In Absentia

Before I get your hopes up, this post is merely a placeholder. I’m terribly sorry I haven’t gotten an Updates post up for November yet, but things have been somewhat hectic this month. Between starting two part-time jobs and trying to make the deadline for a number of internships and graduate programs, I haven’t had much time for breathing, let alone writing and researching. The month has just started though, so with any luck I hope to have a November/December Updates post up before Thanksgiving – if not, I hope you will understand and accept my humblest apologies. Thank you all so much for reading, and I promise I will be back here as soon as I can.

Tashi Delek!

Kristen

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Impressive Collections, Inspiring Speakers

As I’ve previously mentioned here and through my Twitter account, this past weekend the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented the Third Annual Anne d’Harnoncourt Symposium: Exhibiting India’s Art in the 21st Century (Sept. 30 – Oct. 2, 2011), a three-day event focusing on, as the title suggests, South Asian and Himalayan collections and the work that goes into presenting their contents to a museum audience. While I was only fortunate enough to be present for Saturday’s lecture series, the event began on Friday with an introduction by Director Timothy Rub and the University of Pennsylvania’s W. Norman Brown Professor of South Asia Studies, Michael W. Meister, and a tour of the collections with the Museum’s Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, Darielle Mason. This evening conveniently coincided with the Museum’s weekly Art After Five event, which I am told was South Asian-themed for the occasion. The Symposium continued with a five-lecture series and a dinner for weekend ticket holders on Saturday, and roundtable working sessions and a closing public talk by Yael Rice, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, on Sunday. Not only an informative intellectual endeavor, Dr. Meister and Dr. Mason hoped to use this opportunity to generate and debate new ideas to put into practice during the impending reinterpretation and reinstallation of the Museum’s acclaimed permanent South Asian galleries, which I’m sure will be an exciting and daunting endeavor for all involved.

Returning to this past Saturday, this was far from my first visit to the PMA or its famous South Asian Pillared Temple Hall. I lived in Philly for four years while studying for my undergraduate degree from Temple University and in that time I often visited museums throughout the city – especially on the annual Museum Day, when a poor college student could get in for free. Despite the years that have passed since that time, I instantly found myself feeling at home upon entering the Museum. I’d forgotten how many hours I’d spent there, particularly in the Asian and Medieval European galleries, gazing at the myriad of icons and artifacts of Buddhism, Tantra, and early Christianity (the three areas upon which my early studies in religion had focused on). Climbing the stairs of the Great Hall, I was awash in thoughts of this formative period of my life, and reminded of how this historic building just seems to feel so different from other places, even other museums of similar size and stature, as if infused with the stories of all the items it contains. Seeing the works I’d always loved so much and walking through the fully immersive “rooms” in which it feels as if you’ve stepped into another place and time reinvigorated me, and I was excited to have had the opportunity and incentive to return to a place I’d forgotten had meant so much to me.

Such nostalgia aside, I would find further inspiration from the numerous speakers that afternoon. The morning began with a lecture entitled Expanding the Canon: Garden and Cosmos, where, among other things, I learned about the critically acclaimed exhibition by Debra Diamond, Associate Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art at the Freer Gallery and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, Oct. 4, 2008 – Jan. 4, 2009 at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, on tour throughout the world afterwards)  and was enticed by her upcoming exhibit, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, to open in 2013 (http://www.asia.si.edu/research/curatorial/currentResearch.asp). Not knowing much about modern Asian art personally, the following speaker, Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, San Diego Museum of Art’s Curator of Asian Art, introduced me to the amazing work of the Indian artist Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) in her lecture, Framing Modernity in South Asia, and spoke about the interpretation and use of contemporary South Asian art in the museum setting. Quintanilla helped to organize an exhibit of this artist’s work at the PMA in 2008 (Rhythms of India, June 27, 2008 – Sept. 1, 2008). This would segue nicely to later discussions on whether modern Asian art belonged with other Asian works, or beside the works of its contemporary artists from around the world.

