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SEAP Gatty Lecture Series

Thursday, November 2, 2017 at 12:00pm to 1:30pm

Kahin Center
640 Stewart Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA

"Anybody, Anything, Anywhere: Diasporic Subjectivites and the Figure of the Buddha"

Ashley Thompson, Hiram W. Woodward Chair in Southeast Asian Art, SOAS, University of London

The Buddha figure in the contemporary world is laden with meaning – multiple different meanings depending upon the eye of the beholder. So laden that it functions, in semiotic terms, as an empty signifier, allowing symbolic thought to operate.  It can embody much more than the Buddha (a historical or legendary figure) or Buddhism (an institutionalised religion), or the Dharma (doctrine or teachings). For members of the Cambodian diaspora, who are one oblique object of this essay, it can also embody home, nation, tradition. For diasporic artists it can be the ethno-national emblem to be borne even if critiqued as such. It can embody the Buddhist practitioner. A Buddha figure, a specific one, can also embody given ancestral spirits, and in such embodies personal or collective memories and specific locales. This is not solely a function of globalization in which the crossing of borders enhances at once yearnings and possibilities for meaning in the figure of the Buddha. Nor is it strictly a function of post-globalization as the era of identity politics morphs into a strangely shared world of closing national borders.  It is also, I will argue, a function of the Buddha figure ‘itself,’ if the singular, neuter reflexive pronoun can be said to maintain in this case. And therein lies the rub: it is not itself. The Buddha figure is always already an empty signifier, and in such a ready-made figure of diasporic investment. This essay examines the Buddha’s body and the Buddhist body in the work of three contemporary Cambodian diasporic artists, Anida Yoeu Ali, Pich Sopheap and Amy Lee Sanford.  Each was a child refugee from Cambodia, settled in the US, returned to Cambodia as an adult to make art, and now continues to make art, here and there. They are diasporic twice over at least, having first left Cambodia and then America; and we cannot be sure where is called home.  For each, some form of Buddhist embodiment serves as a matrix for transformations of self and place, with questions of sexuality emerging, variously yet invariably, at their core.


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Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Asian Studies, History of Art and Visual Studies, Southeast Asia Program

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SEAP Graduate Student Committee

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Ashley Thompson

Speaker Affiliation

University of London

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