The Passing Of The Bodhi Tree

2 03 2008

I was moved by art today, but I still don’t understand it fully.

Today is Mothering Sunday. For the first time the children thought of and bought on their own initiative small gifts for their mother. Whilst she was at church we cleaned up around the house, and after she got back we all went out to the Manchester Art Gallery, a place she’d been wanting to visit for some time.

Once at the gallery we went straight to the cafe and had a somewhat disappointing lunch. We then toured the various exhibitions. In the modern extension to the gallery there was an exhibition of work by a young asian artist, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba. In one large vacant room they were screening a short film, The Ground, The Root, and the Air: The Passing of the Bodhi Tree. We entered just as it was beginning and took our seats on a padded bench.

In the film a group of about thirty powered canoes were motoring up a large swift river between jungle clad mountains. Each narrow boat had a man crouched near the stern, steering and keeping the powerful engine going. Nearer the prow on each boat a second person was seated at a rought easel painting with black ink, or drawing with pencil or charcoal, on sheets of white paper.

The river was wide and powerful. The boats were all struggling up-river against the current. At one point the film focussed on the whirpools and turbulent water. The scenery was spectacular mist enshrouded hills. Each bend of the river would open up more vistas of jungle trees, rocky cliffs, and receeding mountains vanishing in the clouds.

The painters all worked in silence. Sketching the landscape. Filling in the details of the jungle and the river. None of the seemed to be terribly good artists. In fact I would their work was often childlike, but they were engrossed in their art. I wondered why noone was using a camera to more accurately capture the beauty of the scenes constantly unfolding as the boats bore them on and on up the river.

At the beginning of the film there was some very dramatic bhuddist music, with drums and cymbals. But that faded out and was replaced by the sounds of the boat engines, chugging and labouring against the river. No one spoke.

Occasionally the film would cut to a group of people in new modern running shoes and sports clothes running around and around a very delapidated sports arena. Eventually these scenes were overlaid with shots of a lantern, rotating with the heat of a candle. The exterior of the lantern had dragons and animals around it.

Back on the river, the boats continued their journey and the artists were still painting. The boats neared a large, old tree on the side of the river. It appeared to be a holy place with a stone embankment and steps leading up to a space beneath the tree. The painters all stopped painting and stood up in their boats, looking intently towards the tree. One jumped out of his boat and started the very risky swim towards the tree. Another followed, and another, and soon there were few left in the boats, which continued on their way up river, as the credits rolled.

As we left the viewing room I felt energised and excited. I was smiling. The film had been visually rich and emotionally interesting and I was sure there was some important lesson I could learn from it, if only I could put my finger on it.

I interpret the film as an allegory of a spiritual life; we are all artists, seeing the world with child like eyes; some are willing to risk all to worship the sacred and leave the main stream.

Am I an artist, on a spiritual quest against the current or am I just running in pointless circles? Would I jump? Would I leave behind my life’s work and risk all to experience the sacred and spiritual?