"Sati" (1943) by Nandalal Bose

The talk I found to be the most personally motivating of the morning, however, came from the somewhat self-deprecating and quite personable Associate Curator of South Asian and Islamic Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, John Henry Rice. Using examples from his own career both as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and as a curator at the VMFA, his lecture, In the Field and in the Gallery: Clarifying Context through Scholarship and Display, focused on the careful balance a museum professional must strive to maintain between performing his own research in the field and finding ways to display that research and the research of others in an approachable way to a diverse public audience. This has been a very pertinent issue for Dr. Rice, who has tried to take this into account in his recent challenging opportunity to re-design and re-install the South Asian galleries at the VMFA into its new monumental building – an endeavor that from all accounts appears to have been a great success (http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/Collections/SouthAsian/).  

 Following a brief break for lunch and my own whirl-wind tour of the Asian art galleries, most notably including the beautiful Himalayan pieces from The Natacha Rambova Collection of Lamaist Art and the large selection of South Asian stone images, the lectures continued with talks by Katherine Anne Paul, Curator of the Arts of Asia at the Newark Museum, and John E. Cort, Professor of Religion at Denison University and Faculty Consultant for the Denison Museum. Dr. Paul’s presentation, Prisms of Practice: Tibetan Buddhist Altars in Museum Settings, spoke directly to my specific interests and was the original catalyst driving my desire to visit the Symposium in the first place. I was not to be disappointed. Dr. Paul not only gave an account of the history of the consecrated Tibetan Altar at her current institution and the impact it has had on its audience, but compared the purpose of that permanent display to the temporary exhibition of a lay Tibetan altar that she helped to organize as the former Associate Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art several years prior (Conserving a Tibetan Altar, Dec. 9, 2006 – May 27, 2007). Her talk raised questions regarding the display of sacred items, the use of religious ritual as an educational tool, and the impact said use has on museum visitors, both for those  from within the culture on display and for those who might be considered “outsiders.” Ultimately, Dr. Paul argues, installations, or rather those that create them, should strive to present the various perspectives and practices related to these sacred items to the best that their ability and respective institutional missions allow. As something of a reverse, Dr. Cort, the only member of the panel who is not currently a museum professional, acted somewhat as a devil’s advocate, questioning just how far an institution should go in attempting to display the “original context” of a particular religious image lest it become something of a farce (or, in the case of bathing rituals and so forth, at least broach territory few conservators would allow their items to endure). This, again, featured as a prominent topic in the discussion panel to follow.

 At least for me, the Symposium was more than just a success, but rather something of a catalyst assuring me of what steps I’d most like to take in the coming months in regards to further education and a future career as a museum professional. I more than appreciate the work put into this past weekend by all those involved, and I look forward to future events of similar ilk, where hopefully I can devote more of my resources and time. As to the collections themselves, if you have not visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art I urge you to do so, and if you have, I hope you can visit again soon to be reminded of just what a special place it is. For further information on the history and contents of the Museum’s spectacular Indian and Himalayan Art Collection, see the official website: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/216-423-189.html

Tashi Delek.


Openings, Endings, and Updates for October 2011

Perhaps in accordance with the end of spring and the ushering in of the fall, there are quite a few more endings in October than there are openings. Visit what you can before they are gone, and let me know what you think if you make it out. Despite all the closings, October is also full of a number of special events – including lectures, book signings, and performances – so it should be a busy month indeed if you plan on seeing it all!

 Openings

The Metropolitan Museum of Art: While technically opening in September and not October, I must have missed this exhibit beginning this Wednesday called “Wonder of the Age”: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900 (September 28, 2011 – January 8, 2012). Accompanied by a catalogue co-written by John Guy and Jorrit Britschgi, this major loan exhibition will feature “some 220 works selected according to identifiable hands and named artists…dispel[ling] the notion of anonymity in Indian art.” For more information on this beautiful collection, see: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2011/wonder-of-the-age–master-painters-of-india-11001900. May I also take this opportunity to note that the new design of the Met’s website is beautifully intuitive and comprehensive – they really did an amazing job!

 Rubin Museum of Art: Mirror of the Buddha: Early Portraits of Tibet (October 21, 2011 – March 5, 2012) opens towards the end of October, presenting portraits of founding masters and important teachers within the Buddhist traditions, primarily in the India-inspired Sharri style of painting. It is the first in a series of exhibitions exploring particular Tibetan painting styles, and according to the official website, “will clarify some of the confusion and correct misidentifications previously posited by Western scholars.” The exhibit is accompanied by a full-color catalog by its curator, David Jackson, who will also hold a special members-only key talk and preview the night before its opening, Thursday, October 20th at 6 pm. For more information on this new and potentially enlightening display, take a look at its official announcement: http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/1309.

