Flipping through PowerPoint slides at her talk in Kemper Auditorium on Wednesday, artist and curator Katarina Wong landed on an image detailing a rhizome, a plant structure that grows laterally. Attendees of her presentation came to discover how rhizomes represent intersections between Wong’s faith and her art.
“Rhizomic plant structures grow in ways so that they’re always searching for the most optimal growth conditions, I think the rhizome is the perfect metaphor for these kinds of… forces that enact in our lives and take us off of our linear courses… [Rhizomic forces in our lives], like with plants, are looking for our optimal conditions of growth. For me, that really begins with Buddhism and religion in a larger context,” said Wong.
Wong was invited to campus by Mary Kantor, Ph.D., Roman Catholic Chaplain, as a part of Andover’s first World Interfaith Harmony Week, which the United Nations has commemorated since 2011. The celebration of all faiths and spiritual traditions was proposed last spring as a way to supplement the conversation about intersectionality on campus, and to highlight another aspect of student identity.
“I thought of [Wong] because she does work in Buddhism, she’s crossing ethnic identities, national identities, and her art has been formed across all these things. She seemed like somebody who could speak to lots of aspects of what we’re trying to do… I was looking at her artwork again, and I was thinking she’d be a good voice to touch on a lot of aspects of faith,” said Kantor.
The talk, titled “Buddhism, Monkey Mind, Chaos and Connections” covered four main experiences illustrating how unexpected events in life can take people off their linear courses. Discussing the importance of her Buddhist faith to the development of her artwork, Wong reflected on how these uncontrollable forces shifted her life and shaped her work.
One event included her father’s death in 2009. After her grief took her away from painting for a few months, Wong was able to return to painting with a different mindset.
“This kind of chaotic grief actually took me out of the studio for a couple months… And when I came back to the studio, my work shifted completely. Prior to [my father’s death], I’d been making very large scale, very colorful paintings… and instead of painting delicate bamboo and birds, I just started throwing [out this technique].”
Although she has been creating art from a young age, Wong first became interested in religion when her parents sent her to an evangelical middle school. This fascination resurfaced during her time at St. John’s College, during which she attended a seminar on the Christian story of creation.
“If we believe that we are made in the image of the divine… we are co-creators… That was a really powerful way of me understanding our place as humans in this massive universe… It got me really interested in how other world religions dealt with the same mystery. I started reading a lot of different texts, and got very interested in contemporary Buddhist writers,” said Wong during her presentation. Buddhist ideals have greatly influenced Wong’s artwork. A series of her installations called the “Fingerprint Project” incorporated the Buddhist concept of dependent origination – the belief that reality is objective and co-created by humanity. Using molds taken from the fingertips of thousands of people, Wong co-created patterned sculptures with every participant.
“I wanted to see if that was just a pretty idea, or if it were actually true… I wanted to make work that was co-creative. I took molds of friends and family and strangers, all their fingertips, so that the pieces were literally dependent on everyone’s participation, ” said Wong.
“Buddhism is a system that speaks [most] closely to my experience of the world. It’s focused on interconnectedness. It’s kind of a radical idea that’s a little bit different than some of the other religions… These are all ideas that are really relevant to me. I find them fascinating in how to express them and how to play with them in terms of my own work as an artist,” said Wong about her faith. Kantor hopes Wong’s talk, as well as Interfaith Harmony Week in general, raises awareness of the conversation around faith and spirituality on campus.
“The students I’ve worked with and the conversations I’ve heard from atheist students, Muslim students… they’re all saying the same things. They want people to recognize [religion] as part of how we shape our identity. And that people know about it, respect it and want to learn more about it, and then help to get rid of some of the misunderstandings that exist around faith traditions,” said Kantor. Attendee Tanvi Kanchinadam ’19 thought it was important to have Wong speak about both her relationship with faith and her relationship with art.
“I think it’s important for someone who has such a sense of spirituality and such a deep connection with… not just her religion but other religions around her… and [that she] be able to not just incorporate it but to use it in her life,” said Kanchinadam.