at other visiting viewers I became aware that I wasn’t the only one. It was then that I felt quite humbled, and to be honest, it felt good. I wasn’t the ‘know-it-all’ I had thought myself out to be. There was a sense that others apparently didn’t have the same reaction. Confusion was upon the faces of many in attendance, including myself. Differing angles of perspective always seem to mock the mind, and this is as it should be. Mystery and the unknown are residents of the heart, not the mind.

The show provides a quiet sanctuary for the busy bees at work in the hives of Cincinnati. However, I would advise any attendees to loosen their neckties and leave their shoes at the door, for this world is vastly different from that which lies on the outside of the museum doors. Work created with this kind of meditative process is sparse in the western world, and so I remember leaving the exhibit feeling either enlightened by eastern thought, or disenchanted by my own. Either way, fresh air had been born in me and of this there was no mistake.


Comments are closed.