 Endings

Asia Society Museum: The extraordinary exhibition, The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, ends Sunday, October 30. If you have not already seen the contents of this much-anticipated collection of early Buddhist artifacts, I urge you to make it out to the Museum before it is gone. A lot of work was put into getting these pieces to America from their home institutions, and it would be a shame to miss out on the opportunity to see them. Be sure to read my brief review of the exhibit and its accompanying lecture by Christian Luczanits if you haven’t already (https://beyondthedisplay.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/buddhas-and-bodhisattvas-from-pakistan-to-new-york/), and for more information, see its official website (http://asiasociety.org/arts/asia-society-museum/current-exhibitions/buddhist-heritage-pakistan-art-gandhara).

 Brooklyn Museum: Vishnu: Hinduism’s Blue-Skinned Savior (June 24, 2011 – October 2, 2011) ends as soon as next week. Proclaimed as the first major museum exhibit to feature this deity, it is a must-see for anyone interested in Indian art and religious practice (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/vishnu/).

The Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art: The current exhibit, Artist Tashi Dhargyal and the Menris Tradition of Thangka Art, ends on October 9, 2011. Sadly, no further information is provided regarding this display and its contents on the Museum’s official website: http://www.tibetanmuseum.org/calendar.htm.

Newark Museum: While part of the Tibetan Collection Centennial Exhibitions, the small but particularly beautiful display, Pots of Silver and Gold (March 5, 2011 – October 30, 2011), will be removed at the end of October. While not grand enough to make a special trip, if you planned on making a visit to the Newark Museum this coming month, be sure to take a peek! See the first segment of my entry on the Centennial Exhibitions for more information (https://beyondthedisplay.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/celebrating-a-century-part-one/), as well as the official description on their context and fabrication (http://www.newarkmuseum.org/potssilvergold.html).

Rubin Museum of Art: The exhibition Pilgrimage and Faith: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, having opened in July 1st of this year, will be closing on Monday, October 24, 2011. For more information on this cross-cultural exhibit, see the official website and press release here: http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/1061.

 One-Time Events

 American Museum of Natural History: While not at all related to anything particularly pertaining to Asian art, artifacts, or traditions, I had to mention the 16th Annual Halloween Celebration at AMNH, where (for $10 for non-members and $9 for members) children can trick-or-treat in costume, participate in arts and crafts, and carve pumpkins throughout the halls of this inspirational and historic Museum. The event takes place on Halloween itself (October 31, 2011) from 4 pm to 7 pm. For more information, see: http://www.amnh.org/calendar/event/16th-Annual-Halloween-Celebration/

 Rubin Museum of Art: As always, the Rubin Museum of Art is hosting a number of exciting events next month for a variety of audiences (including a number of live musical performances), and I will only mention a small sampling –check out the website’s official calendar for more events than these:

This coming Friday and Saturday evenings the Museum will be featuring Public Rehearsals of The Vimalakirti Sutra with Peter Sellars, Kate Valk, & Michael Schumacher at 7 pm. This work-in-progress is meant to accompany the newly-opened exhibition Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myth in Himalayan Art (September 16, 2011 – January 30, 2012). Tickets are $25 for non-members, $22.50 for members (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1318).

Additionally, on Wednesday, October 12, author Dana Micucci will be holding a Reading and Signing of her new travel memoir, Sojourns of the Soul: One Woman’s Journey around the World and into Her Truth, at 6 pm (http://www.rma2.org/events/load/1386), followed by the New York Film Premiere of the documentary Light of the Valley: The 15th Renovation of Swayambhu at 7pm (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1359).

The weekend of October 21-23 promises a three-day Traditional Thankga Painting Workshop with Carmen Mensink. Registration is required and all materials are included for $175 for non-members, $150 for members. Sign-up soon if you are interested, as spaces for these workshops often fill up fast (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1393).

