'The Tibetan Shrine' puts relics in original light

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Lama, Patron, Artist" is only one part of a festival the Sackler Gallery is calling "In the Realm of the Buddha." Its other main component is "The Tibetan Shrine From the Alice S. Kandell Collection" -- one small gallery done up with paintings and sculptures from several centuries of Buddhist art and accessorized with sound, lights and textiles.

Kandell, a New York collector, has assembled a kind of chapel that a 19th-century Tibetan aristocrat might have worshiped in. The walls are lined with sacred paintings, hung edge-to-edge and framed in lavish silks, while ranks of shelves in front of them hold gilded Buddhas at the top and lesser holy figures lower down.

There's an upside to showing art in a "period decor" like this: We get to see the objects as their original audience might have seen and used them. The hard, low lighting gives some sense of the twinkling of Tibetan yak-butter lamps. And that sparks the interesting notion that visibility is not what this art was meant to be about: A cumulative effect of awe and richness, or even of the invisible and the impalpable, may have been just as important. It could even be that the virtue of a finely crafted bronze or innovative painting may have come in the worshipful act of its making by the artist; the visual qualities that resulted from that making may not have needed to be seen by an object's later users.

Of course, we museumgoers aren't obliged to act like long-dead Tibetans. We may want to see and analyze the objects on display in detail, to our own secular ends -- that's what art museums are for, after all. And in that case, this "shrine" will not do the trick.

It also presents another, much more vexing problem. There's a strong sense that the museum is pitching its shrine as a genuinely sacred place. The press release describes it as a "hallowed space," and before it opened in D.C. it was blessed by a significant Buddhist cleric. Visitors also are invited to take their shoes off before entering the shrine -- as an act of devotion -- and the book that is for sale about it includes a full-length sales pitch for the greater glories of the Buddhist faith. That leaves the Smithsonian, a publicly funded educational institution, very close to functioning less as a vehicle for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge" that is its mandate, and more as a space for the increase and diffusion of religion.

The fact that the Sackler didn't recognize this risk may also say something damning about the condescension that we still dish out to foreign cultures. If the National Gallery had installed a working Catholic altar, complete with choirboys and chalices, in its current show of sacred Spanish art, we'd have been up in arms. But we have such a hard time taking "exotic" religions such as Buddhism truly, deeply seriously -- which would include acknowledging the challenge they pose to our museums' secular traditions -- that we act as though they are innocent amusements.

-- Blake Gopnik

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