Ever since I completed my trip to the Tibetan Plateau back in September 2016, I have dreamed to dedicate an entire exhibition for it. I jumped out of bed in the middle of the night in California several months later because I finally found words to express this dream of mine, starting with the term “Physical Meditation”.
Physical Meditation , the name of my exhibition, came about when I witnessed how Tibetans pray in the monastery. It is a very physical motion and at one point, their whole body lies flat on their stomach on the floor. It prompted me to think about the length I would go as an artist to voice out my unique perspective and role I play in the modern world.
This exhibition was my debut show in Penang, a UNESCO Heritage city in Malaysia with a burgeoning art scene and growing appreciation for cultural conservation. I took a risk to curate my stories from the Tibetan Plateau in multiple mediums from sketchbook pages, photos, watercolor to using acrylic, Chinese ink on both papers and canvases. I didn’t know who my audience would be and how they would react.
My risk-taking effort paid off when thousands of locals and foreigners showed up at the exhibition filled with curiosity and excitement. Through their eyes, the art pieces that were created based on my experience took on a different life. This mysterious faraway highland suddenly become a portal for visitors to reflect on the ideas of time, ancient totems, rural nomadic lifestyles, the meaning of prayers and spiritual places in their own way, Penang or beyond.
The biggest theme of my exhibition was about finding the familiar in the unfamiliar: Talking about Tibetan culture in Penang might be unfamiliar, but it gives people a chance to explore multiculturalism in Penang from the window of Tibetan culture; The subjects of sacred places, nature, and women in my work though specific are universal; Even when I integrated calligraphy into my acrylic painting, the thousand-year-old-cursive font I use are unfamiliar to most who are used to the block characters on our devices. Some asked if it was Japanese. Though not my intention, it was a valid association because Japanese writing system incorporates many Chinese characters.
Underlying all is the rise of economic power in the East. Many people are increasingly mobile and are exposed to the outside world, and with that there is a push for cultural advancement. Many social conscious people have populated Asia with startup incubators and entrepreneur ventures that promote traditional artisanship, empowering the idea of equality to youth and women, creating a salón-esque platform to gather a community of like-minded individuals with the aim of advancing our society. I have seen it in the Tibetan Plateau, and now I witnessed it once again in Malaysia. Physical Meditation is just one of the many ways I am contributing to that conversation.
While we might need to answer our society’s call for cultural innovation and advancement, we should always try to find clarity within ourselves first. Therefore, I want to close by defining the word Meditation, which has proved to be an unfamiliar term for some. To me, meditation is a play between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The aim is to collect the rare wisdom that emerges from a pile of unconscious noise of distraction, fear, worries. It’s an exercise of the mind, and it happens when I’m ‘in the zone’, painting. Every painting is the result of a deeper conversation between the conscious and the unconscious. I thank all the Tibetans and Malaysians who have shown me the importance of living in clarity.
Si Jie Loo is a Malaysian artist based in California, USA who tries to explore the different regions of China whenever she can in the name of art pilgrimage.