The last event I will mention is the one I am most excited to see. Andrew Quintman, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, will be leading a discussion along with several other professors and professional authors entitled From Urdu Epic and Tibetan Sorcerers to Today: Fantasy in Tibetan and World Literature. Dr. Quintman specializes in the Buddhist traditions of Tibet and the Himalayas, and he currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Tibetan and Himalayan Religions Group of the American Academy of Religion. The event will take place on Wednesday, October 26 at 7 pm and costs $12 for non-members, $10.80 for members. Tickets also include a 6:15 pm tour of Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myth in Himalayan Art (September 16, 2011 – January 30, 2012) (http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1385).

The Tibet House: On Thursday, October 6 at 7 pm, the Tibet House will be hosting a Book Launch and Signing for Yangzom Brauen’s new book, Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom. This emotional memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of Tibetan women, covering almost one hundred years of Tibetan history and looks to be a moving and inspirational read. Admission to this event is free for all (http://www.tibethouse.us/programs/view/581693/4).

Tashi Delek!


Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from Pakistan to New York

I’ve never had much experience driving in cities.  I didn’t own my own car when I lived in Philadelphia while studying for my undergraduate degree, and despite being the capital of Florida, Tallahassee, where I went to graduate school, isn’t really a major metropolitan area. I’m certainly not a bad driver – I’ve driven hundreds of miles up and down the east coast with no difficulty and my driving record is nearly spotless – but I feel nervous thinking about driving into unfamiliar places with heavy traffic. I think I get this from my parents – like me, my mother just hasn’t had the experience, while my father has just never liked congestion or cities very much. This being said, when I realized driving into NYC to see Christian Luczanits’ lecture at the Asia Society Museum was far faster and less complicated than taking public transit from my new apartment, I knew this was going to be a somewhat nerve-wracking, albeit enlightening, experience. While Gandharan art is not my usual focus, I was particularly interested in hearing Dr. Luczanits’ presentation not only because I know very little on the subject, but because he is a scholar of Tibetan and Buddhist Studies as well as the current curator of the Rubin Museum of Art. I have often credited the Rubin Museum as my first encounter with Himalayan art and the reason I began to study Buddhism, so anyone or anything related to the institution holds an instant interest for me. A lot of work went into bringing this Exhibition to the United States, so it would be rather ridiculous to let a little fear of the unknown stop me from seeing it. Encouraged by my boyfriend, I set out for what Google Maps plotted as a half an hour drive at four in the afternoon, planning to arrive at the Asia Society Museum by five-thirty, when the Gandharan Buddhist galleries, normally closed on Mondays, would open for event ticket holders. I should have realized, it being September 12 and all, that there would be more than an hour’s worth of congestion going to and from the city, but I hadn’t counted on half the Lincoln Tunnel being closed off to through traffic.  Needless to say, by the time I finally made my way to the Museum it was already after six, and the lecture itself started at six-thirty. Having no time to search for street parking, I found an outrageously priced parking garage (with an incredibly kind attendant at least), and marched myself into the Museum, got my reserved ticket, and was grateful I at least had ten minutes to take a look at the critically acclaimed and much anticipated ancient Pakistani art before Dr. Luczanits spoke on the subject. Regretfully, this means that I do not have a fully comprehensive analysis of the pieces to present to you, but I can say without a doubt that the exhibit is made up of exquisitely detailed pieces accompanied by well-thought out and comprehensive written descriptions. There are, as always, a few pieces that stood out in particular.

The Exhibition: The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara

The Exhibition itself is divided into three sections: Classical Connections, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and Narratives and Architectural Context. In the first section, to quote the accompanying materials, “Gandharan art is exhibited alongside select works from India and the Roman world to highlight the stylistic and iconographic links and distinctions between these cultures.” In a number of examples, Gandharan deities are depicted in dress that is distinctly Eastern or Western in appearance. In other cases, such as the examples of Corinthian-style columns, Classical Western motifs are seamlessly melded with Buddhist imagery, as in the image below.

Figure capital with Seated Buddha, 2nd–3rd century CE, Schist (Lahore Museum)

The second section showcases numerous representations of enlightened beings from within the Buddhist pantheon. The Buddha himself is represented both abstractly, as in the second/third century C.E. schist Footprint of the Buddha, or anthropomorphically, alone or surrounded by an entourage. Images of other bodhisattvas, most prominently Maitreya, also feature in this section. These images drastically differ from those of Shakyamuni Buddha, maintaining intricately-carved long curling locks and distinctly masculine features.

