I visited the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art yesterday, which sits on a quiet and leafy Village block (17th street just off 7th ave), in time to catch the dramatically titled ‘Remember that you will die’ exhibition before it closes next week. The exhibition is on the top floor of the gallery, which I had never visited before, so I climbed through most of the rest of the collection before getting there. The museum is beautiful and feels lavish, although the exhibits are sparely and thoughtfully arranged so that each piece – often in a dramatically spot-lit glass case – has enough space to engross your full attention.
The central ascending spiral steps (a nod to the Guggenheim) take you through an introduction to the art of the Himalayas, which essentially means the religious culture of the Himalayas since, as one wall-text notes, the Tibetan word for ‘art’ literally translates as ‘the representation of the gods for ritual purposes.’ Nothing ‘for art’s sake’ here. It is clearly a challenge to engage visitors with a body of work likely to be only distantly and vaguely understood, if at all, and the museum does a pretty good job of taking those visitors through the essentials of the characteristics of the various gods, their role in human life, and the conventions of their artistic representation, in the introductory ‘Gateway to the Himalayas’ exhibit. I found the most interesting moments to be those that placed the artworks within the culture and the region of their origin (also distant, and vaguely understood) by means of maps, diagrams, and art-making artifacts.
I couldn’t get a picture, but I was fascinated by one such display that took you through the stages of casting a hollow metal sculpture. The process begins with a wax model which is then slowly (over several weeks) encased in layers of clay and mud, and finally heated to that the sacrificial wax melts out and metal can be poured in, after which, finally, the mould is broken and the statue buffed to a shine and embellished with jewels. This part of the exhibition brings to mind the similar attempts in the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries to explain the processes of ancient vase-making, even though most of the Rubin’s collection is from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
On the fourth floor is a fascinating exhibition called ‘Tradition Transformed’, of works by contemporary Tibetan artists responding to their heritage, and remaking the traditional, highly complex and ritually patterned circular mandalas in new ways, by, for instance, fragmenting the shape, reworking a painted image as a light box sculpture, punching traditional patterns out of the end of beer cans, or picking the traditional shape out with shining pieces of Western trash and fragments of disjointed text:
The sixth floor exhibition I had come to see juxtaposed Christian and Tibetan (Buddhist and Hindu) mementos mori – paintings, sculptures, ritual objects and so on – joining the disparate traditions with a video piece by Bill Viola, ‘Three Women,’ that I found riveting and surprisingly moving. It depicts three female figures emerging from a monochrome shadowy backdrop through a wall of water that’s only visible when they touch it. First to emerge, blinking, soaked, and wondering, is an older woman, then a girl in her twenties and a child of about thirteen, all now crowded into the frame in vivid technicolor. Then, equally slowly and inexorably, in the same order, they slip back through the water veil, and into indistinct shadow. The older pieces, from both traditions, show some fascinating points of connection and difference in attitudes to death: images depicting Buddhist monks’ efforts to transcend their fear of death by meditating in horrifying charnel-grounds resonate with the grisly medieval (mostly Germanic) depictions of purgatory and hell, and various versions of the ‘dance of death’ motif.
In one of the galleries I overheard the tail end of a conversation between a Buddhist monk and a visitor who, coincidentally, was wearing a red t-shirt the same shade as the monk’s robes. Their talk ended with the man’s awkward admission, ‘that’s as spiritual as I get, I’m afraid.’ There is a similarly awkward tension in the museum as a whole, I think, between the impulse to display the culture of the Himalayas as art in the way that Westerners understand it – ie, as an object for admiration and study – and the desire at the same time to represent Buddhist thought as a more enlightened spiritual path and to acknowledge the enormous role it has played in the development of Western ‘alternative’ spirituality. Yet this risks pandering to the spiritual tourist in us, the tourist who’s mocked upstairs in the fourth-floor gallery in a sculpture by a contemporary Tibetan artist, by being presented with the Buddha’s backside, mass-produced and massed against us up a wall. These tensions aren’t really resolved in the museum, but downstairs in the small and crowded gift shop a certain tolerance has been found, where books on Himalayan art can coexist with ‘100 Buddhist Mantras’ and other how-to guides to reaching your own nirvana.