Phantoms, Emptiness, and Modern Art

Raqib Shaw's "Ode to the Lost Moon"
Courtesy of Asian Art Museum
It was quite the arty week last week.  I finally made it to the current exhibit at the Asian and had a chance to hear a gallery talk with Palden Weinreb and Jeff Durham.  There was a lot of cosmology, a lot of Buddhism, and a whole lot of attractive contemporary art mixed in with some traditional older pieces.  I was quite taken by Shaw's "Ode to the Lost Moon," so much so that it's become the centerpiece (and theme) of my upcoming summer tour.

अंखों ही अंखों में
Varunika Saraf
But first, Phantoms of Asia.  It was a smidge esoteric, dealing in the "origin, nature, and structure of the universe," but I was pleased to see the permanent collection mixed in with some wicked modern art. I discovered Varunika Saraf, who blends iconic miniature figures and dreamlike characters against backdrops filled with cloudy stars and bombs splashing amongst pink waves.  There was a hilarious set of pieces by NS Harsha entitled "Distress Call From Saturn's Neighborhood" that featured hundreds of little human figures linked together in a single strand with dancing eggplants.  Generally, though, the exhibit was rather serious.  The didactics explored the way art is used by contemporary artists to access and represent the metaphysical world, "inner, personal experience and ritual are central to religious practice and devotion.  Prayer and meditation help to make connections to the metaphysical."  By accessing and representing the mythic and otherworldly, the artists "invite communion with deities," accessing another perspective on our mundane experience.

Cult of Appearance III
Jagannath Panda
Jagannath Panda is no exception to this rule, and his work dominated the last gallery.  His "Cult of Survival II" is a huge, inner tube-like coiled sculpture that represents the myth of the serpent.  It tackles the dual nature of the serpent, part creation and the underworld and part dark protection and deceit.  His "Cult of Appearance III" features a huge surrealistic kite, but piece's story rests in the shadowy figures disappearing into its dawn-like background.  The focal point is the ghost-like monkey Nala, who builds the bridge to Lanka.  I also liked Andeela Suleman's "Untitled I (Peacock w/Missiles)," which is a beautiful hammered steel piece that mixes traditional images from childhood stories, such as banana plants, peacocks, and parrots, with missiles and a suicide jacket, exploring the connections and disjunctions between a idyllic childhood and modern day Pakistan. 

Astral Invert
Palden Weinreb
And then it was a fast-paced gallery talk with Palden Weinreb, whose work is split between the Phantoms exhibit and the Himalayan gallery.  Emptiness.  Nonduality.  And a  whole lot of other big Buddhist ideas.  He says his work has no basis in traditional Tibetan Buddhist art, of course, but you'd better believe traditional philosophical tenets are all over his work. Weinreb patiently confronted the danger of abstract artists everywhere, viewers interpreting his art.  "This is a dakini!"  "This is better than a dakini!"  "This overshadows the Simhavaktra dakini!"  For the record, I don't see any dakinis in Weinreb's work.  But what I do see is a consistent questioning of linearity, constant play with focal point and length, and a lack of grounding in conventional reality.  Weinreb's work is strong, focused, and stark.  Yet it provides a deliberate way to approach those frightening, ungrounded ideas of "emptiness" and "nonduality" with a little more space and a little more acceptance.  And if that wasn't the aim of traditional Buddhist art coming out of Tibet, Mongolia, and Nepal a couple of centuries ago, well, color me ignorant.