Xiao Xuan¡¯an¡¯s Arhats in the wind

The works of photographer Xiao Xuan¡¯an are remarkable for their combination of documentary with conceptual, including performance art.? Xuan'an went to Wenchuan in 2009, a year after the tragic earthquake, initially to record the damage sustained by artifacts and other cultural relics. One fine day, he chanced upon the fallen statues of eight hundred Arhats (*) amid the desolate ruins of two centenary temples, left in the wind (**).

The vocation of photography is essentially archeological in its capacity for fragmenting, partitioning, isolating, and extracting a detail or an object from a wider setting. It is reinforced by the deliberately chosen angle in the photographer¡¯s viewfinder. Here Xuan¡¯an¡¯s eerily intimate photographs exert a singularly fascinating power in the way they guide our eyes and senses into digging deeper under the rubble toward the encounter with the fallen statues. These images, which have a contemporary feel, possess a distant but strong kinship with the symbolist photography of the end of the nineteenth century, tinted with mysticism and naturalism. It is as if Xiao Xuan¡¯an wanted to emphasize the melancholic beauty of the mingling of stones and vegetation; he magnifies their sensual tonality, asperity, and composition rather than giving us a pure documentation of reality. The close-up views of these fallen idols are indeed a meditation on the eternal symbolical meanings. Aren¡¯t these semi-decomposed bodies that are covered with moss and vegetation indeed victims of some tragic natural disaster? In our subconscious a silent movie plays the specter of the solidified corpses of Pompeii caught in the volcano¡¯s eruption, still wailing in pain. Are these eight hundred saints even incapable of their own salvation?

Through the hollow shells of these rundown sculptures we can almost hear the stories of the craftsmen who have created them, of the worshippers who have burned incenses and candles at their feet. Their awkward posture and shattered presence are a dramatic reminder of their past glory, of all the absences, of life that once was, of those who have disappeared forever, those the photographer has chosen not to include in his viewfinder, or to imprint on his negatives. In the semidarkness not only are we invited to contemplation, but also to share photographer¡¯s fascination for details, like an investigator would for clues in a crime scene. Xiao Xuan¡¯an¡¯s photography has fulfilled its role in the replacement of the object with its own image. Moreover, by revealing to us the beauty of these fallen Arhats he is attempting a restoration, putting them back on their pedestals, as if erecting a shrine or even a memorial museum to house them for collection.
What comforts us is the quiet silent smile of the Arhats that seems to say they have found deliverance from the cycle of suffering. They simply remind us that we are all originally part of a star¡¯s dust. Virtually all of us will one day have the ?¡ãashes-to-ashes?¡À prayer at our grave site: "Commit this body to the ground: Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" (***).

Xiao¡¯s ?¡ãWailing Arhats?¡À not only brings us the blessing and the teaching of these Arhats, it transcends darkness and fears, raises our hearts and souls toward a higher realm, when we are down and low, and longing for hope.

Thanks to its extraordinary spiritual forcefulness, there is no equivalent in contemporary Chinese photography to the remarkable collection by Xiao Xuan'an displayed here.
This is cathartic photography at its powerful best.

Jean Loh / Curator / Shanghai July 2011

(*) Arhat in Sanskrit designates one who has destroyed the foes of affliction. ARHAT or Arahant was a title given to Buddha¡¯s disciples. It designates those not yet fully awakened but on the path of enlightenment. Chinese Buddhism worships a group of sixteen Arhats, who later became eighteen, with one conquering the dragon and another taming the tiger. Those eighteen Arhats, representing different spiritual forces, are usually found in the Arhat Hall of most Chinese temples. Since the early Arhats who had listened to Buddha¡¯s teaching had spread the dharma to more disciples, they eventually grew to a number of five hundred, even eight hundred Arhats.
(**) Dust in the Wind
I close my eyes only for a moment, and the moment?¡¥s gone
All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind

Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind

Don?¡¥t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away and all your money won?¡¥t another minute buy
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind, everything is dust in the wind

Lyrics by the American rock band KANSAS (1977)

(***) From the Bible Genesis 3:19b: "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return"

Xiao Xuan'an - The Wailing Arhats
4 color printing
112 pages