A Chinese Artist ‘Blindfolded’

John Tsoi (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Jon Tsoi (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

BLINDFOLDED,” an exhibition of the recent works of Chinese-American artist Jon Tsoi, was unveiled on Nov. 15 at the WhiteBox gallery in downtown Manhattan. The exhibition presents close to 30 works that the artist created over the past five years. Viewers were immediately riveted by the canvases, which were slashed into pieces and held up by tangled ropes. The colors, dark or bright, seem to have been splashed on the battered space within the frame in a random way. But you might be even more impressed when you learn that all of the works were done by the artist when he blindfolded himself, and his special way of approaching art is a reflection of Taoism, a traditional philosophy in China.

Tsoi, who grew up in Sichuan province, China, studied art in a teacher’s college there. But his artistic dream brought him to New York in 1979 when he was 20. In the first few years, Tsoi worked in restaurants as a deliveryman or washing dishes to make a living. But encouraged by his parents, he soon refreshed the skills in Chinese medicine that he inherited from his family, which had been practicing them for generations. He got a certificate and opened an acupuncture clinic (he lives and practices in Connecticut now).

But what New York offered him was not only a life but also artistic inspirations. “New York is the world center of the arts. The creative atmosphere here helped me realize the art I learned before was indeed shallow and artificial,” Tsoi said.

The practice of traditional Chinese medicine requires him to study Chinese classical texts. He is obsessed with the Inner Canon of Huangdi, the bible of traditional medicine dating to 2,300 years ago, and the Tao Te Ching, the 2,700-year-old fundamental text of Taoism. Through these texts, he learned the concepts of yin and yang and inner energy, and the philosophical ideas that “emptiness produces all things” and “follow the guide of nature.” These have become the main themes in his art.

Seven years ago, Tsoi started to cover his eyes while he created artworks. “If you see things with your eyes, you’ll inevitably copy them in your work. The blindfold can help me empty my mind and shut personal opinions out of my art,” said Tsoi. “When I work, I look at the world with only my inner eyes. So I can produce a work in the way that God produces Nature.”

Tsoi said natural energy is the pivot point of his works. The slashed canvases allow energy to flow and the art to breathe. And the rope is a visual symbol of the energy. Its entanglement also represents the nature of energy — you cannot see its beginning or end, yet it holds up the entire piece of art.

At the opening ceremony on Nov. 15, Tsoi showed up in battered battle fatigues with his head wrapped in bloodstained bandages for the performance he planned to treat the audience with. He blindfolded his eyes, stood in front of a brand new canvas placed in the center of the gallery, and started to slash it. When the canvas was totally wasted, he traced a coil of rope and threaded it through the wounds and tied the falling canvas with the frame.

He then threw some colors in plastic cups that his assistant put into his hand onto the canvas. A few cups later, he invited the audience to shut their eyes and join him in the splashing. During the process, the artist and the audience were accompanied by an audio recording of Tao Te Ching, read in English by a baritone voice telling them, “If you want to become full, let yourself be empty. If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up…”

Patrick Dibuono, a 61-year-old actor, said he felt the emptiness and vastness at the moment when he closed his eyes and poured the color. “It’s the feeling of ‘let it go,’” he said. Danny Ardila, a 23-year-old college student who also participated in the work, said: “Lately I have some negative thoughts in me. When I threw the color on the canvas, I felt I had thrown them all out. I want to do it again.”

Tsoi was happy to hear this. He said Taoism is against war. By cladding himself in military fatigues and cutting the canvas, he wanted to express the belief that war is harmful to both sides, and art is a way to dissolve violence. “The performance is therapy. It is a healing process. People can let go of their negative energy in arts to reduce the violence in the real world,” he said.

The exhibition will last until Dec. 9. WhiteBox is located at 329 Broome St. in Manhattan.

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