| SACRED ASIA
John Goss explores the region’s spiritual side through his camera lens
HOW often have we walked right past elements of beauty as we rush from one thing to another?
In Asia, its sacred spaces are designed to slow things down and shift our mental overdrive towards contemplation. They are full of transitions of light, colour, scent and sound that sharpen our awareness and renew the sense of wonder we all possessed as children. They bring the “here and now” into focus in the same way a camera excludes everything going on outside the frame.
Although sacred spaces in themselves are extraordinary by definition, they also contain unobtrusive treasures for the careful observer. My images attempt to uncover the profound within the simple by lingering just a while on the path.
Right, walking dazed around the celestial courtyards of The Bayon in Siem Reap, my camera slipped slightly away from the gigantic faces carved into its spires, towards a thick enclosure of trees, and I pondered the mirth in those titanic Mona Lisa smiles.
Modern-day adventurers, lusting after El Dorado legends of once golden towers, miss the miracle. Angkor’s benevolent god kings, stripped by time and thieves, smile on – gilded anew with each dawn’s approach in the jungle’s jewelled embrace.
Below right, modern physics postulates that matter, space and time are but vibrating strings of energy, whose extra dimensions wrap around us in invisible whorls. Here, on the feet of the reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Temple in Yangon, is a symphony of cosmic harmonics.
BAD WEATHER, GOOD FORTUNE
Above left, taking shelter from a tropical downpour in Yueh Ching Temple in Singapore, I spotted this scarlet umbrella leaning up against the courtyard wall to drip dry. While the weather was hardly auspicious that day, the Chinese owner may have been hoping to conjure up good fortune, or perhaps a patch of blue sky, with the lucky colour red.
The Way of Light
Transition from sun-drenched courtyard to shadowed portal. Lustrous Mother-of-pearl, ebony-edged, an offering of light.
From the murk – a smile,
the flutter of gold leaf.
Kneeling in partial illumination, I
look up at radiant stars stencilled on the vault
A gesture blazes in the dark.
Right, hundreds of whitewashed branches are propped up like crutches, under a venerated old Bodhi tree in a courtyard at Wat Ku Tao, Chiang Mai. They are less about physical support than spiritual. Symbolically upholding the Dharma, they transmit life force, ensure stability, and echo the tranquillity of being in harmony with nature.
PILLARS OF SERENITY
Left, the Grand Palace compound in Bangkok is a gem-encrusted galaxy that revolves around Wat Phra Keow where the Emerald Buddha sits in contemplation. Most visitors spend their time inside the quiet inner sanctum, but I prowled around the back of the sanctuary to capture this image.
It is the glitter of life that often distracts us. But when I returned home and examined this shot close up, I realised the lesson I had missed. Surrounded by a dazzling mosaic of light reflecting from a million mirrored bits of glass and gold, the Buddha looks inward.
PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT
Left, twists, turns and detours along the way present us with vistas we might otherwise have overlooked by travelling only along the straight and narrow. A footpath at Wat Amarinthara in Thonburi, Bangkok’s old riverside district, is paved in the same colours as the tiled roofs of traditional Thai temples.
Right, taking respite from the heat and throngs of worshippers circling the great, golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, two novice monks shelter from the blaze. Even so, the pagoda’s shimmering radiance finds its way into the cloister’s shadows.
Left, Little India in Singapore is a bustling stretch of portico-shaded shophouse lanes, stuffed with exotic goods and preserving many of the traditions of the local Indians.
Most shops in Asia have small altars to appeal to favoured gods of good fortune. This small bronze tablet, mounted in the public walkway, depicts the Hindu deity Ganesh. A merchant maintains fresh garland offerings; this one comprises fragrant jasmine buds and orchids.
Right, remnants, in lucky threes, lean on a large metal burner in the precincts of the Taoist Baxiangong Temple in Xi’an. Although the fire is not visible, the iconic flame-shaped opening seems to have the power to reduce the rhythms and colours of this image to powdery ash. The perfume, intended for paradise, seems to linger.
Left, wandering the quaint old halls and well-manicured topiaries of Wat Buppharam in Trat, I noticed there was an open window with appealingly clean decoration. The lintel, topped with a rather Oriental-looking design, frames a blue and white porcelain plate.
Many Thai temples are covered with mosaics made from brightly coloured pieces of broken imported ceramics, but the artisan opted for simplicity here, preserving the serene scene of peaceful paradise painted on the dish.
Right, portals into sacred spaces in Asia are often protected by fierce guardians: giant elemental demigods, paired male and female lion-dogs, and mythic dragons.
At Singapore’s Thian Hock Keng Temple, a golden dragon twists and roars as it chases the celestial ball of cosmic energy. The image, in gold leaf on black lacquer, shimmers as it elegantly reflects the ever changing angles of daylight.
Left, Kuala Lumpur is a lively patchwork of old things being torn down and new things being thrown up. Walking past a construction site, I see a mosque in progress. The building had been primed a stark white and was not yet decorated with additions of patterned inlays, jewelled glass or painted colours.
At that transitory moment, its pure geometric forms were radiant, like the fractal stem of some crystalline flower pushing towards the heavens.
REMAIN IN LIGHT
Right, the tiny Tai Wong Temple is built into a hillside in the midst of one of Hong Kong’s older districts. Inside, smoke from years of burning incense and joss sticks has blackened much of the interior.
Peering into the darkness, I discovered faces from Hong Kong’s past staring back. A small halo from a single bare bulb stood vigil, chasing the gloom away from row after row of carefully tended photographs of departed ancestors.
THE ARTIST AND HIS WORK
Raised in Hawaii, and living in Asia for more than a decade, American artist John Goss received his Masters Degree from CalArts and was the recipient of a US National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. His video works and photography have since been widely exhibited around the world.
More than 200 of John’s photographs appeared in the landmark pop culture book, Very Thai (2005, River Books), and he has since published a series of six guidebooks to the Asian region. Now in his mid-40s, the Asiaphile continues to write, photograph and search for unexpected beauty on his travels around the region.
The images featured are a selection of those appearing in John’s photo exhibition “The Way of Light: Photographs of Sacred Spaces in Asia”, which will take place from 1-30 November 2006 at Parichart Court, Four Seasons Bangkok (tel +66 (0) 2250-1000, www.fourseasons.com/bangkok).