PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.1 (2005) 82-90
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West Coast Reflections on Buddhism and Art
This article is part of an ongoing series of essays, dialogues, and texts on the subject of art, spirituality, and religion, in which artists and critics explore spiritual themes and artworks shaped by religious imagery, liturgical forms, and theological concepts, begun in PAJ 72, with "Art as Spiritual Practice."
On February 22, 2004 inside the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art eleven Buddhist monks from southern India blew giant horns and performed several dances to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Meanwhile, outside the Bowers under falling rain, local Tibetans protested the festivities unfolding inside. The celebration of Losar was part of a year-long series of events that took place in conjunction with the exhibition Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World, an exhibition of Tibetan Buddhist art that has never before been seen outside of Tibet and China. A much-needed blockbuster for the Bowers, a small museum in Santa Ana, CA that has been suffering from declining attendance, Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World was the result of intense negotiations between museum president Peter Keller and Tibet, which is presently occupied by China. Consequently the exhibition and related programming made little or no reference to the political situation in Tibet or to the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans believed to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva (enlightened being) of infinite compassion.
The result was an exhibition of exquisitely crafted artifacts made originally for the Dalai Lama—mandalas, tangkas, sculptures, reliquaries, and clothing—that had almost no context other than the briefest of explanations. Adding insult to injury, the explanatory labels harked back to the cozy relationship that Tibet and China had enjoyed in the eighth century while neglecting to mention that China now occupied [End Page 82] Tibet. These artifacts, most of which were originally used in the performance of esoteric Buddhist rituals rather than displayed in glass vitrines, were stripped of their performative and contextual value in an effort to appease the notoriously nervous Chinese government. In the context of their association with a politically-engaged Buddhism that calls for world peace and an end to the hostile occupation of Tibet, the artifacts are subversive. Transformed into fetishistic art objects unencumbered by explanatory texts, the artifacts lose much of their meaning and significance. It is little wonder that the protesters, many of them holding umbrellas imprinted with the flag of Tibet, chanted "shame, shame, shame" on the street outside of the museum.
Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World coincided with a number of Buddhist exhibitions and events in southern California loosely organized under Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness, a multi-phase, multi-venue project devoted to exploring the connection between Buddhism and contemporary art. Although not included on the list of affiliated "projects" on the official Website for Awake (http://www.artandbuddhism.org/), Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World was recommended on the website under a list of related exhibitions that participants in the Los Angeles meeting could attend. The lack of historical and cultural specificity that characterized the Bowers exhibition can be said to characterize the general approach taken by the members of the Awake consortium as well. Organized by Jacqueline Bass and Mary Jane Jacobs on the west coast, Awake included retreats, meetings, papers, two books, and a number of exhibitions, most of which took place in participating institutions in San Francisco and Los Angeles during 2003-2004, with several more exhibition scheduled for 2005. The West Coast offshoot of The Buddhism Project: Art, Buddhism and Contemporary Culture, a series of Buddhist-related exhibitions and events that took place in...