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 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.
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