Spin Off: Contemporary Art Circling the Mandala

by Evelyn Tauben


– Paul Éluard

Visual motifs in Hindu and Buddhist practices, mandalas are representations of ideal worlds, used as the focus of meditation and visualization. Most prominent in Tibetan Buddhism but widespread across Asia, the mandala (meaning circle in Sanskrit) is a geometric composition: a circle within a square surrounded by further concentric layers, often with a principal deity depicted in the centre. With universal resonance, the circle pervades many traditions, including the full skirts of whirling dervishes, the rose windows of Christian cathedrals, and the yin-yang of Taoist philosophy. Circularity is also emphasized in Judaism, particularly at Rosh Hashanah when the tradition of eating certain round foods reinforces the cyclical nature of life.

Artists and creative figures of all backgrounds have been entranced by the formal simplicity of the mandala paired with its elaborate symbolism and function as a means toward spiritual enlightenment.1 Even the renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung drew upon the mandala, seeing the circular image as an embodiment of wholeness and the self. The work in Spin Off presents a new spin on this centuries-old composition while exploring the interplay of circles, squares, the cardinal points, symmetry, pattern and colour. Popular culture and the commonplace pervade: toys, logos, artillery, sand, medical images, music by Madonna. Combining the essential elements of the mandala generates an unmistakable energy, only heightened by the seeming incongruity of layering familiar images and objects onto this revered form.

Much of the work in Spin Off engenders a keen awareness of how the patterns of daily life are molded by Western society’s prevailing institutions. In Vandana Jain’s Logo Mandala series (2002–11), the saturated colour and solid abstract shapes of corporate trademarks are reworked to mirror the richly patterned surface of the mandala and its symbolic palette and form. In her prints and through the fantastical winding logo-inspired roadways of GE Highway (2011), Jain gives these well-known symbols new meaning while considering how brands have replaced the mental space once occupied by gods and religion.

In many ways, Western medicine is today’s opiate of the masses, given the prevalent blind faith in its curative authority. Probing medical science with an artist’s eye, Aya Ben Ron creates bold three-dimensional collages in Clastic (2000) and Blister (2002) by digitally splicing and rejoining images adapted from sixteenth-century medical illustrations of bodies corrupted by disease, deformity and dissection. The resulting jewel-toned radiating patterns explore the tension between harmony and the grotesque, between vibrancy and illness. Drawing on associations to the healing power of mandalas and meditative practice, Ben Ron questions the correlation and dissonance between the curative powers of art, spirituality, and traditional medicine.

Jennifer Zackin, Wonder Woman Cosmos (detail), 2002.
Jennifer Zackin, Wonder Woman Cosmos (detail), 2002.Photo: Nick Kozak.
War is another long-standing institution that insinuates its way into this exhibition, in seeming opposition to the serenity of mandalas. Jennifer Zackin’s Wonder Woman Cosmos (2002) is made from careful, concentric arrangements of toy soldiers, firemen, policemen, cowboys, and Indians, dominated by the Amazonian heroine of comic-world fame. Deceptively playful, this mandala-sculpture uses nostalgic associations as an accessible entry point to reinforce the ingrained place of combat in defining our image of heroism and cultural icons, training children to mimic militaristic scenarios. In another piece, Zackin again winks at the ubiquity of the army in our collective consciousness by carpeting a US Armed Forces parachute in traditional Peruvian pom-poms and suspending it from the ceiling to further invert its intended function. Crafted through a collaboration with Q’ero Amerindians from Cusco, Peru, the voluminous, vibrant Hanaqpacha Intiq Sombran (2004) (Heaven, Sun, Shadow in Quechua) fuses Zackin’s exploration of the mandala’s circle, pattern and colour with the traditions of Andean culture without discarding the ominous shadow of the world’s superpower nation. A reference to global conflict is also triggered by Mircea Cantor’s use of machine gun parts to create the kaleidoscopic Holy Flowers (2010), evoking the mandala’s meditative tranquility while conveying a real sense of danger in these bullet-blossoms. The series speaks at once to tense conflict zones around the world as well as the solace of eternal spiritual traditions.

