Exhibit Review: "Here Not Here" at Asian Art Museum

Seated Buddha with Headress from Burma
Continuing in the vein of hidden treasure, I went to the Asian Art Museum Friday morning to see the Here Not Here exhibit and listen to a talk by Forrest McGill, Head Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art.  Heads, hair, and the secret placement of relics inside objects was the subject of McGill’s talk.  

In the west we often associate long hair with sensuality.  It is also connected, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, with royalty.  When the Buddha renounced samsara and vowed to become enlightened, one of the first things he did was cut off his jeweled tresses, throwing his hair and diadem (those who have seen the latest Harry Potter know this is a crown) into the heavens as an act of renunciation.  Indra, king of the gods, captured his hair and installed it in his royal palace.  The remaining two inches the Buddha was left with stayed the same length for the rest of his life, curling to the right (even hair properly circumambulates the Buddha's head).  That's why statues of the Buddha or Buddha-to-be have short, curly hair.   I've always found it fascinating that enlightenment (or, at least, Bodhisattvahood) inscribes itself upon the body of the practitioner.  Within Buddhist art, the Buddha appears in very specific proportions, and the qualities of different parts of his body (such as skin and hair) are described in great detail in religious texts.  The philosophy underlying this attention is that the mind and body both are refined by lifetimes of practice.

King Rama VI of Thailand
The major secret McGill was interested in this morning was the fact that some Gandharan Buddhas from Pakistan have depressions in the top of their heads and various stone, crystal, and wooden Buddhas from Thailand and Cambodia often have removable headdresses or crowns, revealing small chambers underneath.  He believes these depressions were created to hold relics of the original Buddha.  In another interesting twist, McGill placed some imagery of the royal family in Thailand in crowns next to Buddha statues in headdresses.  There are some obvious stylistic parallels between crowns and headdresses and some serious crossover between worldly power and spiritual kingship in Thailand- the first two Thai kings have their cremated remains housed in Buddha statues.  In another interesting parallel, kings in Thailand have their hair carefully collected and ritually burned; hair is a potent, powerful part of the body that is imbued with the essence of its owner.  After some empowerments Buddhist practitioners are not allowed to cut their hair for this very reason.  Although western Buddhists often dismiss preoccupation with our hair as another hang up, I can personally attest to the fact that changing your hair length or shade can dramatically affect the way others perceive you and the ways in which you perceive yourself.  Hence the symbolic power of hair, and the equally important symbolism of cutting it off in renunciation.

View of Here Not Here Exhibit
There wasn’t much hair in the “Here Not Here” exhibit, but I enjoyed the opportunity to see some Thai and Cambodian artists wrestle with a modern conception of Buddhism.  My favorite piece was by Pinaree Sanptak, who placed two large raindrops or teardrops on the floor, their mirrored bases reflecting upwards.  If you lean over you can see yourself reflected, but generally the drops reflect the ceiling, which is one of the few places in an art museum that no one ever looks.  The other piece I liked was by Jakkai Siributr, entitled “Recession.”  A variety of colored amulets are hung from Thai letters arranged on the wall.  The space created by the arrangement of the letters takes the shape of a seated Buddha.  (Both pieces can be viewed above.)  The piece provokes some interesting questions:  In the midst of the culture surrounding a religion, what is the space that’s left behind in the center?  Is that center actually occupied?  If it is, are we only able to touch a ghost of the reality the Buddha conveyed through his teachings?  Or by looking more closely at emptiness, do we find there actually nothing rooted at the center of our devotion?  But if form is emptiness and emptiness itself is form, maybe that nothing is, actually, something?