Standing Bodhisattva Maitreya, 3rd–4th century CE, Shist (Lahore Museum)

The stupa features as an important monument and architectural feature throughout the ancient Buddhist world and this is no different in Gandharan art. While Indian stupas were often encircled by a “fence” containing images of the historical Buddha’s past lives as told in the Jataka tales, Gandharan stupas super-imposed narrative images upon the monuments themselves, and typically told the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s life in great detail instead. Examples of these narrative images fill the last section of the exhibit, and once again demonstrate a blending of religious cultures in their portrayal of classic Buddhist scenes.

Having toured the exhibit, spending less time reading about the images as I would have liked, I descended the stairs in time to take a seat for the lecture to follow.

Changing Conceptions: Gandharan Art and Buddhism:

A Lecture with Dr. Christian Luczanits

After a gracious introduction by the Asia Society Museum’s John H. Foster Curator for Traditional Asian Art, Adrian Prosser, Christian Luczanits took the stage to present on the changing conceptions of the Buddha from a mortal man based in history to one of many supramundane beings in Gandharan art and how this movement influenced the development of Mahayana Buddhism throughout Asia. Beginning with an explanation of the discovery of Gandharan Buddhist pieces as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth by British officials in Pakistan, Dr. Luczanits gave an introduction on the history of Buddhism in northern India, what is known about its move west, and the various types of images to be found and preserved in this and similar collections. In addition to familiar images of a reflective or meditative Buddha complete with hair knot, Dr. Luczanits noted three particular images of bodhisattvas, or buddhas-to-be, coming from this region: 1) a turban-wearing Siddhartha Gautama from before his enlightenment, who’s clothing and iconography epitomize the warrior kshatriya caste of India; 2) a long-haired and royally adorned brahmin bodhisattva recognized as the next Buddha to come, Maitreya; and 3) another turban-wearing bodhisattva holding a wreath, believed by some to be Avalokiteshvara.  Without paraphrasing his entire argument, Dr. Luczanits explained how the introduction of buddha-fields and multiple supramundane bodhisattvas and buddhas signified the presence of a shift in doctrinal focus within the religious practices of Gandhara to that which has become commonplace in Mahayana Buddhist teachings in East Asia. While much still remains unknown about the actual cult practices and specific doctrines followed by Buddhists in Gandhara during the first centuries of the Common Era, the presence of innovation and sophistication within the art of the area is impossible to ignore.

Vision of a Buddha’s Paradise, 4th century CE, Schist (Lahore Museum)

Conclusions

Having taught an introductory course on Buddhist history in which the doctrinal evolution of Buddhism played a large part, I was particularly surprised to learn that images of celestial bodhisattvas could be found as far as Pakistan even as early as these beautifully detailed images have been dated. I truly enjoyed listening to Dr. Luczanits’ speak, and it has prompted me to look further into this little-studied area of Buddhist history (as any good lecture should always do).  As to the Exhibition at the Asia Society Museum, which is the first of its kind in the United States in the last fifty years and continues to run until October 30, the selection of artifacts is astonishing. I absolutely recommend you visit before the collection is returned to its home museums abroad.

For more information on this Exhibition, please visit its detailed and informative official website (http://sites.asiasociety.org/gandhara/). You can also purchase the fully-illustrated catalogue for the collection, published through the Asia Society in association with the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik in Bonn, Germany, including essays by Christian Luczanits and Michael Jansen (http://asiastore.org/buddhist-heritage-of-pakistan.html).


Environmentally-Conscious Concert Comes to NYC!

The Sixth Annual South Asian Festival, Sun to Stars, will be returning to Solar One, New York City’s first solar-powered “Green Energy, Arts, and Education Center” on Saturday, September 10, 2011 from 2pm-10pm (in case of rain, the date will be changed to Sunday, September 11). Curated by Parul and Reena Shah, the Festival will feature a number of performers, South Asian cuisine from local chefs, Indian-style floor seating, and special children’s activities such as traditional kite and lamp making, coloring deity puppets, and a storytelling performance.  South Asian and environmental non-profit groups will also be there to share information about themselves and their activities at the Festival, including the Rubin Museum of Art.  This looks to be a very fun, family-oriented, informative event, and I’m sorry that I will have to miss all the beautiful music due to prior engagements.  Check out the official website for more information, and let me know how it goes if you can make it!

