During an impassioned theological debate last week with my Tunisian friend, Sami, enriched by a couple of Heinekens and proceeded by a raucous drag queen show, I was reminded of my time in Florence. Having spent weeks steeping in the glories of renaissance splendour, I encountered a moment that caught my critical defences off guard. The potent memory now serves as a personal reminder of the transcending power of art.
In the late afternoon I was exploring Forte Belvedere, a fortress situated at the top of the Boboli gardens in Florence. The fortress hunkers in a strategic vantage point overlooking the whole city; the Duomo basking in the glow of the melting sun, the glistening Arno river, and the olive groves and palazzos on the surrounding hillside. The air was sweet and delicious, and I was in a blissful stupor from over-indulging in Florentine grandeur.
In a small, stone room on the top floor of the empty fortress, the low sun spilled through a window from the west, cascading onto two mirror-finished sculptures on a plinth, whose surface shattered the sun’s rays into an explosion of fragmented light, splattering shards and arcs of sunlight around the walls and ceiling. The reflective sculptures were of the upper body of Jesus, and astonishingly (remember, this is Florence), a cross-legged Buddha, each positioned facing each other at eye level.
The artwork was called East Wind and West Wind, by Zhang Huan, a famous Chinese artist. The body of Jesus had his hands outstretched in the manner of Christian iconography and the Buddha demonstrated the complimentary pose of Abhayamudrā, meaning, ‘no fear’.
In a stroke of curatorial genius, the activating element in this artwork was the sun, a third character whose presence seemed to transform the dual-like face-off into a unifying, balanced ‘blessing’. Upon stepping into the humble, quiet room I fell under the glinting, glistening spell of both figures, almost indistinguishable from each other under the transcending, striking power of the sun. The installation created a reverent, respectful, affecting acknowledgement of two vastly different worlds. It seemed a simple illustration highlighting the likenesses and differences, the beauties and uniqueness, between Eastern and Western religions; a powerful stirring of an eastern wind and a western wind.