Archive for the ‘Asian art’ Tag

the making – and unmaking – of a sand mandala   Leave a comment

Art? Ritual? Devotional image?  Sand mandalas made by Tibetan Buddhist monks are all three plus much in-between.   In February I spent five days watching them make a mandalaat the Mattie Kelly Arts Center of Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Florida. My report is in yesterday’s WSJ and, here below, are photos I took throughout the process.

The monks are from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in south India; they are in the US for about 15 months, based out of the Mystical Arts of Tibet in Atlanta.  From here they travel across the country creating sand mandalas, chanting and/or performing Tibetan music and dances.



causeway into Angkor Thom

Whether or not the ancient Khmer had a word for it,  they certainly knew how to express the power of transitions and threshholds in stone.  Sure wish “liminality” had some of that oomph.

gate into Angkor Thom

nature adds its own drama  in Ta Phrom

doorway in Preah Ko temple

crossing into hell   1 comment

The Six Realms: Hell, scroll 22 of Five Hundred Arhats by Kano Kazunobo (1816-63)

Masters of Mercy” — what a well constructed show of paintings featuring rakans, the Buddha’s disciples (or luohan as the Chinese refer to them) who so often stare out with fierce expressions, as though to remind us that this whole enlightenment business is hard work.

The show starts with a couple of paintings by Kano Kazunobo from the 19th century then steps back in time to familiarize us with the way rakan were historically depicted, all this to prime us to return to Kazunobo, this time to appreciate a suite of large scroll paintings.  They are selections for a massive series Kazunobo painted between 1854 and his death in 1863.  Each one tells a story, from daily routines like shaving and bathing in the monastery to rakans exhibiting supernatural powers or visiting hell realms.

Not sure what it says about me (probably that I spent too much time looking at Bosch’s hells — thank you, Dixon, for that) but I could not stop looking at Scroll 22.  I love the way Kazunobo depicts this netherworld — it is airless and miasmic and it sucks the bodies into itself.  But there is a way out through the powerful rays that one rakan is shining down.  Most of all, I love that the rakan aren’t looking down from another realm.  They may be standing on a cloud insulated from those beautiful but dangerous flames, but they have crossed into this underworld, daring to be in it while making sure they are not of it.

Borderland or dead end?   Leave a comment

Do you think of tombs as marking a threshold, a commemoration of that ultimate borderland between life on earth and an after life?  Or do you see tombs as signalling the end of a person’s existence?  In reviewing a show currently at the China Institute Gallery, I discovered that the Jin dynasty in 13th-century China may have been paying lip service to the first theory while really subscribing to the second…making this show of funerary art all the more appealing to an aficionado of old cemeteries


Tang figure at the Museo di Arte Orientale

When I lived in Turin way back when, the best museum in town was the Museo Egizio which has an amazing collection of mummies that I don’t think my brother has ever gotten over.  For the first time since  1966, I went back this summer — and, at least for me,  the mummies have competition:  a little funerary statue made in 8th-century China.

A lot of other Tang period figures are dynamic — dancers flicking ribbons, grooms flexing muscles, camels that look like they’re about to do that rocking motion they do in order to raise themselves from sit to stand.  But this guy is not only twisting his torso and glaring down at who knows what, he is finely made and quite beautiful.  And this is not something you can say about a lot of Tang figures depicting foreigners.  Often their features are a tad grotesque or buffoonish.

Add to this the fact that  nobody really knows for sure just who or what this figure is supposed to be, and you’ve got yourself a pretty irresistible piece.  One I certainly could not resist and was lucky enough to get to write about in the Wall Street Journal.  First time I’ve written a ‘masterpiece essay,‘ and I hope not the last.  When you review a show, there is so much going on — the layout, the concept, the works themselves — that you get to devote at most a few lines to its most spectacular pieces.  So what a treat to investigate a single piece and realize first-hand how much of art history is detective work.


Vajrapani - Bodhisattva

A worthwhile collection of Tibetan art in Newark — that in itself to most will seem like the ultimate oxymoron.  As one friend wrote to me, “I thought Newark was a cultural wasteland.”  Wrong.  At least not within the wall of the Newark Museum where a very dynamic curator has reinstalled the Tibetan galleries, striking a balance between treating works as religious icon, cultural artifact, and art (I try to convey a sense of that in my review for Wall Street Journal).   To get a sense of the museum’s TIbetan collection, check out its web site as well as its pages on the  Himalayan Art web site.


Museums just love sand mandalas —  and every time I see Tibetan monks streaming brightly colored sand into intricate patterns surrounded by people like me snapping photographs I wonder: what are they doing here?

Sand mandala at Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ

Part of me feels strongly that, if a public museum is going to host a Tibetan Buddhist ritual, then it should be ready to have a priest come in and consecrate hosts before a triptych in the European Medieval galleries.  The fact that museums don’t — and none do to my knowledge — leaves them open to attack on two fronts:

– museums can be accused of dismissing Buddhist sacred rituals as mere artifact and curiosity while considering Christian rituals so sacred as to be out of bounds (indeed, Blake Gopnik made this argument in the Washington Post)


– museums could be alternatively accused of using public funds to favor one religion over another.

Now, the very presence of monks in the museum — not to mention the fact that the Dalai Lama himself consecrated a shrine in the Newark Museum’s Tibetan galleries — pretty much says that  Tibetan Buddhists don’t feel any slight.  And since the Newark Museum has no Medieval galleries with art from Christian churches, it can’t be accused of favoring one religion over another (which is one of things I argued in writing about another instance of religion in museums).

Another part of me, however, sees no harm in inviting practitioners of a religion to show us their rituals and explain their beliefs.  On the contrary.  We walk into churches, mosques, synagogues, temples all the time in the hope of understanding people of another faith and culture.  The challenges in both instances strikes me as the same: namely making sure that the approach is respectful and does not reduce human beings and their beliefs to artifact.  You know, the way natural history museums in their early days used to display peoples of other (usually deemed more primitive) cultures.

Leaning over the balustrade at the Newark museum, with my phone in camera mode, I could not help but also wonder whether this was how Tibet is going to survive, no longer a country tied to mountains and valleys and rivers, but as collection of uprooted cultural/religious events that double as tourist attractions and living art exhibitions in museums and fairs across the globe.

Posted May 13, 2011 by leeadairlawrence in Asian art, Religion, religious art

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