WHEN Nguyen Tuan was growing up in Hai Duong, a city located in the north-east of Vietnam, he often ignored the Buddhist temples around him and the monks he saw on the streets. “Buddhism struck me as a remote religion that had nothing to do with my life,” said the 32-year-old sculptor with the help of a translator. “So I kept my distance from any sort of belief or religion – and, in a way, I still do.”

But five years ago, Tuan was invited to head up to Mount Yen Tu to help out in a restoration of a temple. There, surrounded by temples and pagodas, he experienced a deep sense of peace and serenity. It was something he says he had never felt before.

He recalls: “I heard the sounds of prayer and wooden bells being struck by the monks. I breathed in the smell of incense mixed with the mountain air. And I became acquainted with the Buddhist philosophy that espouses peace and acceptance.”

When Tuan returned to his studio in the city, he wanted to evoke his memories from the mountain and bring the message of Buddhism to his fellow city dwellers. So he began to create ceramic sculptures that were heavily influenced by Buddhist images.

Whereas his previous works were inspired by Greek mythology, his new works appropriated aspects of the Buddha image and incorporated them into sculptures of ordinary people. Children posing playfully wear the heads of Buddha, as does a lazy man in repose. A trio of elongated Buddhist heads bespeak man’s need to pursue knowledge and wisdom. Other smaller statues show Buddha in unusual, more human poses.

The graduate of Hanoi’s University of Industrial Fine Arts says: “I no longer saw Buddhism as this high and mighty religion that had no bearing on people’s lives. Instead, I saw the potential Buddhism had in bringing joy into people’s daily life.” Despite the religious overtones, his new works maintain the grace and sensuality of his previous works – characteristics that had already earned him notice outside of Vietnam and won him the Young Creative Award at Onggi Expo in Ulsan, Korea. “Using the image of Buddha, I want to speak about the human condition, the problems we face, and the society we live in,” he says.
Now at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) at the Mandarin Gallery, his works are displayed alongside the photographic creations of Japanese digital artist Naoko Tosa. Like Tuan, Tosa also considers herself a non-religious artist who’s found inspiration in Buddhist visual aesthetics.

She digitally manipulates photographs of temples, gardens, trees and clouds, among other everyday objects, to create an uncanny Zen-like image of bliss and serenity that is at once familiar and otherworldly. Says Tosa, who is 51: “I’m interested in using images of the external world and manipulating them to create images of an inner world. So, for instance, I visited a Zen Buddhism temple in Kyoto and found this 200-year-old tree in the middle of it.

“I set upon the idea of placing this tree afloat in this temple, so as to bring to the fore the role of this aged tree in the temple. At the same time, I wanted it to become the focus of contemplation when looking at the image.”

Tosa has exhibited and written about art extensively. She holds a PhD for Art and Technology Research from the University of Tokyo. She was a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 2002 to 2004. Currently she is a professor at Kyoto University and a visiting professor of the National University of Singapore.

Her art encompasses just about everything from sculpture and photography to video art and animation. But what they have in common is her deep belief that art can connect “various cultures in the world… to just as one culture” to create a “level of understanding that overcomes nationalism”. Other images on display show Tosa’s abiding fascination for science and technology, as when she transforms an ordinary rock garden into a futuristic-looking one that “looks like it belongs on Mars or Saturn”, she says with a giggle.

The Japanese typically avoid symmetry in their aesthetics because they feel it is absent in nature. But Tosa subverts that by using the picture of the beautifully asymmetrical rock garden and creating a mirror reflection above it. The resulting image has a haunting, surreal quality on top of its yin-yang compositional harmony.

“Whatever the image I’m creating, I want the viewer to feel a deep sense of peace and serenity when they’re looking at it,” she says.