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At the Sackler Gallery, a statue of Krishna has a complex tale to tell

‘Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain’ is a single-artifact show, but it speaks volumes

The northeast peak of Phnom Da in Cambodia, photographed in 2019. (Konstanty Kulik/The Cleveland Museum of Art)
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Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain” centers on a single ancient artifact: a damaged but still commanding statue of the Hindu god, who’s holding up a bit of the ceiling — still attached — of the Cambodian cave he once occupied. Yet other sculptures from the same site feel as if they’re present, if only in spirit.

The 6th-century sandstone Krishna on exhibit at the National Museum of Asian Art’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is one of eight statues taken from Phnom Da, a twin-peaked granite outcropping that towers above the Mekong River flood plain. The sculpture commemorates how the god protected people from a torrential storm by lifting India’s Mount Govardhan.

This informative and imaginative show includes photographs of the other statues and recounts the intertwined stories of two of them. Pieces from this Krishna and a different one, now at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, were long confused and awkwardly cobbled together. The two museums ultimately swapped the misattributed fragments and reassembled the statues, concluding in 2021.

That’s one of the twists in the history of “Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan” recounted by the exhibition, which was organized by the statue’s owner, the Cleveland Museum of Art. That institution acquired the sculpture in 1973, two years before Cambodia was plunged into the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule. But the Krishna had left the country long before that, going up for auction in Belgium in 1920. The museum bought the “Cleveland Krishna” from the estate of the granddaughter of the 1920 purchasers; among the challenges of then restoring the statue was excavating abandoned parts of it from a garden in Brussels.

“Revealing Krishna” is structured as a journey, with abundant wall text as well as multiple video displays. The first gallery offers a wide-ranging history of the statue and its context, narrated in part by Angelina Jolie. The Phnom Da sculptures, most of them carved in human-made cave sanctuaries, are among the earliest known examples of Cambodian art; they were chiseled some 600 years before the establishment of the famed temple complex at Angkor Wat. Eventually, the Phnom Da pieces were looted, and some were remade to memorialize a more newly arrived religion: Buddhism.

From the show’s introductory space, a left turn leads to a viewing room for “Satook,” a 30-minute video about sustaining religious tradition in Cambodian American communities. (The “Krishna” exhibition is part of “The Arts of Devotion,” the National Museum of Asian Art’s five-year initiative to increase understanding of religion.) To the right is a chamber dominated by three wall-filling video screens that document a meandering passage along slow-moving rivers. Chirping nature sounds help evoke the approach to Phnom Da.

The cavernlike final gallery holds two Krishnas: the stone one, framed by photos of rock cave walls, and a video simulation. The virtual Krishna comes to life, and is restored to its likely original appearance, when someone stands on the word “explore,” projected on the floor.

This room also recounts how pieces of the figure were mingled with, and then extricated from, that other Krishna statue. The Cleveland Krishna, a god celebrated in the act of saving his people, was himself rescued by a team of scholars and restorers.

Five facts about the Cleveland Krishna

Though chunks of the Krishna statue are missing, the surviving parts tell a compelling story:

  1. Just as Hinduism was imported from India to Cambodia, so too does the Krishna statue — though crafted in Cambodia — speak of India. His pose recalls a tale set at Mount Govardhan, today a pilgrimage site near New Delhi. Symbolically, the two mountains, India’s Mount Govardhan and Cambodia’s Phnom Da, became the same.
  2. The god is a youthful figure, and he wears his hair in a topknot that can be interpreted as sign of royalty (or just boyishness).
  3. Now gray and battered, the statue most likely was once dark and gleaming, and decorated with gold jewelry. The god’s long earlobes are pierced, suggesting they once held earrings.
  4. Krishna doesn’t strain like Atlas, the Titan who supports the world on his shoulders in Greek myth. He holds up the mountain effortlessly and even casually, with just one flexed hand. His other hand, which is missing, probably rested nonchalantly on his hip.
  5. There’s also no struggle reflected on the god’s face, which bears a gentle smile. The statue was dispossessed, fractured and exiled and is now only partly restored. Throughout it all, Krishna has retained his benign serenity.
If you go

Revealing Krishna: Journey to Cambodia’s Sacred Mountain

National Museum of Asian Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW.

Dates: Through Sept. 18.

Admission: Free.