Alternative Neo-Spiritualities

Shen Xin, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Mountain River Jump, Zadie Xa and Waqas Khan

Also available in:  Chinese

Installation view of SHEN XIN’s Provocation of the Nightingale #1, 2017, digital video with color and sound: 22 min, at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 2017. Photo by John McKenzie. Copyright Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy the artist.

Shen Xin

Shen Xin’s video works—which focus on the ways spirituality and everyday life intermingle in a world complicated by power, science and love—convey a perpetual instability. In this turbulent environment, which mirrors our contemporary age, the artist posits that there is a need for constant reassessment of presented narratives. Through multichannel installations, split screens and the interweaving of abundant voices and images, Shen demonstrates the endless push and pull of disparate forces that affect our daily existence, and the fluidity with which these seemingly fixed and antithetical impulses interact with and transform one another. Achieving spiritual balance can be an alluring alternative to worldly conflicts, but in Shen’s work, faith is also depicted as a torturous journey paved with uncertainty. 

In the video installation Provocation of the Nightingale #1 (2017), two women embodying the tensions between science and spirituality—an instructor of Buddhist meditation and her student, a manager in a commercial DNA testing facility—sit apart on the floor, discussing their views. As the dialogue unfolds, they breach their initial physical distance with tentative caresses, caught between attraction and restraint, worldly gratification and spiritual remove. 

In Strongholds (2016), a 71-minute film, spirituality is physically invoked in the setting—namely, Kagyu Samye Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Scotland—where two romantically involved Dutch women are preparing for a dance performance. The surveillance drone that monitors their practice, and flashes of text from internet chatrooms concerning notions of suffering and Buddhist teachings on truth, are intrusions from the outside world, centering the ambiguities and conflicts in the intimate sphere of lovers within a greater collective struggle for clarity and revelation. OL

Installation view of RAMESH MARIO NITHIYENDRAN’s (left to right): 3 Legged Deity #2, 3 Legged Deity #1, White Hairy Head, Elephant Man 3, Head with Many Piercings #2, all 2017, earthenware, glaze, luster and bronze, at “R@MESH,” Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney, 2017. Courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney/Singapore.

Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran

Clay—the material of the earliest handicrafts in human civilization—possesses a latent potential for Sri Lankan-born, Sydney-based sculptor Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran. Although he works across a variety of mediums, including painting and drawing, it is this soft material that best yields his cultish, demonic figures—as well as the occasional grinning, genderfluid god. Binding narratives from Hinduism and Christianity, imagery from indigenous folklore and the neo-spiritualities that shape our consciousness and aid our psychological wellbeing, Nithiyendran forms little (and large) fiendish creatures that, when installed together, form a quasi-religious shrine customized for the contemporary earthly dweller.

Nithiyendran, who earned the 2014 NSW Visual Arts Fellowship (Emerging) for his work in pottery, aims to decentralize still-prevalent rigid perspectives on gender and the aesthetics of spiritualities. In one sculpture, breasts and phalluses sprout alongside each other as a tribute to the genderqueer Hindu god Lord Shiva, a constant source of inspiration. For his installation at the 2017 multi-venue exhibition “The National: New Australian Art,” a string of neon lights formed a phallic wall sculpture, referencing parietal art or the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egyptian monuments, in a grotto filled with other objects of idolatry. YC

MOUNTAIN RIVER JUMP!, Cards of Chinese Aniaml Idioms, 2017, set of 49 divination cards, 12.8 × 8.2 cm each. Courtesy the artists.

Mountain River Jump!

Identical twin sisters Huang Shan’s and Huang He’s names literally mean Yellow Mountain and Yellow River, two of China’s natural wonders. As individual artists, each has a well-formed art practice, but they have been collaborating as Mountain River Jump! since 2016. The two are 21st-century oracles who fuse artistic investigation with spiritual practice, all the while nodding to existing strands of mythologies in Chinese culture. 

