Artists select influential books that delve into inner truth, as well as themes and values spanning across cultures


Under the Influence A Search for Truth
Image: Under the Influence at Art Basel.

This past March, Asia Art Archive presented Under the Influence: A Travelling Library of Books that Inspire Artists at Art Basel in Hong Kong.

For the project, we invited artists from around the world to choose a book that inspires their artistic practice. Each contributor shared personal stories related to their selection, thereby providing singular perspectives on these one hundred foundational texts from across genres and disciplines.

Since then, Under the Influence has been touring to schools around Hong Kong.

In this first installment of a seven-part series on Ideas, we share the books from the project alongside writing from the artists. Note that the thematic groupings reflect AAA's interpretations of these texts.

Part II: Activate/Agitate

Part III: Artist to Artist

Part IV: Ecologies

Part V: On Form

Part VI: Space and Time Travel

Part VII: Ways of Seeing and Being


Almond Chu on Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Image: Cover of <i>Kappa</i> by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.
Image: Cover of Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

I read Akutagawa Ryunosuke's Kappa in secondary school, and it deeply influenced my values.

The fourth chapter of the novel brought me deep reflection on the meaning of "self" and "existence." Kappa's baby has the right to choose to be born in this world, but humans do not have the right to choose.


Anju Dodiya on Japanese Death Poems edited by Yoel Hoffmann

Image: Cover of <i>Japanese Death Poems</i> edited by Yoel Hoffmann.
Image: Cover of Japanese Death Poems edited by Yoel Hoffmann.

I came upon this book at a Kinokuniya bookshop in Singapore on 5 Jan 2006. Having been deeply moved by the Buddha's Dhammapada, and being familiar with the great Japanese haiku poet Basho, I was fascinated by the idea of jisei, or 'death poetry', that Hoffmann gives a magnificent account of. Jisei is a centuries-old tradition of a short poem written in the very last moments of the poet's life, mostly by Zen monks. The idea of expressing a brief goodbye that encompasses a lifetime, revealing frailties and fortitude, is amazing.

Reading the poems, I expected wisdom and nobility—and I found them in abundance: 'I cast the brush aside— / from here on I'll speak to the moon / face to face.' (Koha, d. 1897)

I see in Hokushi (d. 1718) the face of my own painterly struggles: 'I write, erase, rewrite, / erase again, and then / a poppy blooms.' There is the delightful humour of the vulnerable one who loves life: 'Bury me when I die / beneath a wine barrel / in a tavern. / With luck / the cask will leak.' (Moriya Sen'an, d. 1838)

As an artist who works with watercolour, I enjoy Shutei (d. 1858): 'Frost on a summer day: / all I leave behind is water / that has washed my brush.' This was a moving reminder of the ephemeral nature of the act of the brush, and of all life.

I return to these poems often—to be inspired by their beauty, and to reflect upon mortality and the transcendental nature of all our self-absorbed creativity.

'Death poems / are mere delusion— / death is death.' (Toko, d. 1795)


Szelit Cheung on This Light in Oneself by J. Krishnamurti

Image: Cover of <i>This Light in Oneself</i> by J. Krishnamurti.
Image: Cover of This Light in Oneself by J. Krishnamurti.

This Light in Oneself is written by Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986), an Indian philosopher. His books were assembled from his speeches of open expression. Whenever I get lost creating or thinking, I will open a page to read. His sentences seem to offer hints for me to solve my problems, as if he were chatting with me. It is amazing.


Fang Lu on In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching by P. D. Ouspensky

Image: Cover of <i>In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching</i> by P. D. Ouspensky.
Image: Cover of In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching by P. D. Ouspensky.

I found this book accidentally in Los Angeles this summer. I was surprised when I started reading. It shows a completed universe and human system, and these two are unified. This system links topics with which I’ve been interested in recent years. This epistemological book is independent of its scientific and philosophical context; and Ouspensky wrote, recorded, and explored ideas from a student's point of view. It is very lively and legible, without piling up ambiguous terms (though the Chinese version is relatively dry). One of the core questions is why people forget themselves. "Self" is a very specific concept in the book. It even describes some experiments for us to remember ourselves.


