Art in Re­view

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Sa­cred Spa­ces at the Ru­bin Mu­seum of Art in New York and Sa­cred Realm at the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art

The word “sa­cred” has an as­sort­ment of mean­ings and con­texts to­day, but when the re­gion in ques­tion is Asia, the word gen­er­ally refers to rit­u­als or spa­ces. Both these ref­er­ences are the sub­jects of two cur­rent exhibits, one at the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art in Santa Fe, and the other at the Ru­bin Mu­seum of Art in New York City.

The lat­ter show is ex­pertly cu­rated, suc­cinct, and to the point. The Ru­bin is a rel­a­tively new mu­seum — it opened in 2004 — with a fo­cus on Hi­malayan art.

Sa­cred Spa­ces, an ex­pe­ri­en­tial ex­hibit, stun­ningly recre­ates a Ti­betan Bud­dhist shrine and show­cases a video in­stal­la­tion of a Jain rit­ual and a room-length pho­to­graph of a moun­tain­ous Ti­betan land­scape (Ti­betans be­lieve that land­scapes em­body life and power).

The shrine room at the Ru­bin is an invit­ing space, with flick­er­ing but­ter lamps, faint in­cense, and the soft sound of chants. Vis­i­tors can be seen clos­ing their eyes to ab­sorb the peace­ful air. Gilded Bud­dhist stat­ues gleam in the dim light. The in­stal­la­tion is mod­eled on an af­flu­ent house­hold shrine, and the cu­ra­to­rial in­tent, as ex­pressed on a mu­seum la­bel, is to high­light “the com­plex­ity of the art ob­jects shown through­out the Mu­seum, namely that each im­age has aes­thetic, his­tor­i­cal, re­li­gious, and rit­ual sig­nif­i­cance.” At the base of the rec­tan­gu­lar room, vis­i­tors can sit on a row of stools and ex­pe­ri­ence the rit­ual con­text of these cer­e­mo­nial ob­jects. A sin­gle strand of prayer beads hangs from a wall, within reach, for those so in­clined.

Sa­cred Realm: Bless­ings & Good For­tune Across Asia, an ex­hibit that opened in Fe­bru­ary at the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art, also recre­ates a Ti­betan al­tar. Placed in a room with prayer ar­ti­facts from other cul­tures, this al­tar does not have the same im­pact­ful pres­ence as the one in the Ru­bin. A la­bel on Bud­dhist prac­tice is in a dif­fer­ent room, con­fus­ingly sep­a­rated from the al­tar by sub­sec­tions on Is­lam and Ju­daism. This way of en­coun­ter­ing dif­fer­ent cul­tures in small doses feels like be­ing in the eth­nic aisle of a gro­cery store. To con­tem­plate the sa­cred, you need some si­lence and unity of space, none of which ac­crues when cu­ra­tors jam In­dia, Thai­land, Ti­bet, and China into one room.

A cor­ner glass case is de­voted to “Hindu Prayer,” and some of the small-sized Hindu deities are strik­ing. But the collection feels clut­tered, per­haps be­cause the or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple be­hind how the deities are ar­ranged is fuzzy. There are iden­ti­fi­able

icons, such as Kr­ishna and Ganesh, but no nar­ra­tive that con­tex­tu­al­izes them. The most il­lus­tra­tive as­pect here is a pho­to­graph, printed on a panel, of an In­dian girl in her prayer room.

More pho­to­graphs might have helped guide vis­i­tors through the mi­asma of cul­tures pre­sented in the MOIFA ex­hibit. We could have been given nar­ra­tives about, say, In­dia be­ing a sec­u­lar coun­try, or how Ti­betan prayer has been im­pacted by Chi­nese pres­ence. In­stead, our at­ten­tion is di­rected to a smorgasbord of ob­jects of vary­ing qual­ity, ac­com­pa­nied by generic la­bels that be­gin to sound like New Age hooey. It’s not clear why shamanic masks and a shrine for a dead baby are grouped to­gether un­der the ex­hi­bi­tion sub­ti­tle of Bless­ings & Good For­tune. This cat­a­log ap­proach triv­i­al­izes rit­ual ob­jects. Prayer is about go­ing deeper. Is it too much to ask the same of an ex­hibit, al­most half of which is os­ten­si­bly de­voted to this sub­ject?

Do we go to mu­se­ums sim­ply to gaze at ob­jects? Is there a deeper mean­ing to glean? Can the cu­ra­tor do more than present ob­jects? In his 2014 book, Ways of Cu­rat­ing (Faber & Faber), Hans Ul­rich Obrist re­calls his first meet­ing with the Ital­ian con­cep­tual artist Alighiero Boetti. “Boetti told me that if I wanted to cu­rate ex­hi­bi­tions, then I should un­der no cir­cum­stances do what ev­ery­body else was do­ing — just giving the artists a cer­tain room and sug­gest­ing that they fill it,” Obrist writes. In­stead of fill­ing a room with ob­jects, Boetti en­cour­aged Obrist to ask artists about their un­re­al­ized projects. “Boetti said cu­rat­ing could be about mak­ing im­pos­si­ble things pos­si­ble.”

The Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art ex­hibit is a cel­e­bra­tion of what the leg­endary art his­to­rian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy called “aes­thetic sur­faces” as op­posed to “art as a kind of knowl­edge.” Some ob­jects in the show stand out. An amulet doll from Be­douin cul­ture (circa 1910, his­toric Pales­tine), with long black hair and dressed in a faded orange dress, has such pres­ence that you might imag­ine her in the arms of a lit­tle girl to­day. A terra-cotta fer­til­ity fig­ure (circa 1982, Bankura, West Ben­gal, In­dia) shows a woman hold­ing a baby in each arm, but she has an an­i­mal as­pect. Her fox­like face projects for­ward in a deep tri­an­gle, as do her ba­bies’ faces — they sug­gest a mys­tery that might be worth un­rav­el­ing, but our at­ten­tion moves on to the many other ob­jects on view.

It is use­ful to note that prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions are at play here — the ob­jects pre­sented are all from the mu­seum’s own collection. The ex­hibit be­gins with a siz­able collection of amulets. A plac­ard in­forms us that through­out Asia, there are “amulets with sa­cred in­scrip­tions thought to pro­vide pro­tec­tion from harm.” Much is made of the evil eye. A neck­lace “to pro­tect a child from the evil eye” (circa 1915, Bagh­dad) seems too large for a child to wear, and it would have been in­ter­est­ing to know if it was meant only for cer­e­mo­nial use. It might also have been help­ful to some­how ac­knowl­edge that ev­ery cul­ture, in its own way, wants to pro­tect chil­dren from the “evil eye” — this is not some­thing that is spe­cific only to “ex­otic” Asia. A sec­tion that fol­lows, on amulet con­tain­ers, feels repet­i­tive. A room de­voted to tat­toos adds to the bazaar-like at­mos­phere.

In con­trast, the sparse­ness of the Ru­bin ex­hibit makes it eas­ier to ab­sorb what is pre­sented. On a two-chan­nel video in­stal­la­tion, Shra­van­abelagola by Deidi von Schaewen, we watch as devo­tees pour of­fer­ings over the head and feet of an enor­mous Jain icon named Bahubali. This sa­cred rit­ual oc­curs ev­ery twelve years in Shra­van­abelagola, Kar­nataka, in south­ern In­dia. One screen shows Bahubali’s head — the other, his feet. The images are in­deli­ble: The wor­ship­pers stand on a bal­cony rigged up be­hind Bahubali and pour milk, flower petals, and pig­ments al­most con­tin­u­ously over his head. On the screen that shows Bahubali’s feet, Jain monks (some with­out a shred of cloth­ing), along with laypeo­ple want­ing to gain merit, re­ceive the of­fer­ings and sweep the place clean. At one point, they hoist a mas­sive gar­land up to Bahubali’s neck. Ger­man artist Von Schaewen filmed this in­stal­la­tion when she at­tended the rit­ual as an ob­server in 2006. The hyp­notic work trans­ports us into the cen­ter of the rit­ual.

In the MOIFA show, the sec­tion on “Rit­ual Dance in Bali” show­cases film footage from Trance and Dance in Bali, pro­duced by Gre­gory Bate­son and Mar­garet Mead and shot at the vil­lage of Pa­goetan, Bali, be­tween 1937 and 1939. While this an­thro­po­log­i­cal work has its place, it feels out­moded, in 2016, to look at tra­di­tions in Bali through a dis­tanc­ing lens that por­trays the shamanic dancers as the “other.” The use of this video has a pa­tron­iz­ing, colo­nial whiff about it. The Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art is a pub­licly funded mu­seum. It is ad­mit­tedly a treat to have an ex­hibit about Asia in Santa Fe, but surely we can do bet­ter. Bring­ing to­gether Asia, which is a collection of dis­tinc­tive cul­tures, his­to­ries, and re­li­gions, un­der one roof of “bless­ings and good for­tune,” is a shal­low cu­ra­to­rial con­struct.

A more or­ganic ap­proach might have been to ex­plore how one tra­di­tion — say, Bud­dhism — has spread its branches in vary­ing forms all across Asia. The Bud­dha him­self sup­pos­edly had not wanted to be rep­re­sented in hu­man form. For a long time, a pair of san­dals rep­re­sented the Bud­dha. Why is he com­monly por­trayed as a per­son to­day? This is one of many im­por­tant unan­swered ques­tions in the field. In­stead, af­ter view­ing the Sa­cred Realm ex­hibit, we may find our­selves won­der­ing why we gaze so ar­dently at rit­ual ob­jects. These cer­e­mo­nial ob­jects, once used as aids to go deeper, have be­come a visual fetish: What was meant to open the eyes has be­come mere eye candy. — Priyanka Ku­mar

SA­CRED REALM: BLESS­INGS & GOOD FOR­TUNE ACROSS ASIA, Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo, 505-476-1200; through March 19, 2017

SA­CRED SPA­CES, Ru­bin Mu­seum of Art, 150 W. 17th St., 212-620-5000, New York; through Oct. 17, 2016

At New York’s Ru­bin Mu­seum of Art: Deidi von Schaewen: stills from Shra­van­abelagola, 2006; two-chan­nel video in­stal­la­tion, courtesy of the artist; top left, shrine room; top right, ob­jects in the shrine room; images courtesy Ru­bin Mu­seum of Art

At the Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art: left, amulets at Woro­rot Mar­ket, Chi­ang Mai, Thai­land, 2014; top, Spirit House, Chi­ang Mai, Thai­land, 2014; images courtesy Mu­seum of In­ter­na­tional Folk Art

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