Sun to Stars: The Sixth Annual South Asian Festivalhttp://solar1.org/events/suntostars/


Openings, Endings, & Updates for September 2011

My apologies, first, for being somewhat absent since my last post, and for the continued quiet that is sure to continue over the next week or so. I am currently moving into a new apartment and this has absorbed most of my time and energy this month. Nevertheless, I thought it would be prudent to begin what I hope will become a monthly feature of this blog – a summary of some of the local openings, endings, and one-time events coming up in the following month. Most of these I have already tweeted (or re-tweeted) at some point or another as they have come up, but here I will provide them for ease of viewing. Without further ado, I shall begin:

Openings

Rubin Museum of Art: The new exhibit on Himalayan narrative traditions called Once Upon Many Times: Legends and Myths in Himalayan Art (September 16, 2011 – January 30, 2012) opens next month and is curated by Elena Pakhoutova.  For an official summary, see http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/1223.

Tibet House: Tibetan Contemporary Art: Tantric Vision in Modern Self-Expression (September 14, 2011 – November 15, 2011) opens up in place of the current exhibition next month, aiming to engage the viewer with “a powerful new genre” of Tibetan artistic expression. An Opening Reception will be held September 14, 2011, 6:00 – 8:00 pm. The official announcement can be found here: http://www.tibethouse.us/art-gallery/upcoming-exhibitions.

Closings

Newark Museum: I seem to have made a mistake in the showing dates for the Special Exhibitions at the Newark Museum – while one area of the website says they are running until the end of the year, the individual announcements list different, earlier dates. That being the case, Tsongkhapa: The Life of a Tibetan Visionary ended this past weekend, as I recently tweeted. However, Pots of Silver and Gold, which contains some fine pieces of Tibetan and Mongolian craftsmanship, will continue until October 30, 2011. I apologize for my mistake. See my July entry on the Tibetan Collection Centennial Exhibitions for information on the collections (https://beyondthedisplay.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/celebrating-a-century-part-one/).

Philadelphia Museum of Art: Porcelain for the Emperor: Chinese Ceramics of the Kangxi Reign (1662-1722) opened a year ago and ends this coming September 5, 2011.  For a full description, see: http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/553.html.

Rubin Museum of Art: Both Patterns of Life: The Art of Tibetan Carpets (April 8, 2011 – August 22, 2011) and Quentin Roosevelt’s China: Ancestral Realms of the Naxi (May 13, 2011 – September 19, 2011) are ending soon, the former before the end of the month! Take a look at both before they are gone. For further information, see http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/989 and http://www.rmanyc.org/nav/exhibitions/view/955, respectively.

Tibet House: Containing photographs highlighting the life and work of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama and His People, which opened on July 5, 2011, will close on September 7, 2011.  The photos are featured in an upcoming book by Don Farber (http://www.tibethouse.us/art-gallery/current-exhibition).

One-Time Events

Asia Society: The acclaimed exhibit, The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara, runs until the end of the October, but the Asia Society will be holding a related lecture by Christian Luczanits, a leading scholar of Gandharan art, on Monday, September 12 at 6:30 pm. Seating is limited and tickets are available at a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 6:00 pm (http://sites.asiasociety.org/gandhara/related-events/).

Rubin Museum of Art: The New York Premiere of the new documentary, “In the Shadow of Buddha,” will be held Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $12.00 for non-members, and a post-screening discussion will be held with the filmmaker, Heather Kessinger, and Prof. Kim Gutschow, author of Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas. For this and other events, see: http://www.rmanyc.org/events/load/1319.


