Daozi - VM - Rachel Hostetter Smith
Daozi: The Empty Chair
The Empty Chair in a Season of Waiting
by Rachel Hostetter Smith
We are living in a season shaped by a global pandemic when life seems strangely slowed, almost to the point of stopping. As someone recently said, this is a year of “life on pause.” We seem to be in a liminal space, a time between what was and whatever might come next. We have become accustomed to seeing photos of empty chairs spaced six feet or a meter apart to provide for “social distancing” that may protect us from transmission of a virus that threatens to overcome us. They remind me of the opening of the observance of Passover at the Jewish Seder when an elder explains: “At each table there is an empty chair, an extra cup of juice, and one remaining piece of matzoh. Jewish history tells of a beloved prophet by the name of Elijah, who appears in times of trouble to bring promise of relief, to lift downcast spirits, and to plant hope in the hearts of the downtrodden. The injustice of this world still brings to mind Elijah who, in defense of justice, challenged power.”
In December 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo in Oslo, Norway. Unable to attend, Liu was represented at the ceremony by an empty chair. He was in actuality in prison back in China serving an eleven-year sentence for ‘inciting subversion’ after writing an open letter in 2009 entitled “I have no enemies: my final statement” that called for radical democratic reforms and the rule of law in China. In the letter he proclaimed, “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.” Both his name and the title of his essay are blocked on the internet in China. Chinese artist Cao Yuanming’s artwork also titled I have no enemies, set those same words in concrete and iron. The embedded pieces of chalk that form the characters are a symbol of education and literacy in China that requires arduous and persistent effort to achieve any fluency in Mandarin. This work at once asserts the unshakeable truth of Liu’s convictions and rejects the attempt to erase Liu’s life and legacy, creating a profound visual metaphor for the struggle to stand for truth in a world bent on suppressing it.
Liu Xiaobo has become an icon of sorts for the Chinese and for Chinese Christians in particular. Esteemed artist, poet, and critic Daozi’s Portrait of a Thinker (2018) presents Liu in the guise of an icon, a contemporary secular ‘saint’, clothed in the prison blue of China, against a gold ground like the saints and martyrs in orthodox tradition, reminding us that faithful witness, whether to earthly justice or to Jesus the Christ, is often costly, but worthy of the price.
Daozi has also made a series of paintings of Liu’s empty chair using the traditional Chinese ink wash medium rendered in a contemporary mode. Liu was an old friend from university, when both participated in the student protests in Tiananmen Square (1989). While Daozi’s paintings pay homage to Liu and his legacy, they also conjure up images of another chair, the throne of St. Peter in Rome, that sits empty awaiting the return of Christ at the end of time. It is an anticipatory, eschatological image, calling forth the restoration and renewal of this broken world that will bring into being the New Heaven and New Earth described in Revelation 21. Like Elijah’s chair at the Passover Seder, Liu Xiaobo’s chair in Daozi’s The Empty Chair on the Sea Ridge (2018) exudes that same insistently expectant hope. It seems to cry out with the psalmist David, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget [us] forever?” (Psalm 13: 1a).
The Christian faith recognizes that we are always living in this liminal place. The Franciscan friar Richard Rohr describes it as a space “betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.”
Significantly, “the word liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold – any point or place of entering or beginning. It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing.” But it is also a place where transformation can take place “if we learn to wait and let it form us.” [my emphasis]
The Seder liturgy draws to a dramatic close with the opening of a door as the elder proclaims: “The door is opened, reminding us to be open to the hope for a better world—to hold on to the dream that we may live in a world without hunger, slavery or any kind of injustice. We invite Elijah to come to our Seder.” And everyone present responds: “May the all merciful send us Elijah the prophet to comfort us with tidings of deliverance. Let us open the door for Elijah!”
In this season when life is “on pause,” perhaps we, too, can open that door more fully to Christ’s promise of deliverance in anticipation of that day when he returns to dwell among us once again.
Daozi, The Empty Chair, 107x70cm, ink and gold leaf on rice paper, 2014.
Cao Yuanming, I have no Enemies, 30x40x5cm, chalk in concrete and iron frame, weight: 20 kg, 2016.
Daozi, The Portrait of a Deceased Thinker, 60x55cm, ink and color on paper, 2017.
Daozi, The Empty Chair on the Sea Ridge, 97x54cm, ink and color on paper, 2018.
Daozi is an eminent Chinese poet, art critic, and painter. Also named Wang Min, Daozi was born in Qingdao, Shandong Province, China in 1956 and graduated from Northwestern University in Xi'an city and Beijing Normal University successively. He was deputy editor-in-chief of Chang An, a monthly journal organized by Xi’an Association of Literature and Arts, and a professor and chairman of the Department of Fine Art of Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, as well as vice president of Chongqing Literature and Arts Critics Association. Daozi is currently a professor and supervisor of doctoral candidates in the School of Art at Tsinghua University (Beijing) and is also a visiting professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a member of the International Aesthetics Association. His research interests and creative practices include art criticism, history and theory of modern art, Christian art research, poetry writing, and Chinese ink and wash art creation.
Cao Yuanming (also Cao Zaifei) is an artist who works in painting, sculpture, installation, and digital imaging. Born in 1974 in Suzhou, Anhui Province, China, he graduated from the Department of Oil Painting of Nanjing Academy of Arts and the Department of Philosophy of Nanjing University. He was a visiting scholar at the Research Center for Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, and currently teaches at the School of Fine Arts of Shanghai University.
Rachel Hostetter Smith is the Gilkison Distinguished Professor of Art History at Taylor University. She publishes widely on the arts, with a focus on contemporary and world Christian art. She is Curator and Project Director of the international traveling exhibition Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition. Prior to Matter + Spirit, she served as Artistic Director of the two previous Nagel Institute international art projects in Indonesia (2008) and South Africa (2013) and Exhibition Curator of the traveling exhibitions that resulted: Charis: Boundary Crossings (2009-2012)) and Between the Shadow & the Light (2014-2018). She is currently working on a project in India.
Several of the works discussed in this essay are included in Matter + Spirit: A Chinese/American Exhibition which is composed of 55 works (including some multi-piece, electronic, and serial works) by 25 Chinese and American artists in a wide range of media and styles. It can be viewed online through December 2020 at https://www.westmont.edu/museum/matter-spirit.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 11 October 2020