Wisdom and Compassion: Sacred Art of Tibet

An exhibitionTamara Wasserman Hill

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An exhibition at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco (April 17 to August 18, 1991), and at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art, New York (October 15 to December 28, 1991)

AT THE ASIAN ART MUSEUM, the attempt to align the layout of the exhibition with the symbolic Content of the works shown was not readily apparent even to attentive viewers, since the museum's limited available space did not lend itself to the idea. But neither did it completely detract from viewing or appreciating the exquisite thangka paintings and meticulously sculpted figures and objects as profoundly effective works of great artistry and spiritual power. The presence of several monks fabricating the sand mandala during the initial weeks and their activities in relation to it—which included a beginning consecration, daily chanting, and a ritual destruction on the closing day—not only drew intrigued crowds but did add a genuine sense of the sacred process and context to the exhibit.

Paramasukha Chakrasamvara, circa 1350. Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth

Beyond these issues, there exists another broader dilemma: does the placement of sacred art inside a museum have a secularizing effect on the art? Or conversely, does it sanctify a secular institution? Are religious works of art divested of a measure of their significance through this isolation from their own culture, or are they imbued with some new or different kind of presence, due to the specialized aesthetic focus granted by the museum's cultural position in Western society? Can the spiritual qualities of these pieces (as consecrated, ritually potent icons) survive the dislocation from their original Tibetan framework, or do they sacrifice something of their inherent power to the confines and neutrality of the museum?

TIBETAN ART OBJECTS were created within a specific cultural milieu, dedicated to serving the Buddhist faith by engaging the viewer in an active participation with symbolic imagery for the express purpose of leading the mind toward clarity, equanimity, inner bliss, and enlightenment. In the traditional Tibetan monastic temple, the artifacts in their lavish, magically evocative surroundings formed an integrated, iconographic whole. Whether in vast assembly or chanting halls or in small private chapels, the entire structure encouraged a mode of pilgrimage and fostered an attitude of wonder, awe, and meditative devotion. It is clear that certain factors would prevent a museum from completely duplicating the opulent, extravagant environment of the Tibetan temple interior. It seems that the exhibition's organizers themselves were ambivalent. On the one hand, they aimed to invoke the sacred context, while on the other, they clearly wished to avoid simulating the monastic setting, as shown by their decision to exclude ethnic or cultural artifacts such as altar furnishings, fabric hangings, or ritual implements, which would have complemented the pieces chosen for display. Instead, they concentrated on what is traditionally considered to be the high art of painting and sculpture. There was a slight nod to textiles, with only three pieces shown; and although these were fine examples of applique, split-tapestry (kesi), and embroidery, nonetheless they were essentially reproductions of paintings in various fabric techniques. This constituted an imbalance that did not do justice to or truly reflect the exuberantly exotic clutter and glitter of media that typifies the Buddhist art of Tibet as it would appear in situ.

Divorced from its natural framework and habitual trappings, Tibetan sacred art seems to lose some degree of potency. The institutional setting does not exactly secularize the art, but it does filter out or tone down its bolder effects. Yet somehow this body of art manages to survive the cultural displacement with much of its significance and beauty intact. By virtue of its exceptional artistry and meaningfulness it still projects cogent messages, fascinating and attracting through its vibrancy as well as by means of the archetypal universality of its symbolic forms. Although not as redolent with atmosphere as when seen within a Tibetan temple, these consecrated images do temporarily spiritualize the museum environment, offering a vivid experience of the extraordinary, inspiring realities of mind, heart, and spirit that Tibetan sacred arts reveal.

Tamara Wasserman Hill is a writer and photographer who lectures widely. She is a cofounder of Kagyu Droden Kunchab meditation center in San Francisco.

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