Personal Nostalgia Meets Historic Past

Driving into Princeton had always brought back a lot of memories for me. I grew up only thirty minutes away amongst the farmlands of central New Jersey, so in my younger years I came to know, for better or worse, children that attended the Princeton Day School, had family members that had gone to Princeton University, or, as I got older, that frequently visited the small local theater in town. I visited the area myself on occasion, and my fondest memories of my paternal grandparents consisted of semi-regular visits to Conte’s Bar for pepperoni and onion pizzas followed by an ice cream afterwards. The University and the town itself were indelibly (and I think understandably) linked in my young brain, so when I think of one today, I automatically think of the other. As the only University I’d personally ever seen, my idealized image of Princeton became what I thought all colleges and their surrounding towns should be like throughout my grade school and high school years. While my thoughts on the subject have certainly matured and become more realistic, in some ways that image of Princeton remains a paragon in my mind today. This makes my most recent memory of the area seem somewhat fortuitous – it was in Princeton that I first met my M.A. advising professor from Florida State University, who was spending a year their working on his own research. I’d already been accepted to the program by that time, but I remember nervously arranging to meet with the person I’d be working closely with for the next several years of my life, far away from my familiar places and friends and family. I remember getting lost looking for parking, and then hoofing it to the Indian restaurant where he suggested we meet for a buffet lunch. I was anxious about making a good impression and saying the right things, but in the end I had little to worry about. To my personal delight, we managed to hold a conversation all through lunch, then continued over drinks at a nearby coffee shop, and then ended with a home-made gelato from The Bent Spoon. After three hours, I imagined I couldn’t have made too much of a fool out of myself if he was willing to talk with me for so long, and I felt fairly confident my soon-to-be professor was a good match for me and what I wanted to do. I certainly wasn’t wrong in this regard, and I am forever grateful for everything I came to learn from him in the ensuing years of class work, translation, and personal research.

And so, while having nothing to do with the trip itself, it was with all of this weighted, fond, and sometimes bittersweet nostalgia that I visited the Princeton University Art Museum on Thursday (August 4, 2011) in order to see what was on display and what new things I could learn so close to my own hometown.

The Princeton University Art Museum

First off, the entrance of the Museum may be a bit difficult to find for anyone planning to visit who is unfamiliar with the layout of Princeton’s campus. Google Maps (and I assume other mapping sites as well) will actually lead you to the back of the building, not the front, but if you make that mistake its easy enough to follow the walking path up and around until you see a pair of banners that mark the entrance. Distance-wise, if walking from the intersection of Witherspoon and Nassau Street, the Museum is about two to three city blocks into Princeton Campus. Parking, depending on when you go, could be difficult as well since there is no parking allocated to the Museum on campus. I was lucky enough to snag a metered place along Nassau Street (two-hour stay maximum), but there are also public parking garages off Palmer’s Square along Chambers, Hulfish, and Spring streets. Admission to the Museum itself is free, so paying a little for parking seems like a fair trade-off to even a poor post-graduate like me. The immediate entrance leads into the gift shop (which is small but nicely appointed), and then the next set of doors leads into the Museum proper and to the docent’s desk, where you can snag yourself a map.  The Museum isn’t huge – its only two floors and shares the building of McCormick Hall with the University’s Department of Art and Archaeology and the Marquand Library – but its maze-like layout of small rooms allows for one to pretend like they are “discovering” something when they come into a room they hadn’t noticed at first, giving the place a much larger feel than how it first appears. This is added to by the fact that, due to its size, the Museum rotates out its pieces in order to showcase different aspects of its larger collection. Knowing how long I take looking at any given exhibit, I took my map and headed downstairs in order to confront the Museum’s current displays of Asian art.

Lower Galleries

I. Far Eastern Gallery

As I have noted previously, my own specialized knowledge and interests lie primarily in Central and South Asian artifacts and history, Tibetan in particular, so I knew going into this visit that I would be a little bit out of depth due to the Museum’s focus on East Asian art. Any political commentary as to whether Tibet is or is not a part of China aside, academically these areas are often considered quite distinct artistically and culturally and are each part of their own separate yet overlapping scholarly traditions. Therefore, my knowledge of Chinese art is not as expansive as I would like, and my knowledge of Japanese and Korean art – also in the Lower Galleries – is even more limited. That being said, there are still a number of things I can mention regarding the exhibits at hand and how they are presented to the general audience.

