This essay is concept, process and prospect for a project in development. First presentation of ideas elucidated here will be presented at a public talk in Asia Now in Paris on 16 Oct 2019. Collaboration queries welcome.

“Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.”


Sol Lewitt, 1967[1]

“The relationship between art and spirituality has been historically mediated in the West through the relationship between art and religion, something which has been periodically problematic throughout the centuries. But in spite of the decline of organized religion in Western Europe, there has been growing interest in spirituality in areas of cultural life, especially in art. Many people no longer view traditional religion, in the sense of institutionalized religion, as adequate for exploring their spirituality and look to new forms of spirituality as alternatives for finding ultimate meaning and addressing the profound needs of humanity. Central to the role of the artist has been a preoccupation with the deeper questions of life, often to reveal contingencies that are normally kept hidden from the public gaze and to challenge entrenched beliefs. The process of creating art is often described in quasi-mystical terms, whereby the artist-as-shaman unleashes or channels special creative powers in a process of making that transports the viewer to a different realm of the imaginary.”


Rina Arya, 2017[2]

Amongst the world’s most prolific and influential group shaping contemporary art today are artists born as millennials, a generational tag attributed to those born between 1981-1996[3] (aged 23 to 38 in 2019). These artists live in a time where more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression globally.[4] They live in an age where friends could be made, items purchased, delivered and information sought and received all with a click of a button. It is a time where influencers are celebrated for being microfamous,[5] and where data is power and currency packaged in an environment once described by art critic Lucy Lippard as one of “dehumanised technology”.[6] Between the crevice of this reality, we begin to see artists of the millennia returning to art as mystics, contemplating personal and social salvation, as if in a search for hope, impassioned human connections and the magic of divinity. These artists continue to wrestle the proverbial prima materia, projecting an unconscious through artistic alchemy and non-linear trajectories in order to make meaning of the present.


In 1908, the discovery of Venus of Willendorf in Austria (dated c. 30,000BC) demonstrated to us an early connection between art and religiosity. From around 3100BC to 1450AD, the Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, Japanese, Byzantines and Islamic civilisations embraced and refined the social relationship between art and faith. In the western world, biblical orientations began to dominate the work of artists in what is recognised today as the renaissance (1400 – 1550). Such demonstrations are well recorded in the history of art through the works of masters such as Leonardo da Vinci (b.1452 – d.1519), Albrecht Dürer (b.1471 – d.1528) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (b.1475 – d.1564). In the mid 1860s, the impressionist movement brought visual arts out of the romantic and realist movements to inject a more scientific approach by its observation and study of natural light onto objects. As if in parallel, the modern scientific community also began to flourish, particularly when German physicist Max Planck founded quantum theory in the early 1900s through experiments on emission and absorption of light against objects. With avant-garde movements such as dadaism, constructivism, minimalism, performance and new media arts, the visual arts continued to grow into an increasingly academic and secular trajectory, incessantly challenging social norms while knocking down each preceding interpretation of art.


It has been more than 450 years since the end of the renaissance in Western Europe and 150 years since the birth of impressionism in France. In the last century, scientists have discovered and shared their work on theory of relativity (1916),[7] big bang theory (1927),[8] nuclear fission (1939),[9] invention of lasers (1959),[10] molecular structure of DNA (1962),[11] moon landing (1969)[12], creation of the World Wide Web (1989)[13] and the cloning of Dolly the sheep (1996)[14]. Meanwhile, artists continue to be confronted by post-modern realities including drastic climate change, disparate distribution of wealth, continued civil and political conflicts and gender and ethnic discriminations. Naturally, events such as these had profound impact on the thinking of artists who today are availed with a myriad of non-traditional materials and techniques as a result of technological advancements and heightened global connectivity.