Duality dominates in Spin Off: sacred and profane, East and West, ancient and contemporary. The mandala serves as a platform for fusing polar concepts and visuals. The duality is not just thematic but also fundamental to the creation of these pieces, all based on at least two pre-existing narratives. Firstly, the artists work with materials and imagery embedded with a history and encoded with a wide range of cultural resonances. Secondly, they take up a device bearing a long lineage and complex meanings. Simply evoking the mandala triggers a network of associations, while the form itself is predisposed to inducing a certain sensory experience in the viewer. Here, recognition of the familiar draws the viewer into these reinvented mandalas while the undulating pattern and syncopating circularity of the forms keeps the eye dancing between the details and the whole. Built on the texture of our surrounding environs, these works open up avenues for escapist reflection as well as an appreciation of the visual vocabulary that makes up our shared experience.

This inventive interaction with religious tradition also prompts consideration regarding the role of ritual and spirituality in modern life. New media and popular culture are often cited as leading factors degrading long held customs and even basic human connection. However, Melissa Shiff integrates hallmarks of popular media – video, animation, dance music – to generate the JAMS: Jewish Animated Mandala Series (2008), where Jewish ritual objects and the sinuous shapes of Hebrew letters morph into mystical abstractions.2 The JAMS evolved out of an earlier project considering the widely disparate devotional imagery found in Judaism and Hinduism, which produced the first incarnation of the video, As the Gods Turn: Hindu Animated Mandala (2007). Shiff repurposes objects and words central to Jewish practice, imbuing them with renewed energy. A new ritual is created but the potential for transcendent experience remains even as the material crosses into the realm of pop culture. Similarly, Gary James Joynes (also known by his recording alias Clinker) combines video, still images and ambient music to create an enveloping environment, a meditative space that fuses the realm of science with that of art-making and spiritual practice. In Ouroboros (2011), he renders the sonic visible by adapting a process largely confined to science labs, revealing how the shape of sound waves bears remarkable similarity to the configuration of a mandala. The images resulting from his manipulation of pure frequencies convey a timelessness and tranquility that belies the mechanics of their making. A soundscape of pure tones mixed with ethereal vocals performed by the artist evokes the chanting of Tibetan and Gregorian monks, signaling the centrality of song and voice in spiritual practice.

Resisting the stasis of history, the title Spin Off suggests the circle of the mandala in vigorous motion, even conjuring a wheel whirling off of its axis. The term spinoff has been popularized through television – a new program containing some characters or themes from a previously successful show in different settings. Indeed, locating an age-old motif in re-imagined contexts, the art in this exhibition is dynamic like a spinning circle, asserting the mutability of tradition, the migratory patterns of religion, and the universal search for meaning. These works prod at the structures of spirituality, create new portals for meditative contemplation, and bring us full circle to the sanctity of the everyday. Regardless of cultural affiliations or geographic location, we may borrow freely from religion, media and science to generate our own spinoffs.

1 See, for example, mandala-inspired visual art by Bill Armstrong (New York), Milan Fano Blatny (Bmo, Czech Republic), Dawn DeDeaux (New Orleans), Karl Holmqvist (Vasteras, Sweden/Berlin), Kimsooja (New York/Seoul), Alexandra Mir (Lublin, Poland/London), and Chrysanne Stathacos (New York). Books include The Solid Mandala (1966) by Patrick White and Mandala Symbolism (1972) by Carl G. Jung. In music, the song The Great Mandala (The Wheel of Life), written by Peter Yarrow, was recorded in 1967 on Peter, Paul and Mary’s Album 1700. Additionally, in the late 60s, the Toronto-based band Mandala performed their unique soul-jazz fusion across North America.

