The Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra, one of the most beloved texts of Buddhism, says, “All dharmas are marked with emptiness,” and “Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form.”
The words of the Heart Sutra are often found printed on the fabrics in Jan-Ru Wan’s artwork and illumine qualities of her aesthetic, which embraces both positive and negative spaces, ethereal volumes suspended on monofilament to create enveloping structures, seemingly arising from the void.
Several of Wan’s large-scale textile installations are now on view in a show titled The Ripple of Resonance at the Louise Jones Brown Gallery in the Bryan Center at Duke University. Wan was born in Taiwan and brought up within the Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Her work profoundly melds influences of both East and West.
Currently, she is assistant professor at the School of Art and Design at East Carolina University. She originally studied to become a fashion designer but abandoned that field because she wanted to express something deeper with her work, something she calls “the power of thread,” a concept that, for her, encompasses symbolic and literal imageries of thread as a connector and mender of whatever has been torn.
Often crafted of multiple, carefully constructed components or delicate repetitions of labor-intensive practices, her works take on meaning by accretion and accumulation, impressing the viewer with their intricacy, scale and herculean commitment of time.
A man’s shirt, a child’s dress and a woman’s dress hang in an arrangement from the Weight on My Shoulders series. Wan has altered conventional garments, surrealistically elongating the sleeves of the man’s shirt and the length of the woman’s dress until they turn into long trains that spill onto the floor. Like the frilly pink little girl’s dress that hangs between them, they are sewn with gridded translucent layers that hold what Wan calls “mystery metal”–pieces of very heavy metal that resemble short needles, or perhaps staples. Glinting through the pastel rainbow-dyed silk organza of the adults’ garments and the pink chiffon of the child’s dress, they mimic decorative sequins but carry a darker overtone of needles that may pierce or the material world that weighs us down. This attractive, protective chain-mail armor may also be a menace to don–making palpable the idea of the spirit attempting to rise beyond the constraints of the physical body. These uninhabited garments also demonstrate how this legacy is passed on.
“The Ripple of Resonance” consists of 800 house-like structures made of folded and printed plastic, stitched together and rigged to form a canopy that culminates in a central shrine-like structure whose 16-foot length spans an entire room of the gallery. The houses were created over two months in a residency in which Wan says she was exploring the “identity of the real house.” They are overlaid with printed images taken from diagrams of the pelvis and Chinese brush drawings that outline little children at play, suggesting the female body as the house for a child, and the house as a site for nurturing a child’s growth. The pearly, opalescent origami of these folded shapes evoke the repetitions of a mantra made visible and read like the scales of some mythical beast.
Under the central canopy, we see bells dipped in wax on waxed red cords. They express the paradox of the silent bell–for Wan, the necessary stilling of the mind from whence true self-reflection springs. In Buddhism, the bell is also a manifestation of the feminine principle of the wisdom of emptiness. A feather pillow placed on the floor below offers rest and comfort, and the encased seeds centered on the pillow indicate the possibility of spiritual growth under these conditions.
“Kuan Yin–observing the inner voice” begins on the floor, with hundreds of interlacing embroidered ribbons bearing a riot of daily observations such as “I am burning out” and “Is not desire sensation?” As these trail off, the piece takes flight on hand-woven panels stamped with yellow butterflies, indicating transformation. Connecting to a central bodice, borne aloft, printed with wispy Chinese-style clouds and designs depicting mudras (the sacred hand gestures of Buddhist practice) and adorned with the waxed bells on red cord, the garment culminates in a hooded train that reaches toward the ceiling.
Once again, Wan guides us through the moves of contemplative practice–if we attend to the myriad distracting voices that bind us, the perfect still, inner moment of meditation may arise. Kuan Yin is the Buddhist goddess of compassion, and through this work, we are offered compassion for the travails of everyday life, for the spiritual impulses trapped in the all too human body, and shown a way out.
The gallery will host a closing reception with refreshments for the artist on Saturday, Sept. 16 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. The Ripple of Resonance is on display through Sunday, Sept. 17 at the Louise Jones Brown Gallery at the Bryan
Center at Duke University. Admission is free. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to midnight, and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to midnight. For more information, call 684-5578.