Ho Sin Tung on Nox by Anne Carson

Image: Interior pages of <i>Nox</i> by Anne Carson.
Image: Interior pages of Nox by Anne Carson.

Anne Carson understands the language of the dead, but she also talks to the living. She isn't a prisoner of existing media.

She walks across different fields like a ghost through the wall. She showed me reality with her transparency.

We don't need to become a painter or a poet or a novelist. Anne Carson just needs to be Anne Carson, a name that absorbs everything like black water.


Ip Yuk-Yiu on The Transcendence of the Ego by Jean-Paul Sartre

Image: Cover of <i>The Transcendence of the Ego</i> by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Image: Cover of The Transcendence of the Ego by Jean-Paul Sartre.

If you ask "how do 'I' walk?" when climbing stairs, your body will react by becoming clumsy and your limbs will not function well.

When walking, your consciousness focuses on the surrounding environment without noticing the self. The image of "I" climbing up the stairs is the object of conscious introspection. Like Sartre says in The Transcendence of the Ego: "ego" doesn't control consciousness. It is the object of consciousness.

In our time, it feels awkward to choose a book on philosophy. And a book by Sartre seems out of time in the post-modern, post-text, and post-human era. But this is a book that will change the way you view the world and yourself.


Frog King Kwok on Tao Te Ching by Laozi

Image: Cover of <i>Tao Te Ching</i> by Laozi.
Image: Cover of Tao Te Ching by Laozi.

I cannot live without using a camera to capture different things around me. Record the totems of the road and the calligraphy of the signboard while walking on the street; photograph a shaky street view while riding a car; record different kinds of information from YouTube while watching TV. Look at images of frogs in magazines and newspapers; come across people who take photos with frog glasses; dissolve in daily thoughts, even in dreams. Transform into a new idea; reveal and create the artwork.

Conclusion: "Yum Dimension"

Any form, any quality, any medium, any idea, any difficulty; all could be the way to create art. This is my "book."


Lin Yilin on Parmenides by Plato

Image: Cover of <i>Parmenides</i> by Plato.
Image: Cover of Parmenides by Plato.

I bought this book when I went to art school, and the date of purchase I wrote on the book is 26 August 1985. I only read a few pages, but I’ve kept thinking about this difficult book over the past thirty years, and it preserves my desire for knowledge. At the same time, those difficult-to-understand concepts also influence my creation.


There is nothing beside the one and the others; and as these must be in something, they must therefore be in one another; and as that in which a thing is greater than the thing, the inference is that they are both greater and less than one another, because containing and contained in one another. Therefore the one is equal to and greater and less than itself or other, having also measures or parts or numbers equal to or greater or less than itself or other.


Po Po on Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Image: Cover of <i>Siddhartha</i> by Hermann Hesse.
Image: Cover of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.


Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom. It can be found, it can be lived, it is possible to be carried by it, miracles can be performed with it, but it cannot be expressed in words and taught. This was what I, even as a young man, sometimes suspected, what has driven me away from the teachers. I have found a thought, Govinda, which you'll again regard as a joke or foolishness, but which is my best thought. It says: The opposite of every truth is just as true! That's like this: any truth can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided. Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with words, it's all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness, round-ness, oneness.

When I was about eighteen years old, I read the translated publication of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse since its name was interesting. But it was about a story of a Brahmana with the same name as the Gautama Buddha.

It caught my soul from the very beginning; the young man standing a day and a half for permission from his father for his spiritual journey for the truth and meaning of life, as a result of his dissatisfaction with traditional teachings, customs, and knowledge. The whole novel deals with philosophical talks relating to life, so nearly every page of the book had my underlined marks.