Here in Asia, amongst artists of the millennial, we find Lu Yang and Tianzhuo Chen process their faith in Tibetan Buddhism with immersive, and otherworldly visual lexicons interpreted via both contemporary art and lowbrow channels with aesthetics borrowed from the depths of mass media, popular, underground and counter cultures. Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai immerses himself into a space of soulful self-reflection, borrowing heavily from pressure points of Thai social and spiritual psyche. Lugas Syllabus, Indonesian artist of South Sumatran origin reflects on the mortal world by conjuring approaches found in traditional folklore infused with inspiration from Islamic theology. Singaporean Ruben Pang, traverses between inferences of art historical paintings, Greek, North and South American mythologies and the Chinese I-Ching, an ancient divination to inform the core of his artistic vocabulary. There is also the quiet meditations on mortality of Tsuyoshi Hisakado.


Since time immemorial, the underbelly of Asian art and societies have been inextricably entwined by its relationships with the spiritual. Its histories and embrace with facets of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and animism have always figured religiosity to become the red line that connects its people, its economies and political movements. Religious sensitivity is implicit in Asia’s growth with modern science and technology. Spiritually Millennial frames the symbiotic relationship between what American critic Suzi Gablik describes as parallel cultures,[15] the future canons of its contemporary art movements and a constant engagement with technology as a bridge with its public. It expresses that art, even with advanced contributions from the secular world of science and technology, borrows its magic from the depths of the spiritual.


“About one thing I am certain. Science and religion are both here to stay. And I would suggest that the contrast between the materiality of the physical world and the immateriality of the spiritual world goes deeper than religion and science, into the dualism and complexity of human existence.”


Alan Lightman, 2018[16]





Khai Hori

Aug 2019



[1] Sol Lewitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, ARTFORUM, Summer, 1967, USA

[2] Rina Arya, On Contemporary Art and Spirituality, Dec 2017, https://www.interaliamag.org/interviews/rina-arya/ (accessed 7 Aug 2019)

[3] Described as "anyone born between 1981 and 1996", Michael Dimock, Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins, 17 Jan 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/ (accessed 15 Aug 2019)

[4] World Health Organization, Depression, 22 Mar 2018, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression (accessed 12 Aug 2019)

[5] Pia Silva, Microfame And Redefining What It Means To Be Famous, 21 Dec 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/piasilva/2017/12/21/your-brand-will-never-be-famous/#3308290676d9 (accessed 9 Aug 2019)

[6] Lucy R Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art off Prehistory, Pantheon Books, USA, pg. 8, 1983

[7] Einstein A., Relativity: The Special and General Theory (translated), New York: H. Holt and Company, 1920

[8] Lemaître, G., Un Univers homogène de masse constante et de rayon croissant rendant compte de la vitesse radiale des nébuleuses extra-galactiques, Annales de la Société Scientifique de Bruxelles, A47, Belgium, 1927, p. 49-59

[9] O. Hahn & F. Strassmann, Springer-Verlag, Naturwissenschaften, Über den Nachweis und das Verhalten der bei der Bestrahlung des Urans mittels Neutronen entstehenden Erdalkalimetalle ("On the detection and characteristics of the alkaline earth metals formed by irradiation of uranium with neutrons"), Germany, 1939, pg 11–15

[10] Gould, R. Gordon, "The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation". In Franken, P.A.; Sands R.H. (eds.). The Ann Arbor Conference on Optical Pumping, University of Michigan, USA, 15 - 18 June 1959. p. 128.

[11] The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962, 15 Aug 2019. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/1962/summary/ (accessed 10 Aug 2018)

[12] July 20, 1969: One Giant Leap For Mankind, 20 Jul 2019, https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/apollo11.html (accessed 10 Aug 2018)

[13] Berners-Lee, Tim; Mark Fischetti, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its inventor, UK: Orion Business, 1999

[14] Dolly the Sheep: the first cloned adult animal, 24 Mar 2016, https://www.ed.ac.uk/research/impact/medicine-vet-medicine/dolly-sheep (accessed 13 Aug 2019)

[15] Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1991, pg. 4

[16] Alan Lightman, “Fact and Faith: why science and spirituality are not incompatible”, 6 Apr 2018, https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/fact-and-faith-why-science-and-spirituality-are-not-incompatible/ (accessed 13 Aug 2019)