Wang Bo, in the forest. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
It’s not that the room is small, it’s that the spider is large. Even now it’s crouching low, facing the door, ready to surprise anyone who walks in.
Assembled from various lengths of rough-hewn wood, tied with cord, the abstract sculpture was originally going to be a dragon but there wasn’t enough space, and dragons need space. No matter, it’s an impressive creation, one of the visual highlights in “The Art of the Monk,” the first-ever exhibition of artwork by Wang Bo, the Shaolin monk who owns and operates Shaolin Temple Torrance.
Most of the articles about Wang Bo, including Esther Kang’s insightful piece earlier this year in Peninsula People, focus on the young man’s early years of study at the Shaolin Temple on Mount Song in central Henan province, China, the Buddhist martial arts monastery that dates back to 495 A.D. At the encouragement of his father, Wang Bo began his martial arts training when he was three or four, but after the Shaolin Temple accepted him as a student, when he was eight, an 11-year residency ensued and immersed him in an austere routine and discipline that ultimately led him to master the art and the grace of kung fu, tai chi, and Zen meditation.
We don’t normally think of monks getting out and about and seeing the world, but Wang Bo did just that, touring with “The Wheel of Life,” which promoted the martial arts philosophy of the Shaolin monks. This is how Wang Bo came to perform in front of notable world figures such as Queen Elizabeth and Vladimir Putin.
Five years ago, in 2008, Wang Bo came to Southern California to visit a friend. He wasn’t intending to stay, but as we all know life takes us on some strange journeys and often sets us down in places we’d never imagined. Wang Bo stayed. He taught martial arts in the park, on the beach, and with enough confidence and presumably enough of a client base he opened his studio two years ago in the Ralphs shopping center at the corner of Rolling Hills Road and Crenshaw, in Torrance, a stone’s throw from Palos Verdes and Wang Bo’s current residence.
That’s quite an accomplishment, but now back to his art.
Shaolin monk Wang Bo, in touch with the world within and without. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
To get a better sense of the wooden spider, one needs to view it from a very low vantage point and from right in front of it. And yet, looked at from the side, as Wang Bo points out, it resembles a forest, and perhaps it evokes the groves of trees where monks entered to practice their kung fu. A forest can symbolize what we need to find our way out of, but I imagine that there are some who seek the labyrinthine depths precisely in order to get lost and only then to use their wits and their intuition to find their way back. There is, after all, a pleasure in the self-imposed challenge met and overcome. As Chet Baker once advised, “Let’s get lost.”
Along one wall in the serene, green-painted room there are several sculptural works, largely comprised of found objects on wooden pillars that create a quiet dialogue among themselves. “My art is a combination between old and new,” Wang Bo says. It also explores timeless concepts, the relentless cycles of nature, for example, or the assumed permanence of love. The latter is represented by a pencil drawing on a slab of stone of two skeletons. They look fossilized, the skeletons still yearning for that final embrace. “Even if you die, you still love each other,” Wang Bo says. Or maybe one of you still loves the other. I’m reminded of Esmeralda and Quasimodo at the end of Victor Hugo’s novel of old Paris.
When we meet him in person, Wang Bo makes a good impression. He’s the embodiment of his years of study, reflection, and practice. His beatific smile is engaging, and one can sense immediately that he is a young man (24, actually) of gentleness and yet great strength. Not surprisingly, then, one learns that the workout program he has created, which he terms Hungrymonk yoga, marries the flexibility characteristic of yoga with the intensity and concentration of the martial arts.
Artwork by Wang Bo. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
Action, not words
Wang Bo’s art is seemingly just another extension of his personality and character. “I’ve always wanted to make something, since I was very young,” he says. However, he doesn’t have the kind of ego that many Western artists carry around with them: “I don’t really know what art is. I never studied art; I never [went to] school for art.”
He’s modest about his photographic skills as well, even though the pictures he shows us are nicely composed and suggest more than what meets the eye. “I only took one workshop, from a friend, and actually I don’t even know how to use my camera that well. But I constantly go take pictures.”
As one might expect, there’s more to this.
“What I’m trying to show is [that] it’s not that complicated to make something. It is important to do it. That’s the Zen philosophy that I have learned. Just like in kung fu. When people attack you, you can’t think, you have to react right away. When people come swiftly, you have to jump.”
If the rabbit sees the fox it doesn’t thumb through a long list of options or wonder which running shoes to put on. The moment to act is now, or there may be no other moment, ever.
That’s pretty much how Wang Bo approaches his art, going with that flash of insight or intuition. If what he creates turns out well, so be it; and if it doesn’t, well, that’s fine too. What matter more is being attuned to the creative spirit and not trying to force it into something that it’s not.
Later on, in the quiet of his studio, Wang Bo elaborates and brings together his ideas about art and the philosophy he has studied and acquired over the years.
“What I really want to say is, art is a positive way to make your mind busy instead of [over-thinking] too much and you get stressed out. Art is a way to release and keep your mind running…
Drawing by Wang Bo. Photo by Gloria Plascencia
“When you start making something you actually see the beauty of it,” he continues. Engaging in art temporarily removes us from pressing concerns about our jobs or our families or our dwindling bank accounts. For Wang Bo, the primary way to surmount our anxieties and fears is through the combination of yoga, martial arts and meditation that he practices and teaches. “But making art is a very good way to bring your emotions out of your body. It makes you feel better, makes you feel expressed, and also you can share your art with many people.”
He emphasizes the “tremendous happiness and joy” that comes from creating art, and also the fact that, simply put, it opens our eyes to the world around us. In this, he echoes the painter Alejandro Obregón, who said, “Everything we look at always hides something, keeps it in shadow. That’s what you have to get to, what you have to illuminate, discover, decipher. Nothing can remain hidden.”
To paraphrase Wang Bo, there are beautiful things all around us that we miss out on seeing every day – and this is where his art comes from, from the beauty of the natural world. There’s a simple purity in his work that is refreshing and that flows as freely as a mountain brook or the clouds in the sky. In itself, it’s a rare beauty.
Wang Bo will open his studio for this Sunday, Dec. 22, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for an exclusive viewing of his photography and sculpture. He will talk about the inspiration for his art, and his experience in becoming a monk, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tea, made during a traditional tea ceremony, will be served, and attendees can receive two free classes of Hungrymonk yoga. Suggested fee, $15. Shaolin Temple is located at 2927 Rolling Hills Road, Torrance. More at shaolintemplekf.com/.