What I enjoy most was that, at the halfway point of the book, after the character met with the Gautama Buddha and listened to his sermon, he still decided to go on his journey of self-discovery—though he did not turn down Buddha's discourses.

This is the most inspiring and encouraging novel of my life, even until now.


R. Vaidehi on What is Art? by Rabindranath Tagore

Image: Cover of <i>What is Art?</i> by Rabindranath Tagore.
Image: Cover of What is Art? by Rabindranath Tagore.

This text changed the way I see and work, and was recommended by my husband, R. Raja, who is an artist and my teacher.

"So, we, in the East, need not go into details and emphasise them; for the most important thing is this universal soul, for which the Eastern sages have sat in meditation, and Eastern artists have joined them in artistic realisation.

"Because we have faith in this universal soul, we in the East know that Truth, Power, Beauty, lie in Simplicity—where it is transparent, where things do not obstruct the inner vision. Therefore, all our sages have tried to make their lives simple and pure, because thus they have realisation of a positive Truth, which, though invisible, is more real than the gross and the numerous."

This touches me so much and helps me.


Trevor Yeung on The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein

Image: Cover of <i>The Giving Tree</i> by Shel Silverstein.
Image: Cover of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

I found this children’s book when I was searching for articles about the relationship between humans and horticulture. The book turns the apple tree into a carrier, and I expect readers to substitute themselves into the ideal characters. I am not convinced by it; nonetheless, I still appreciate how strongly the book attempts to connect with its readers.


Charwei Tsai on The Monk and the Philosopher by Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel

Image: Cover of <i>The Monk and the Philosopher</i> by Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel.
Image: Cover of The Monk and the Philosopher by Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel.

Growing up in Taiwan, I was always fascinated by the conventional practices of Buddhism as a popular religion, such as mantra recitation, ancestor worship, shamanism, and stories of the afterlife and spirits. It was not until reading Revel and Ricard’s book that I had my first insight into Buddhism as a spiritual tradition with profound scientific methods of understanding our mind and cultivating altruism. The book motivates me to reexamine the possibilities of a creative practice beyond individual expression, with broader aspirations to have a positive influence on our community.


Wong Wai Yin on Journey of Souls: Case Studies of Life Between Lives by Michael Newton

Image: Cover of <i>Journey of Souls: Case Studies of Life Between Lives</i> by Michael Newton.
Image: Cover of Journey of Souls: Case Studies of Life Between Lives by Michael Newton.

The author uses a special hypnosis technique to reach the hidden memories of his clients. This book is the record of twenty-nine people who recalled their experiences between physical deaths. Their stories give me a lot of inspiration and understanding about souls and life’s purpose. Besides this greater sense of eternal souls, I also got a better understanding of some specific events of my life. It’s not directly a book about art, but about the most basic knowledge of being a person.


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CHU Takwah Almond, 朱德華


CHEUNG Szelit, 張施烈

FANG Lu, 方璐

HO Sintung, 何倩彤

IP Yukyiu, 葉旭耀

KWOK Mangho / Frog King, 蛙王, 郭孟浩

LIN Yilin, 林一林

Po Po


Trevor YEUNG, 楊沛鏗

TSAI Charwei, 蔡佳葳

WONG Waiyin Doris, 黃慧妍

Research Notes
Thu, 20 Jul 2017
Cite as
CHU Takwah Almond, 朱德華, Anju DODIYA, CHEUNG Szelit, 張施烈, FANG Lu, 方璐, HO Sintung, 何倩彤, IP Yukyiu, 葉旭耀, KWOK Mangho / Frog King, 蛙王, 郭孟浩, LIN Yilin, 林一林, Po Po, R. VAIDEHI, Trevor YEUNG, 楊沛鏗, TSAI Charwei, 蔡佳葳 and WONG Waiyin Doris, 黃慧妍, Book Recommendations | A Search for Truth, Thu, 20 Jul 2017

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Each Monday, Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections