Let's Get Metaphysical!

  • by Sura Wood
  • Wednesday March 14, 2018
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Wars have been waged and masterpieces created, all in the name of religion. Prime examples of that art, in particular the tangible forms of deities found in Buddhist and Hindu cultures, constitute "Divine Bodies," an interesting if somewhat esoteric, narrowly focused new exhibition at the Asian Art Museum. Entering the first of the show's two contemplative galleries, you'll encounter a serene golden Buddha from Thailand (1600-1700) reclining blissfully on his side, his head propped up by a strategically placed hand. The ornate, gleaming sculpture memorializes the moment when he died and simultaneously attained Nirvana. Though one doesn't have to be knowledgeable about transcendence, transformation, metamorphosis, or the relationship of the body to the cosmos, the exhibition will be most rewarding for those with a grasp of or at least a curiosity about its metaphysical concepts. Those concepts, such as the unending cycle of birth and death, aren't easy to translate into concrete artworks, but they're universal ideas that have proved seductive for Westerners as well. "The boundaries that divide life from death are, at best, shadowy and vague," opines none other than Edgar Allan Poe, who's quoted here. "Who's to say where one ends and the other begins?"

The ways in which artisans made the universal specific were predicated on the time, place and culture in which they lived - which is to say, a divinity's features were often modeled on the physical characteristics of local people, including themselves. A grouping of Buddha heads sculpted in different eras, hailing from Pakistan, Thailand, China, Indonesia and India, support that contention, but why so many representations of Buddha are oddly similar, when no likeness of him from his time survived, remains a mystery.

Of the dozen or so gracefully artistic, in some instances visceral aspects of divinity on view, ranging from the beautiful and gentle to the sensuous and fierce, it's futile to fight the inexorable pull of the Buddhist deity Ragaraja (Japan, 1615-1868), a.k.a. the King of Passion. He's imagined in a robust wooden sculpture as a red-faced, angry being, a screaming Mimi embodiment of a terrible tantrum with fangs, a third eye, six jeweled arms, two raised fists, and his hair on fire. The exhibition text counsels that these fearsome-looking entities weren't truly dangerous, but don't count on it. This one, enraged, crossed-legged and beady-eyed, appears ready to burn the house down.

It's easy to gravitate toward the work of contemporary artists who provide a novel twist on the past, and in the case of Indian artist Vivan Sundaram, a soupcon of mischief and fun. Sundaram injects a playful irreverence in his merging of comics and the Surrealist game of exquisite corpse to illustrate what happens when the divine are divorced from their religious context. For his delightfully devilish series "Khajuraho" (1965), he drew cartoon images on black & white photographic reproductions of historic sacred sculptures from Indian temple complexes, techniques that amuse while walking a fine line between the sacred and the profane. Imagine a sardonically captioned New Yorker cartoon projected on the fa´┐Żade of a colossal temple of antiquity, and you get the idea. Utilizing the language of advertising and anachronistic touches like theatrical makeup, stylish coifs and fashion accessories, Sundaram's humanized composite figures include a female deity whose demure classical pose is belied by heavy eyeliner and a bobbed haircut suggesting silent movie flapper Louise Brooks. In a picture of a spooked couple donning shades, one whispers to the other, "Hey honey, let's get out of here fast before they find out who we are."

Photographer Pamela Singh's "Tantric Self-Portrait in Jaipur" (2000-03), a series of enigmatic hand-colored prints, is an unusual take on self-portraiture in which the artist's visage barely registers. Shot during extended strolls through the old city, they incorporate vintage pigments, sepia tones, and fragmented imagery overlaid with archaic symbols; the elements, when combined, achieve an antiqued effect recalling 19th-century Indian photography. Singh can be seen, eyes downcast, in the lower quarter of one picture, while in others, like those of a pair of bodybuilders, her presence can be detected only by the shadow that falls across the frame.

For the ancients, gods were mutable and assumed multiple guises like Avalokiteshvara, the lord of compassion, who juggled his 11 heads in the Himalayas but manifested as male, female or androgynous in China. In the modern world, transformation is often associated with gender. In 1989, on assignment for the London Times, Indian photojournalist Dayanita Singh covered Delhi's hijra community; its members, born male and self-identified as female, are considered a third gender. Despite being shunned and segregated, they're revered for containing male and female cosmic forces - also present in powerful Hindu deities - that make them close to the divine. Singh developed a fruitful 30-year collaboration with Mona Ahmed, a eunuch outcast whose difficult life and transcendence became the central subject of her work. She's in numerous black & white photographs from Singh's series "Myself Mona Ahmed" (1999-2017) and a short video. "She wanted to tell the story of being neither here nor there, neither male nor female, and neither a eunuch nor someone like me," recalls Singh. "She would always ask, 'Tell me: what am I?'"

Through July 29; asianart.org