When Men and Mountains Meet: China as Land and People (March 5 – September 18, 2011) is the first exhibit I wandered into, to the immediate left of the staircase. Admittedly, I wasn’t aware that this was what it was at first – I didn’t see the explanatory placard until the end of my circuit due to its placement in relation to where I entered the gallery. As described on this placard and on the official website, Curator of Asian Art Cary Y. Liu aims to use this exhibit to showcase the relationship between the land and the people of China, and how this relationship has changed from the magic- and demon-filled times of the past to the modernization of the present. One side of the room is filled with traditional images of mountains and landscapes, many filled with animal-like creatures with whom people of the past had to negotiate their lives. The other focuses on photographic images of man-made structures displaying how, twentieth century, the people of China have overcome the elements of nature through technological advancement. I, of course, with my interests in early history, ritual, and spirit deities, was far more drawn to the contents of the former. This includes what I found to be my favorite piece on display, a set of dark lacquered wooden panels which I eventually read to be from the sides of a disassembled coffin dating to the Chinese Liao Dynasty (907-1125 C.E.). Each of its long sides depict two fierce greenish-black creatures in fluid lunching poses that resemble an anthropomorphic mix of a leopard, a dragon, and a lion due to their spots, fangs, and flowing manes and tails. I was struck by the detail of these creatures and wished the accompanying placard provided more information on its associated imagery. I was also drawn to another demon-related piece in a center display, this one a hand scroll dating to the middle of the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) entitled “Searching for Demons on Mount Gaunkau (Gaunkou sou shan tu).” The scroll appears to be incredibly well-preserved; an ink drawing on silk depicting several scenes of different demons being hunted or captured on a mountainous landscape. I was intrigued by the intricacy in the image, and once again wished there had been more background provided about the piece, such as its purpose, its origin, or even more information about the mountain and the myths it was meant to portray. Other subdivided rooms in the Chinese Art Gallery featured peaceful images, such as the featured statue of Guanyin in royal-ease pose (rajalilasana) dating to the Song Dynasty (1127-1279), tomb-related artifacts, such as a large display of delicate, militaristic tomb figurines dating from 220-589 C.E. and a selection of brightly painted tomb guardians from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.), and a selection of pots and other items.  The collection of Japanese and Korean objects are located behind the Chinese gallery as well. (For more information on When Men and Mountains Meet, see: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/events/WhenMenandMountainsMeet/)

II. Southeast Asian Gallery

Somewhat amidst these subdivided rooms is a small corner containing the Museum’s collection of currently featured Southeast Asian artifacts. The pieces, rather than tied together thematically, seem to be some of the “jewels” of the collection, and aside from three large Indian stone statues there are also a few objects of Nepalese, Cambodian, Javanese, and Thai origin. In the center, there are even some exceptionally beautiful Pakistani pieces of Gandharan Buddhist art in stucco, dating from the first through fifth centuries.

Guanyin Seated in Royal-Ease Pose, Princeton University Art Museum (photo: Bruce M. White)

Upper Galleries

While not pertaining to Asian Art, I would be remiss if I did not mention at least two of the current special exhibitions on display through the Fall in the Upper Galleries: Cartographies of Time (June 25 – September 18, 2011) and The Life and Death of Buildings (July 23 – November 6, 2011).  The first looks at how time is graphically represented throughout European and American history, focusing on rare books, manuscripts, and other printed media drawn mostly from the University’s own Department of  Rare Books. As to second, I found it to be especially poignant and thought-provoking. This rather large, special exhibit features images of buildings at various states of their “life-spans”, and looks at the history of civilization though built environments. All and all, both are incredibly fascinating if you have interests in representations of time or in architecture, respectively.

For more information on the Museum’s current exhibitions, see: http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/exhibitions/

Conclusions

As someone unfamiliar with many of the East Asian artifacts and their cultural contexts, I was personally dying for more information on many of the beautiful and interesting pieces within the gallery. Due to the minimalist approach to signage in the Asian art exhibits in particular, I also found it hard to understand why certain pieces were grouped together, and the galleries themselves often seemed to bleed into each other with no clear demarcation. This could be linked to the nature of the galleries, which are rotated on a regular basis to highlight different aspects of the collection, but from an educational standpoint it seemed to pale in comparison to some of the other exhibits featured throughout the Museum in terms of presentation and explanatory information. Ultimately, however, I truly appreciated the beautiful selection of pieces on display at the Museum, and I look forward to future exhibits as they rotate in. I had a pleasant time on my visit, adding a new memory of Princeton to the growing compendium I seem to be collecting, and I ended my day like I have on my previous trips to Princeton – with a crazy-sounding gelato from The Bent Spoon (lavender mascarpone and lemon basil) and a visit to Conte’s for a slice of pizza. If you are able to make it out to the Princeton University Art Museum, I recommend that you do the same and start building up your own memories of this historic and exciting little town.