Cross-Cultural Translation: One Hand Clapping

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A recent trip to the magnificent Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York proved enlightening on many fronts.  Alongside the main guest exhibition of work from the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti was a curated collection entitled One Hand Clapping, an assembly of artistic contributions which spans an array of media and comprises the work of five Chinese artists.  The exhibition catalogue was launched with an evening of poetry.

The Guggenheim presented an evening of readings by a roster of international poets including Tan Lin, Feliz Lucia Molina, Sawako Nakayasu, Lynn Xu, and catalogue contributor Nicholas Wong. Each poet presented new works addressing themes explored in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, the event was guest curated by visual artist and poet Jen Bervin in collaboration with exhibition curator Xiaoyu Weng.

The show’s title, One Hand Clapping, is derived from a koan—a riddle used in Zen Buddhist practice to transcend the limitations of logical reasoning—that asks, “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Emerging from a tradition that originates in China’s Tang period (618–907), the phrase “one hand clapping” encompasses a history of cross-cultural translation and appropriation that continues into the present. Popularized by its use as the epigraph to American author J. D. Salinger’s 1953 book of fiction, Nine Stories, this koan has also served as the name of a British band, the title of an Australian film, and the title and lyrics of a Cantonese pop song. 

In this exhibition, “one hand clapping” serves as a metaphor for the ways in which meaning is destabilized in a globalized world. Evoking the idea of solitude, the image of “one hand clapping” also speaks to the ability of artists to put forth a singular vision that can contest entrenched beliefs, stereotypes, and power structures.  The artists in this exhibition explore the ways in which globalization affects our understanding of the future. Their commissioned works represent a range of traditional and new mediums, from oil on canvas to virtual-reality software.  The artists in One Hand Clapping are connected by their deep involvement in specific places, namely, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and New York; their critical examination of our systems of exchange, communication, and production; and their imagination of multiple futures as a form of poetic revolution.

One Hand Clapping is at The Guggenheim Museum, New York until October 21st 2018.

Photograph: Guggenheim.org

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