January 16, 2008

Prayer & Menace



"The Buddhist wan zi is an ancient symbol that signifies prosperity and good fortune, yet its meaning was transformed through its usage as the swastika by the National Socialist German Worker's Party. As the meaning of a word relates to its context so my use of the wan zi in Meaning is in the system (2005) considers how the meaning of a symbol can change through its historical, cultural or political context."

From an original writing by MCB; © Copyright 2005.

On Avenida do Almirante Lacerda, oddly just east of the Canidrome dog-racing track, sits Lin Fung Temple. Inside an inner courtyard awash in incense and prayer, I found amazingly ornate furnishings including a sand-filled stand for incense offerings that featured prominent wan zi along its decorative upper border.

As a prime example of the fluctuation of meaning through cultures and history, the wan zi is exemplary of the contextuality of symbols, how the significance of a sign can be diverted through use and cultural, political or social context. The meaning of this ancient symbol was first established as a positive one by Buddhists, Hinduists and Taoists, yet later appropriated by the Nazi Party which diverted the bent-cross to its own political use. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meanings do indeed reside within systems of representation, whether it be art or language. The spiritual essence of the cross with bent arms was cherished by Asians for thousands of years before it was hijacked by Hitler. As an icon of hate it perhaps has no equal, yet it still exists in beatific purity and peace in temples and on statuary across the Eastern world. The wan zi may someday be absolved of its fearful signification but for the present it instills such dread that its presence in the sunny courtyard of Lin Fung Temple produces a surreal ambiance of the juxtaposition of prayer and menace in the Western mind.

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