2 The JAMS were Shiff’s response to an invitation to create new work based on the Judaica collection of the Jewish Museum in New York for Off the Wall: Artists at Work.

Aya Ben Ron (Tel Aviv, IL) is a multi-disciplinary artist working in sculpture, video, drawing, and installation with an MFA from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her work has been included in numerous international art exhibitions including the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; MOCA Shanghai; Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; Hamburger Bahnhof Museum, Berlin; Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Israel; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; 2006 Biennial São Paolo, Brazil; and the Wellcome Trust, London, where she was artist-in-residence in 2001.

Mircea Cantor (Romania/France) employs a wide spectrum of different media, ranging from simple materials and old craft techniques to drawings made in candle soot, lipstick or fingerprints on the wall. His work has been exhibited internationally including the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Kunsthaus Zurich; the Camden Arts Centre, London; the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Yvon Lambert, Paris and New York; Magazzino díArte Moderna, Rome; and Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv. Cantor was awarded the 2011 Marcel Duchamp Prize, Paris.

Vandana Jain (Brooklyn, NY) has shown at a variety of venues locally and internationally, including MoMA PS1, New York; ABC No Rio, New York; Momenta Art, New York; the Soap Factory, Minneapolis; Grey Noise, Lahore; and With Space, Beijing. Her awards include the Bronx Museumís AIM program (2003), the Emerging Artistís Fellowship at Socrates Sculpture Park (2007), the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Residency (2008ñ9), and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant (2010).

Gary James Joynes/Clinker (Edmonton, AB) is a sound artist, composer and visual artist who has presented his experimental audio-visual work at Galerie8, London and Latitude 53 Contemporary Visual Culture, Edmonton, following a residency at the Banff Centre. His work has been performed and exhibited in Canada and abroad including Electric Fields, Ottawa; Mountain Computer Music Festival, Montana; Roulette Mixology Festival, New York; Mutek, Montreal; Leonard Cohen International Festival, Edmonton; Soundfjord re/flux Sublimated Landscape / Sonic Topology @ ICA London; Tanzstartklar Festival, Graz; SprawlóInterplay 4: Collaborations in 4 Cities, Amsterdam, Dublin, London, Bristol; and Standart, Madrid.

Melissa Shiff (Toronto, ON) is a video, performance and installation artist whose work is engaged with Jewish cultural memory and the relationship between religious ritual and performance art. Her acclaimed outdoor video sculpture, ARK (2006), was the keynote project for the Jewish Museum in Pragueís centennial celebration. Shiffís work has been featured in exhibitions, festivals and public events around the world including the Jewish Museum, New York; Beit Hatfutsot, Tel Aviv; and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Shiff is Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the University of Toronto and studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Evelyn Tauben (Montreal, QC/Toronto, ON) was Head of Programs and Exhibitions at the Koffler Centre of the Arts from 2008-12. With an MA in Art History from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, Philadelphia, she has worked on exhibition development, education and fundraising at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Museum of American History.

Jennifer Zackin (Brooklyn, NY) creates sculptures, videos and site-specific installations that have been widely exhibited in major museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Connecticut; Spertus Museum, Chicago; the Rose Art Museum, Massachusetts; the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio; Contemporary Art Museum, Houston; The Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, H¯vikodden, Norway; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; and the Zacheta National Art Gallery, Warsaw. Site-specific commissions include a project on Governors Island, New York City; Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, and the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Design: Tony Hewer | Editing: Shannon Anderson
Digital publication to the exhibition Spin Off: Contemporary Art Circling the Mandala
Presented by the Koffler Gallery Off-Site at 80 Spadina Ave., Suite 501, Toronto | September 22 to December 4, 2011
Guest Curator: Evelyn Tauben

© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2011, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved.
ISBN 978-0-920863-94-7.

Koffler family FoundationCIBC Wood GundyOntario Arts Council | Conseil Des Arts De L'OntarioToronto Arts Council | Funded by the City of TorontoCanada Council