I don’t know about you, but I’m spending a lot of time perusing my email inbox for travel destinations. Somehow, I got on the mailing list for GeoEx travel company. I’ve been drooling over trips to the Himalayas, especially those on the Tibetan plateau. Perhaps it’s because it’s so far away from here, or because escape just feels right, or because this part of the world has called to me as long as I can remember. Seven years ago, on a trek in Nepal (my dream since childhood), I stood at 12,000 feet looking out at the vast, arid landscape, dotted with small villages, prayer flags and grazing yaks. It was a three day walk from there to Tibet, and that mysterious land, steeped in spirituality, religion, and unearthly scenery, has beckoned me ever since. I’d love to visit the Potala Palace, a majestic fortress-like structure sitting among the clouds in Lhasa, or the intricately carved Samya Monastery, commonly thought to be the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism. I would wander the mountainous Tibetan landscape, where mani stones and prayer pyramids are there as reminders that this land is sacred, tethered to a deeply spiritual culture. Given our current global crisis, travel is obviously not in the cards right now. But I can still dream of journeys. Really I’ll take any kind of journey to stave off my craving for adventure and escape. As I sat there pondering that thought, I realized that I can take that trip without needing to pack a bag or book a flight. I can even do it while stuck at home under stay-at-home orders. And it doesn’t even cost anything. This is an inner journey, one which immerses us in ideas from other cultures about how to live, and how to die. And art has the potential to illuminate complex words for us, including some of the tenets of eastern philosophy, almost as if it’s guiding us through that distant landscape. The artwork of Kristin Schatterfield-Rein and Taesook Jung, currently on display at the National and on virtual display through InLiquid, leads us on a captivating and scenic journey as it visually explores different facets of eastern spirituality.
The striking work of Kristen Schattenfield-Rein takes us on a visual tour through the six bardos, as depicted in a canonical text of Buddhist spirituality, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A bardos is literally an ‘interval between two things.’ Bar literally means ‘interval’ and do literally means ‘two.’ A bardo can exist between two concrete objects, as for example, between two trees. It can also be temporal, as between two periods of time such as that between birth and death. So a bardo in this context is a gap between two distinct periods, kind of like the liminal space where the world sits at the present moment in history, between a past prior to the pandemic that will no longer serve us, and the unknown future. Each bardo offers an opportunity for liberation but can also be a place fraught with danger.  Though a bardo can represent any space in our lifetime, it generally signifies the space between two lives on earth (this life and rebirth). Schattenfield-Rein’s Bardo Set One 2015, runs with these concepts of ‘in between’ spiritual states and translates them into abstract visual terms. Each canvas, reminiscent of varied celestial hues, is a physical representation of one of the six bardos that culminate in rebirth. The six bardos include:
1.The bardo of this life, the space that exists between birth and death
2. The bardo of meditation, involving awareness in the space between thoughts. The ego loss that can occur with meditation was also espoused by Timothy Leary in the 1960’s in his experimentation with psychedelic drugs. Interestingly, The Tibetan Book of the Dead influenced many of Leary’s ideas on the psychological state induced by LSD. 
3. The bardo of the dream, which is the space between two waking states
4.The bardo of death, which is between life and world between death and rebirth
5.The bardo of reality (dharma), the space after death before rebirth
6. The bardo of existence
These gem-like, textural artworks combine natural elements, (including glass and sand), with manmade elements, (including paint and epoxy resin), to create a unique substrate which seems to transcend our earth, as if it is eschewing the basic carbon structure that is the ubiquitous building block of our planet. And in Tibetan Buddhism these bardos are like gates to new worlds, like liminal thresholds, that seem to reach beyond our everyday planetary existence. Each canvas in this set is also about the same height as a human being; by virtue of their size they allow us to enter another realm, both physically and symbolically.
In Let It Be (The 6th Bardo), Schattenfield visually illustrates for us the last bardo, which is related to rebirth, or becoming. It is the space before rebirth. The darkness of the work seems to speak to the unknown, mysterious aspects inhabiting this bardo. This smaller artwork glistens and shimmers in a way that evokes natural crystals along the edges, yet nothing about them contains crystals born of this earth. As such, they appear to transcend our common lives and delve into an alternate spiritual realm just as true bardos transcend our physical, everyday earthly existence. The materials in the work are hybrids between the natural world and the manmade world, like her other works. These are also a hybrid art form, existing in that elusive, dare I say, bardo-like space, between sculpture and wall hanging. As noted by the artist: “The pieces adhere – just barely – to the convention of wall hangings, but they creep past their edges, becoming sculptural and suggestive of something beyond the obvious. Above all else I am a maker, I add and subtract to find a moment of grace.” The hybrid character of these works, which is apparent on many levels, seems to physically, visually, approach the concept of those in-between states, those liminal spaces which are neither here nor there, but lie in a realm that is just at the threshold for something new, yet leaving the past behind.