A recent work was derived from an embarrassing snafu: during a medal ceremony at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, games officials displayed the wrong flag for the People’s Republic of China. Huang He, taking the lead on research about the design and history of her nation’s flag, tapped into the duo’s interest in fortune-telling and astrology, and drew the conclusion that the five golden stars on a red field actually form an astronomical chart. This led to the creation of Focusing on “The Star Chart” – Cultural Psychoanalysis (2017), a five-and-a-half-minute video that unpacks the artists’ theory that the flag’s stellar arrangement actually relates to the divine right of rulers. 

In another work, the Guangzhou-based duo designed a deck of 49 divination cards featuring well-known Chinese idioms. A spin on the traditional tarot, the work looks at how, in China, personal development is often described using metaphors involving beasts—“a lost lamb” or “a tiger grows wings,” for example. 

Further exploring their interest in heritage, Mountain River Jump! mounted two exhibitions in March: in Beijing’s Taikang Space, the duo examined female figures in Chinese legends to highlight the strength of women in folklore; and at Hong Kong’s K11 Art Foundation, they expanded their research on star charts and historical references. BN

ZADIE XA, The Conch, Sea Urchin and Brass Bell, 2017, still from two-channel HD video: 34 min 10 sec. Courtesy the artist.
ZADIE XA, The Conch, Sea Urchin and Brass Bell, 2017, still from two-channel HD video: 34 min 10 sec. Courtesy the artist.

Zadie Xa

Galactic imagery, rap and Korean shamanic rituals are interwoven in Zadie Xa’s trilogy of single-channel videos, titled Deep Space Mathematics // The Transfer of Knowledge (2016). The vignettes are based on the artist’s investigations into Muism, or Korean Shamanism. In particular, the Vancouver-born Xa focuses on rites of initiation and the transmission of traditional knowledge from shaman to protégé through dance and rituals—as a means to reconnect with Korea, her mother’s homeland, and her own ancestral history. In one sequence of the nonlinear video, a female figure in a hooded robe, designed by the artist and dotted with yin-yang symbols, rubs her hands together slowly in a circular motion. In Muism, the gesture is an act of supplication, signifying, for the artist, Korean indigenous wisdom carried through human bodies. As the woman performs this action, the footage is mirrored, and her two clones copy her. Unsynchronized and dislocated, the trio floats in deep space, nevertheless sharing in the same gesture. In another segment, the artist is submerged in a murky bathtub, wisps of her inky hair spread around her face in a network that, when superimposed on images of a glistening sea, appears to connect disparate stars. For Xa, outer space and the ocean are apt metaphors to describe the diasporic space and the quest for one’s own place in this complex web of narratives, mitigated by distance and Western assimilation, “familiar and understandable, yet completely foreign and full of the unknown.” Intertwined with Xa’s identity, Muism serves as a gateway for probing anticolonial resilience and traditional wisdom, connecting the artist with those who have come before, while forging a new path for those who will follow. CC

WAQAS KHAN, Breath of the Compassionate I (detail), 2016, from the series “Between the Palms (The Breath of the Compassionate),” 2016– , archival ink on wasli paper, 32 × 23 cm. Courtesy the artist and Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid.

Waqas Khan

The origins of Waqas Khan’s complex and detailed works are elemental: lines and dots. Repeated millions of times with painstaking precision in his drawings, Khan’s miniature marks are assembled into larger forms—often circular—whose subtle variations in texture and form evoke the intricate features of nature, such as the xylem and phloem of a tree, the capillaries on a leaf or the pulsations of a dying star. In making these drawings, the largest of which require hundreds of dedicated hours, Khan descends into a trance-like, meditative state in which his measured breathing allows him to focus for extended periods. His practice, as well as the drawings themselves, mirror his interest in Sufi mysticism—a theophilosophy of universal love, and his own personal disposition toward loving life.

A series of red-ink-on-white-paper works, “Between the Palms (The Breath of the Compassionate)” (2016– ), recalls examinations of cellular structures under a microscope, while recent works such as Oracle (2017), a white-ink drawing on black paper, evokes interstellar portrayals like the Planck space probe’s visualization of cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. While working on wasli paper recalls the practice of calligraphy, the drawings also unexpectedly emulate the digital realms they appear to eschew, as tiny digits come together to form something organic, complex and ultimately suprahuman. HGM

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