Art of Cultivation, Cultivation of Art: Tending Charwei Tsai’s “Bamboo Mantra”.


Laurel watering Charwei Tsai's Bamboo Mantra

Laurel never expected to turn gardener when she joined the Art and Programs team.

The label for Charwei Tsai’s Bamboo Mantra states that the canvas of the work, twelve potted bamboo plants, will inevitably wither and die, as an example of the Buddhist precept of nonattachment. It is my job, however, to make sure the inevitable is staved off until after September 2, when our current exhibition Phantoms of Asia closes. Therefore, I can be found every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning with a big yellow watering can, making sure the bamboo gets the water it needs to stay alive.

Despite appearances I am not actually the staff gardener. As an assistant in the exhibitions department, most of my day involves administrative work ensuring the success of our exhibitions—scheduling, budgeting, and planning for the shows we will be hosting in the New bamboo shoot, with a fallen leaf featuring Charwei Tsai's calligraphy beside it.coming years. When we added Charwei’s work to the object list for Phantoms, there were many questions to answer—was it safe to have living plants in the galleries? Would the bamboo come with any insects that might pose a threat to artworks? Would they get enough sun? And, finally, who was going to take care of them? As the staff member with the most confidence in her green thumb, I happily volunteered.

It’s been fun to take care of this artwork for the last two months. Bamboo, which is actually more closely related to grass than to trees, grows very quickly. In its native environment, it has been observed growing up to 39 inches in one day. Due to the foggy San Francisco summers, our bamboo has been performing considerably worse than that, but its vigor is still impressive. In the last few weeks I have watched stalks grow from new buds to towering eight-foot shoots. Just this morning, while tending to the grove behind Ganesh on the third floor, I spotted a new sprout emerging from the soil. I look forward to watching it grow. At the moment it looks just like this Japanese lacquered netsuke from our collection. There’s something very satisfying about the plump shape of this bamboo bud—brimming with life, possibilities, or, in some cuisines, deliciousness.

As part of her art practice, Charwei delicately painted the heart sutra on the surface of the plant itself. Eventually, the plant will outgrow all the calligraphy, shedding old leaves and stalks. Every day, one or two painted leaves fall from the plants, but they are always replaced by new, fresh green leaves. The heart sutra describes the temporary nature of all things. There is flux at the heart of this artwork. It’s been rewarding to visit it so often. Every time I see it, there is something new.

2 Responses to “Art of Cultivation, Cultivation of Art: Tending Charwei Tsai’s “Bamboo Mantra”.”

  1. Ambroisine  on September 18th, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Hello !
    The idea of associating art with nature is amazing, and I like the poetic dimension of the leaves that fall. Do you keep them once they felt ? And do you know if Charwei exclusively painted the heart sutra in an artistic point of view, or does she meditate as well ?
    Thank you, and please forgive my English !

  2. Laurel  on September 28th, 2012 at 11:27 am

    Ambroisine, your English is impeccable. The artist memorized the 262-character heart sutra as a child. According to her, painting the sutra repeatedly helps her reach a purer state of consciousness, so yes, I would say she meditates—or rather, her art-making practice is an act of meditation.

    When the leaves fell from the plants, I collected them and placed them in the pot at the base of the bamboo. It was a conscious decision not to preserve them in any special way. The leaves slowly decayed, going back into the soil and nurturing the future growth of the plants.

    Thanks for engaging with this artwork!

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