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The exhibition The Dragon’s Gift: Sacred Arts of Bhutan features emerging curatorial trends with regard to premodern Asian art, and displays a wealth of treasures from a little-known Himalayan kingdom on the northeastern border of India. Bronze Buddhas, thangkas of wrathful deities, footage of live performance, monks busy at their prayers, Buddhist lineage portraits, and gigantic textiles are just some of the multi-media experiences the show presents. From the only independent Vajrayana Buddhist kingdom in the world—a place where the GHP (Gross Happiness Product) officially replaces the GNP (Gross National Product)—an impressive array of objects from Bhutan are journeying throughout North America and Europe. The dragon’s “gift” in the exhibition’s title relies on the sacralization of artwork within the museum to reflect a curatorial eye for art as alive.
In San Francisco, a rounded three-dimensional bay of Thangkas introduced the exhibition in rich colors and evoked the mountain temples of the Himalayas. Between the anthropological explanation of artifacts and the formalist qualities of gorgeous objects lies the liminal space of sacred art in the museum. Michael Baxandall writes in “Exhibiting Intention: Some Preconditions of the Visual Display of Culturally Purposeful Objects” that, “Exhibitors cannot represent cultures” (Baxandall, “Exhibiting Intention,” in Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds., Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 1991, 41; emphasis in original), and yet curators of sacred art struggle infamously with the tension between the pure aesthetic beauty of objects and the multi-media complexity of ritual context. As installed in San Francisco, the exhibition dealt with this dilemma by breaking up the curatorial goals by room. The first room seduced visitors with burnt sienna and ocher walls and a gallery full of two- and three-dimensional Buddhas. The dim lighting, color, and density of objects conjured the feeling of a Himalayan temple.
From the sacral aura of the initial chamber, visitors entered an educational room of painted Bodhisattvas. Who better to fulfill the educational missions of today’s museums than these liminal beings who have reached enlightenment but stay behind to guide the unenlightened along the middle path? The flat serial display of these paintings, traditionally framed in silk brocade, encouraged close looking, comparison, and time to engage with wall labels focused on basic iconography.
Just as visitors began to settle into the pedagogical details of Bhutanese Buddhism, they found themselves surrounded by the sounds, color, and movement of a living tradition. Four asymmetrically placed, flat-screen monitors punctuated clusters of thangkas to create a symphony for the senses. The flaming locks of blue-black Mahakala, painted protector of the tent, and the fierce leonine dancing dakinis echoed the tantric embodied dances of Bhutanese Cham shown in an accompanying video. The incorporation of sound, color, and movement in the interpretation of “static” two-dimensional art revealed an important new trend in Asian art history. The exhibit invited viewers to move beyond an empirical approach of iconographic mapping to notice how the deep red, tantric goddess Vajravarahi dances (cat. no. 32). The emphasis on her dynamism reminded the viewer of her ritual purpose as a tantric yogini, or female partner goddess, who helps the practitioner cut through illusion to reach enlightenment at lightning pace. But even the dynamic wrathful deities, for which Himalayan art is best known, were almost overshadowed by the contemporary dance performance of Cham in the video footage. While the idea of placing the visitor inside a performative arena of contemporary practice made an original contribution to contemporary modes of digesting Asian art as alive and modern rather than documented and ethnographic, this goal might have been better achieved through the isolation of the video experience on a geometric axis or in a smaller space.
Despite the syncopated cacophony of sensory experience, this display effectively made a powerful argument about the past, present, and future of art in Bhutan and for Asian art in general. In some ways, the display mimicked the experience of art in-situ. Only in 2003 did UNESCO create an official convention for the preservation of “Intangible Heritage,” loosely defined as living performative arts such as folklore, dance traditions, or even an entire community. The inclusion of video footage of intangible heritage within the space of the museum transforms the goals of collection and display in line with curatorial practice in the twenty-first century. In San Francisco, the choice to surround the viewer with four flat screens utilized the rhetoric of installation and performance art to insist on modernity and familiarity, in contrast with the mono-screen displays formerly used to highlight ethnographic demonstrations of the presumed unknown.
