ESR 2 Blog March 2021: Piu-Wai Chan

So, I FINALLY made it to the U.K.

It certainly was not easy to fly halfway around the globe during a pandemic*, especially when it came to packing–all friends offered boxes of face masks and sanitizers as leaving presents. Also, there were a few surprising lock downs in my area and I was never quite sure if I could make it to the airport.

So naturally, I was searching for some sort of calm center in the midst of chaos and exhaustion, then I found myself reaching out to some Buddhist philosophical literature. It offers a system of perception and logic that I would like to share today.

The particular literature I am referring to is Verses Delineating the Eight Consciousnesses which was written around 635CE, following a particular Buddhist doctrine, known as Vijñānavāda. It focuses on the epistemological and ontological positions of a particular Buddhist logic –to denounce the existence of the external subject and to illustrate how the external was fabricated by consciousness. Obviously, the depth and the complexity of such a framework is well beyond the scope of this humble blog post. Just to give you an idea, it identifies eight types of consciousnesses, nine conditions for the production of the consciousnesses, fifty-one mental functions, six hundred universal laws, and so on. As I re-visited John Roberts’s lecture, The Problems and Horizons of Socially Engaged Art Today, I found myself contemplating a certain philosophical component (The States of the Objects) from Verses Delineating the Eight Consciousnesses.

The States of the Objects
1. The State of Real Objects: Undiscriminated reality as first encountered through the five senses here and now.
2. The State of Distorted Objects: Mental-constructs that do not match the reality but still retain a grain of reality,
3. The State of Imaginary State of Subject and Object Discrimination: Imaginary states which may or may not become reality.

(Verses Delineating the Eight Consciousnesses )

Above is Vijñānavāda’s model of how a human perceives the world, according to Verses Delineating the Eight Consciousnesses. I have no intention in forcing such categorisations upon the concepts around socially engaged art. But rather, I utilize it as a ‘fluid’ metaphor to enrich my thought regarding the topic itself, particularly in light of the second and third states.

In his lecture, Roberts stated that ‘This is why, although, socially engaged art clearly encompasses and refunctions political activism and ‘community building’ through art, it’s the making and remaking of the intersubjective and intra-subjective space of praxis, that, overall, represents what is distinctive about the constructive and critical potentiality of socially engaged art in the long run.’ Extrapolated from Oliver Marchart’s Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere (2019), Roberts also added, ‘Artistic pre-enactment critically extrapolates from contemporary political realities…Art practices, in an entirely experimental way, may therefore pre-enact political ones – even though they will never be fully identical with political practices (because they would cease to be art.)’

In this sense, socially engaged art is an experimental model of possible social transformations. It operates within the realm of The State of Imaginary State of Subject and Object Discrimination. Nonetheless, it is not TRULY imaginary, because it retains a grain of reality, namely ‘political activism’ and ‘community building’, by shifting back and forth between art-praxis as politics and art praxis as political praxis. Ven. Guan Cheng, a renowned advocate for Vijñānavāda, once stated that by deliberately manipulating The State of Distorted Objects in your mind, one is more likely to turn such an imaginary state into reality. He later commented that this is the basic mechanics behind all the ‘positive thinking’ gurus. By staying with thought, it does spark hope in the inherent fluidity of socially engaged art and its power for social transformation as a practice of imagination.

* I would like to add a note that I am extremely grateful for the support and the dedication of the FEINART team and the University of Wolverhampton. Given the huge time differences, yet they still managed to stay in close contact with me and organized a range of meetings and kick-off events.

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