Buddha Never Down?

Potted plants line the walls. At first glance, just the kind of accent that wouldn’t be out of place in the posh entryway to an office. But this is the Frey Norris Gallery and you’ve just walked into the botanical wing of Shen Shaomin’s mad laboratory.

Bonsai trees already possess connotations of man’s control over nature, stunted in their development and carefully pruned as they traditionally are. Shen has made the point more pronounced by literally taking the screws to them. The contorted bundles of fibers are squeezed and pulled by wires and clamps, topped by grills that impede upward growth. They’re especially expressive because their constrained development has forced them into frozen symbols of their resistance. The thick twist of their trunks mimics a straining muscle. The overtness of the restraints, the linked cables and metal bars, is a clever way to exaggerate the subtle cultivation of Bonsai while emphasizing that it still stems from a need to impose our desires upon the natural world. Strong arm tactics reach their highest form when a threat is accompanied by a smile and a hand shake.

Upstairs is what could be considered R&D. Ensconced within glassware beakers fed by pipettes on unknown solutions are a series of baby-sized skeletons. Each exhibit additional appendages: multiple scapulas and humerus sprout from their spines. Arranged in a row down the center of the room, the skeletons themselves become smaller as you travel down the line, as if you are witnessing representative specimens from specific progressive stages of development. Sprinkled atop each of the pedestals upon which the scientific apparatus rest is sprinkled a layer of what I took for sugar but was later told was salt.

At the end of the room, seated in a lotus position, his multiple arms spread in pantomime of Hindu or Buddhist iconography is an adult human skeleton. Just as we have tinkered with nature to our heart’s content, so too we have and continue to plan on fiddling with our own biology (an excellent interview on the gallery’s site reminds us of the practice of foot binding). It is worth reflecting that science seeks to master just as much as it seeks to explain.

Cautionary tales of the fruits of our unwisely sown seeds are familiar to us from science fiction. They deliver portents of what is to come, or what may be: visions of grotesque mutants wander the atomic landscape of a close or distant future. But two clouds born of nuclear fission have already blown through the remnants of human habitation. Downstairs there were hints that inadvertent indicators of the shape of things to come are already extant. What we leave behind may one day mock us with our lack of foresight. The illusion of Shen’s Experimental Studio: The Thousand Hand Buddha is not that we are looking at the future, but the past. Paired with the Bonsai exhibit, it seems to exhort us not to merely look at the potential dangers inherent in our march to progress, but to examine the roots of our desires to bend nature to our will. Perhaps the adult skeleton was engaged in just such an enquiry when he expired? For once the lotus position does not seem to necessarily indicate acceptance.

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