Sharon Watts Writes

when pictures fail me…

YogaCityNYC ~ interview with Feminist Buddhist Amber Bemak

The branches of the Bodhi tree that Buddha sat under attaining enlightenment have spread a whole lot further over the centuries. Examples of this are showcased in FORCE OF STILLNESS— Film and Performance Inspired by Buddhism, a two-day festival at the Rubin Museum on November 4th and 5th.

The intriguingly-titled event brings together a prominent group of international artists, who practice Buddhism in all different lineages, to highlight the significant and ongoing influence of this religion on contemporary art.

YogaCityNYC’s Sharon Watts sat down with the curator, Amber Bemak, to learn more.

Sharon Watts: The variety of entries at this event is astonishing. Some are cinematic (including an all-violet animated museum film short), and some are performance art (for instance,“social sculpture,”a notion that transcends the boundaries of art, media, and social action). How do these artists stay true to their individual creative messages and Buddha natures while addressing some very hot topics in today’s political climate?

Amber Bemak: In the spirit of my central theme—which is to diversify the representation of Buddhism in contemporary art—this venue is perfect. And to stay true to your Buddha nature is to address the political climate. Enlightenment is going way in, being brave enough and clear enough to see it all and deal with it appropriately without fear and ignorance.

The Buddha was a revolutionary, disrupting the caste system in India going on at the time to create a totally new religious system that was not based on caste. Part of Buddha nature is having a mind of complete compassion. So this practice of compassion involves directly engaging with today’s political climate, being able to try and feel others’ experience outside of your own. This is where empathy comes in. Being an artist is all about empathy. You notice things or people in the world and highlight them using your medium. And from empathy (not sympathy) action is born!

SW: How does your background as a longtime practicing Tibetan Buddhist and feminist filmmaker combine to send the messages you want to send?

AB: Today’s world is crazy. In the United States and all over the world black men are still being murdered by police unjustly, trans people are constantly the victims of hate crimes, women are still being tortured, raped, abused, and threatened globally—while many think the problems that feminism raised were resolved in the 1970s.

As an artist, it’s possible to address these issues. I actually think that if film nowadays isn’t dealing with this, then what is it doing, and why are we doing it?

The combination of my political/social views and my Buddhist practice have sometimes been at odds with each other over the years. Buddhist culture does not naturally embody every liberal political belief. In fact, many of these beliefs are directly contradicted by Buddhist life and practice. Treatment of women would be one of the most crude examples.

SW: The event title implies both stillness as a force, and stillness forcing, which can allude to the act of creating. What does it mean to you?

AB: When really good meditation practice happens it always feels to me like a very deep stillness along with an incredible alive vibration running through it. The same happens when I’m in the presence of the Dalai Lama, or any great Buddhist teacher. It’s this very activated, alive stillness.

SW: There are so many mixed notions and messages of what meditation is, or should be. I always thought the short answer was “to be in the moment.” For me, that moment is often manifested as being engaged in a creative activity. Your event offers a complex range of
meditative experiences.

AB: From a Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhist) standpoint at the highest level, meditation is not actually defined as “being in the moment.” For the most part, this phrase has been co-opted by Buddhist rhetoric as it’s moved into the United States. The Dalai Lama deconstructs the present moment clearly: without past and future, there is no present, as it only has meaning in relation to past and future.

SW: What do you hope participants take home to contemplate?

AB: I hope that, shown and experienced all together, the work will transmit an energetic force for the audience—hopefully the force that I see running through each piece—the state of absolute stillness with a sort of energized and vibratory feeling inside of it. I also think the work discusses important and current topics, such as queer performativity, meditative gestures in public space, questions around visual colonization, and deep de-location of a sense of identity and selfhood, and questions about death. So I hope audience members are encouraged to contemplate these topics as well.

The work I am showing is dynamic. It is filled with energy. Some of it is angry, some of it is sexy, some of it is disturbing, some of it is poetic, and most of it is not gentle and sweet. I want a full display.

October 2016

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