From the frenetic dances and multi-media experience of living Bhutan, past and present, visitors transitioned to the calming movement of yoga represented by paintings of yogic deities. Next up was the largest and most pedagogical space of the exhibition. At the show’s opening, monks welcomed divinity into sculptures as visitors looked on. Members of the audience occasionally sat down for long periods to meditate as the Bhutanese monks followed traditional consecration rites in front of an altar. What does it mean to witness pratishta—the official installation rites for icons—within the museum? An “authentic” treatment of sacred objects, a reminder of the living presence of Buddhism in Bhutan, this display of Bhutanese practitioners as necessary guardians of sacred treasures created a human pause in the space between the initial galleries and the last large room of the exhibition, serving as a way to engage viewers through participation. Prayers were held twice daily during the course of the exhibition, serving as a trip to Bhutan during a visit to the museum, or alternatively functioning as a piece of fieldwork transported as a whole from the field.
Finally, the exhibition culminated in a large and complex gallery intended to engage experts in Asian art with the lineage tradition specific to Bhutan. A large gilt copper eighteenth-century sculpture of Padmasambhava introduced viewers to the gallery, just as he introduced Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan as the “Precious Teacher” Guru Rinpoche (cat. no. 50). Similar to the famous lineage portraits that helped establish Buddhism in Japan, painted and sculpted portraits of famous abbots in specific branches of Bhutanese Buddhism remain crucial for the transmission of Buddhist belief.
In the same gallery, an eighteenth-century painting of Vairocana, a previous incarnation of Terton Dorje Lingpa (1246–1405), displayed similarities to contemporaneous Mewari (Rajasthan, India) and Newari (Nepal) stylistic traditions with a steep recession in space created by pockets of mountains and monks stacked in the background (cat. no. 67). Many Bhutanese temples directly follow this Dorling branch of Nyignma Buddhism, such as the Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang—renovated by Dorje Lingpa to use as his fourteenth-century home base in Bhutan.
Craftsmanship and exquisite beauty seduced the eye to rove over a stitched, silken expanse of two gigantic embroidered textiles as visitors exited the gallery. The eighteenth-century appliqué and embroidered thangka of Usnisavijaya features a goddess with wrathful yellow and blue heads to either side of her beatific white representation. The lustrous threads of the half lotus that supports her lunar pedestal drew viewers close in order to enjoy the details of this enormous hanging from Phajoding Gonpa, Thimphu (cat. no. 39).
Reluctant to leave, I turned for one last look to find a thangka with the hands and feet of Je Damcho Pekar (1639–1707; cat. no. 88). Incorporating the imagined indexical trace of this teacher’s presence, the painting puts into perspective aniconic debates about Buddha in South Asian art history. The finely traced lines of peaceful palms and soles left me wishing to experience the whole exhibit again. Though some of the elements of display remain problematic, the insistence on modernity and contemporary ways of seeing Asia as alive reveal important new initiatives on the part of the curator and the museum. Moreover, the quality and quantity of Bhutanese art on exhibit was extraordinary.
With twelve essays by both Bhutanese and Western scholars and practitioners, the exhibition’s accompanying richly illustrated catalogue marks the largest international academic foray into the art of Bhutan to date. The catalogue explains how in the shadows of Tibetan and Nepalese art, the secret art of Bhutan remained largely in remote monasteries until the extensive and impressive fieldwork expedition of John Johnston from March 2005 to March 2007 led to this unique exhibit of over 150 works of Bhutanese art never seen outside of Bhutan. In the process, Western experts trained monks in art conservation, and, in turn, learned lessons from a Buddhist tradition wise to the ephemeral nature of time and materiality.
Footage of the ritual dance of Cham (also included on a DVD in the catalogue) documents dying art forms essential for the understanding of kinesthetic iconology particularly suited to Bhutanese art. In the same vein as the exhibition, the catalogue establishes a vocabulary for Bhutanese iconography in terms of the dynamic movement of dance. Its text marries movement and form to create entirely new modes of art-historical discourse. From the documentation of previously unknown works of art to the innovation of new methodologies, the catalogue adds a significant and original contribution to the history of Buddhism in Bhutan, and offers important comparative material for anyone interested in the future of living arts in Asia.
Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Mills College
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