By Caroline Reddy
The Sweetcake Enso exhibit presently visiting Zendos across the country displays a variety of Ensos that play in the dance of form and emptiness. In the pieces that were submitted for this exhilarating exhibition, form reflects the myriad conditions of everyday life—elements that equate daily existence are respected and celebrated.
Inside some of these circles of enlightenment, composed by contemporary Zen practitioners and artists, viewers discover an array of phenomena: gliding red snakes, crows, skulls, fragmented neon stickers, layers of colorful shapes resembling staircases, gritty metallic scraps and morsels, cosmic bubbles, and orbiting squares—all impressions that exemplify and illustrate life in its entirety. Alongside many elegant ensos constructed out of ink, metal leaf, mixed media, homemade paper, and found objects, an interactive sculpture entitled This and That, created by local Empty Hand Sangha member, Carolyn Fuchs, absorbs the participant in the process of creating a black-and-white enso in space the moment that a handle is spun. A mirror, hung serenely on the wall, reflects the genesis of an enso.
This and That, a peculiar sculpture devised from cast, iron, wood, metal and acrylic paint is based on the phenakistascope: an early animation device that used the persistence of motion principle to create an illusion of motion.* The breadth between the artist, her creation, and the participant vanishes as a black-and-white enso surfaces.
“I was trying to decide what to do,” Carolyn—who also goes by Carrie in our Sangha—explains as she shares her impressions on the labor of the phenakistascope. “Originally I wanted to create a painting or a drawing but nothing seemed to inspire me. I felt like I was forcing it too much, so I took a step back and thought about other ways to express an enso.” In order to emphasize the spontaneity of an enso, Carrie decided to design a three-dimensional one; this format would allow participants to work with her to create the circle of enlightenment—accenting the energetic, and spontaneous, liveliness that ensos evoke. “I started to think about a sculpture with an element that someone had to physically actualize. Each person would create the circle in space, activating a series of images that would be reflected in a mirror - their movement initiating the story. I wanted to give to the viewer, as my partner in the process, the moment of spontaneity expressed in painting an enso or experienced through a single brush stroke in calligraphy.” Without the participation of a viewer the images would remain static.
The enso in Zen represents emptiness. In an animated brush stroke a spontaneous moment emerges freely creating a circle of enlightenment; thus an aesthetic union occurs. There is no artist and there is no creator—just an energetic force that emanates and electrifies the space. Ensos also “evoke power, dynamism, charm, humor, drama and stillness.” Traditional ensos emerge from the monastery custom, where students spend years with their teacher, mindfully practicing calligraphy and creating countless circles of enlightenment. Audrey Yoshiko Seo observes that “only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true one. Some artists practice drawing an enso daily as a spiritual practice.” Forgoing the spontaneity of one stroke painting, Carrie spent a length of time with This and That. “It was an open process; the animated content kept changing and I had to make a concerted effort not to fight that until I absolutely had to make a decision.”
The animation is intentionally ambiguous. Carrie explains the symbolic allusion ingrained in the enso: “The animation features birds, an iconic and powerfully symbolic image. In this particular flight, a tangled ball of string is tethered to the bird’s feet. Carrying the string could have different implications: a burden, unidentified/unfocused energy, or anxiety. At a certain point in the animation the string snaps, unravels, and falls into radiating space; one can interpret this as a catharsis. And as it dissolves - as the tangle falls away from the bird - it disappears, only to reappear to start the process again. This mirrors the symbolic cyclical nature of an enso.”
The cyclical nature of the animation emulates the paradigm of creation. In Zen Circles of Enlightenment, Seo links our hominal relationship to the circle. “Our connection to the circle is in some ways obvious. We are embedded in the circularity of the horizon. We live on a sphere that, with other spheres, circles around the sun, in the vast celestial dome. We are enamored with the moon. In art, we highlight an abstract circle’s many natural forms—the ring, the sphere, the wheel. We create halos that float above Saints’ heads, and perform ritual circle dances.”
Traditional enso calligraphies are often brushed in black ink; likewise, Carrie designed her enso by omitting color from her palette. “I chose to paint the image in black-and-white to simplify the image; it makes the animation more crisp. If it was done in color, the images would be muddled on the disc and hard to discern. I wanted the whole piece to be monochromatic and calming to the eye; simple and a little mysterious.” It is the elusive nature of this sculpture that had many Sangha members, including the writer of this segment, spinning the handle before the phenakistascope was unveiled to the public eye during New Rochelle’s Art Festival on Saturday October 2nd and 3rd.
“Enso is considered to be one of the most profound subjects in Zenga (Zen-inspired paintings), and it is believed that the character of the artist is fully-exposed in how she or he draws an enso.” Aware of this vital principle of an enso, Carrie also commented on what makes the circle of enlightenment so alluring. “Ensos come from those who have forgotten about the bird and the tangle—the painter fades and the enso surfaces.”
The interplay of flight and entanglement also implies the relationship between the relative (conditional life) and the absolute (infinite); hence, Carrie envisioned her sculpture to invoke interdependence. “Flight is the activity. The entanglement and the release become a natural result of flight.” Linking emptiness and the shavings of daily life, This and That expresses non-duality differently and alongside of the many other pieces submitted for the Sweetcake Enso exhibition.
The phenakistascope allows many visitors a chance to play leading them to approach the whimsical instrument with an eager eye. “I wanted this piece,” Carrie explained, “to invoke a sense of wonder and magic, to invite curiosity and playfulness.”
In The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman, Socrates, the protagonist’s mentor and spiritual teacher, associates child-like wonder to the Garden of Eden. “Every infant lives in a bright garden where everything is sensed directly, without the veils of thought—free of beliefs, interpretations, and judgments.” Perhaps, spinning the handle of this enduring sculpture echoes the famous koan: what did your face look like before your parents were born?
“When someone reaches out to turn the handle they are open to the unknown and momentarily forget themselves in the activity of watching and spinning. Then the image truly comes to life,” Carrie affirmed. This child-like innocence is precisely the reason why This and That has been aptly-nicknamed, by a few Sangha members, “the spinny-thingy.”
Millman, Dan. The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. California: New World Library.
Seo, Audrey Yoshiko. Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment. Massachusetts: Weatherhill.