Moon on the Mind and Mind on the Moon

The Full Moon
We're heading into another full moon in a couple of days (the 31st, to be exact) and since we're finally starting China in our docent training at the Asian Art Museum (mild groan), it's time to get my summer presentation up.  I fell in love with Raqib Shaw’s “Ode to the Moon” and decided to trace the moon throughout objects in the South Asian, West Asian, and Himalayan galleries at the Asian.  This adventure was problematized both by the fact that it's very hard to find the moon in the collection at the Asian and that upon closer examination Shaw's stunning paintings have all sorts of bizarre violent sexual imagery (vagina dentata anyone?), but I persevered.  A discovered an academic friend in Wendy Doniger, who tells us we can see the man in the moon while simultaneously recognizing that folks on the other side of the world see a rabbit in the moon.  Both views are valid, both views are important, and flexibility of mind is the way forward.  So here's my paen to the moon full of cyclical time, intuitive symbolism, and cosmic transformation.

Fragment of a Four Faced Linga
900-1000 CE
Central India
Let's start with Shiva.  Unfortunately the one of the three faces I'm talking about is on the left of this image, so you'll have to trust me that there's a beautiful crescent moon in Shiva's hair in his feminine aspect of Vamadeva.  The crescent moon is one of Shiva's regular attributes, as much a part of his normal appearance as his trident.  Why?  Not surprisingly, the sources have conflicting answers.  I believe it's partly to signal that Shiva is beyond the normal constraints of cyclical time, not bound by the normal ebb and flow of human existence (original cultural and religious calendars were lunar, of course).  Shiva also has some interesting connections to Chandra (or Rahu), the god of the moon in Hinduism.  And Rahu, interestingly, gets conflated with Soma.  And Soma, well, is simultaneously both a god and the intoxicating beverage the gods drink that grants them immortality.   Having watched the effects of bhang in India, which shows up during festivals to Shiva, I can say there's some interesting links between the full moon, Shiva's asceticism, and mind-altered states that leaves us a bit beyond the normal confines of reality.

Raqib Shaw
"Ode to the Lost Moon of the Lesser Himalayas
on the Banks of the Lidder"
Watercolor, acrylic, glitter, enamel, and
rhinestones on paper
And then we're smack into Shaw's fantastical creatures in the tree-tops along a river in Kashmir.  The full moon is gorgeously suspended in a blue-green sky, gestured to by a not-quite-definable figure in the branches.  A werewolf with skull-bedecked ribbons floating out of its head howling at the full moon?  Some bizarre mashup of a Kashmiri cultural bogeyman crossed with references to who-knows-what from Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian sources?  Or just straight up Freudian-Jungian nightmarish subconscious dream illusions, all glittering rhinestone nipples and a pointy-tooted mouth where a groin should be?  We're clearly treading into the territory of the deep sexual subconscious on the edge of the disturbing dream world with the lunacy of a full moon to boot.  

Pouran Jinchi
"Prayer Stones"
Clay and Some Sort of Blue and White Glaze
But before we get lost in the deep unconscious, let's look at something else for a bit of contrast.  Another beautiful contemporary piece from the Phantom's exhibit is Pouran Jinchi's "Prayer Stones."  Jinchi's taken small clay tablets from the holy city of Mashhad in Iran that are traditionally used as a rest for the forehead during Shia prayer and re-purposed them by covering them with blue Arabic calligraphy and arranging them together in a single line.  Although we're talking about contemporary art, we can make some clear connections to ancient Persian traditions of literature and calligraphy in her work.  She's making a statement about Islam and devotion, but I can't read Arabic so I can't tell if she's being ironic or critical in her calligraphy.  My uninformed opinion, however, is that she's not- instead she's drawing these prayer stones into a piece that makes us think about meditation, about prayer, and about the place of objects that are an aid to prayer.  Is the prayer stone closest to us actually a crescent moon?  Who knows.  I'm making a wild leap that one of the iconic symbols of Islam, the crescent moon, is showing up in her piece.  But I could be making wild leaps in saying that I appreciate the contemplative nature of her work and the way it approaches the poetic, reflective, and spiritual qualities of the moon.

The Buddhist Deity White Tara
Gilded Copper Repousee

And finally, because we need a nice ending, let's look at White Tara from the Himalayan galleries.  Obvious moon here?  Nope- we've definitely moved into abstraction.  One of White Tara's traditional descriptions is "as being radiant as one hundred autumn moons."  This Buddhist piece allows us the opportunity to explore the radiant and beautiful side of the moon.  As the compassionate savior of all beings, one who overcomes inharmonious conditions and destroys external threats and obstructions, she's certainly a little otherworldly.  Who knew she could dispel the effects of poison, eliminate conflicts and nightmares, cure diseases, and overcome ghosts and demons as well as grant immortality?  In her cosmic, moon-like quality she may feel a bit removed, but she clearly radiates compassion, protection, and beauty.  

Do these objects hang together?  Is the moon a bit of a stretch when it would have been so much easier to look at the sun in the museum's collection?  Can we really draw together an ancient Hindu piece, a contemporary piece from an artist who resides in London but grew up in Kashmir, an artist working in New York that spent her childhood in Iran, and a traditional Buddhist piece from Nepal?  Can we really create connections from pieces thousands of years apart across a wide swath of the geography Asia?  Maybe yes.  Maybe no.  But if you're looking at something as deeply symbolic and as culturally rooted in the imagination as the moon, you've got to have a lot of different entry points- the moon has as many faces as the people that observe it.  But these objects give us four distinct explorations of the cosmic nature, dream-like unconscious, deeply religious, and transcendently compassionate sides of the moon.