In contrast to Schattenfield-Rein’s abstract works, Taesook Jung’s paintings are concrete and realistic, but still tethered to eastern spiritual ideas. In Vigorous Life 2005 we see a meticulously painted purple peony, lavish in its color and form. Peonies are steeped in symbolism in the Korean culture. As Jung states: “I was mesmerized by the sheer grandeur of these flowers and engulfed by their vivid burgundy color…They were in folklore paintings from the ‘Jeosun’ Dynasty. Peonies were often used in these paintings to symbolize wealth, prosperity and fortune.” And these associations are not surprising, as they are uncommonly substantial, extravagant flowers. They have more petals than most flowers, making them seem vulnerable, yet they have a strong stem that holds the petals together. In this painting, the petals of the flower are awash in a vivid shade of purple, contrasting the almost colorless but detailed grey leaves. As noted by the artist: “In my paintings, I use strong energetic brush strokes. The traditional brushes with long hair can hold a lot of water. With this liquid, the bristles run freely with long strokes on the surface of rice paper in a variety of styles. I try to create harmony and beauty using the tension between filled and unfilled space on the paper in my compositions. This makes for a lively conversation with water, ink, brush, and me. These drawing show a vigorous energy of unity.” There is a tension, between richly filled color, and the monochromatic leaves, just as there is tension between vigor, vitality, and harshness and suffering that exists in all lives. Yet the stark relief of vitality against suffering makes vitality all the more joyful and beautiful, and seems to temper the suffering, making it more bearable.
Jung’s sumptuous painting Vigorous Life (144 in x 48 in) seems to expand upon some of these ideas of bleakness giving way to beauty and vitality. As Jung states: “My aesthetic process focuses on the unity of nature and the human experience. Derived from East Asian philosophy, this is deeply ingrained into that culture. In my paintings, I see that nature can survive extremely harsh conditions yet still eventually blossom filled with life. I combine this concept of nature in my work. I personally have struggled and weathered many storms but I have also experienced great joy and beauty. I try to integrate and internalize these experiences and conditions in my work.” She seems to have captured that duality of suffering and joy, of weakness and vitality, so ubiquitous in the lived experience of humans as well as nature in general. It’s that contrast, that opposition, that seems to make life so much richer. Vigorous Life is an enormous painting, one that satiates our visual perception like a hallucination. It’s almost as if it engulfs the viewer with its details and delicate outer petals that lead to a sense of interior mystery. It seems to overwhelm our visual sensation as if alluding to a meditative state of identification with the universe, with nature.
The artworks of both Schattenfield-Rein and Jung convey some hefty spiritual ideas wrapped in gorgeous, boldly hued, distinctive painterly packages. These are obviously not just pretty trifles. Despite their aesthetic differences, they both express a range of eastern philosophical ideas using an articulate and eloquent visual language. They both touch upon two inevitabilities which inhabit every life- suffering and death- yet these are potentially uplifting and life-affirming works. Even the idea of interim stages between death and rebirth is uplifting, as the Buddhist writings indicate the potential for liberation.  And the bardos, or gaps, in each of our lives, are ripe with opportunity for positive change. As noted by Padmavajra: “Bardos are those moments…those times in our lives when something dies away and a kind of open space, a more flexible space, is created. And in that space when you first enter it can feel threatening…we could also feel exhilaration…this could be the entrance into spiritual transformation.” As such, these works emanate a powerful, inspirational message, one that acknowledges the unknown and the difficult parts of our lives, yet couches these concepts in a way that is palatable, approachable, and even inspirational and beautiful. And by opening these dark spaces to possibility and pitting the greyness against vivid, vigorous life, they reveal the opportunity for freedom, transformation, and pure joy. So now that I’ve taken the Schattenfield-Sook express train exploring the rugged edges of eastern spiritual ideas, I feel invigorated, fulfilled, and gushing with wonder. Art has an uncanny way of illuminating even the most difficult thoughts. This journey was worth the grand effort. I feel almost as exhilarated as I would have had I trekked the Tibetan plateau, though maybe not as out of breath. And now I just need to gear up for my next exotic journey, lest I remain stuck in the bardos between expeditions for too long.