Thursday, 23 June 2011

Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan

In DC for a few days, I was very eager to see this exhibition at the Sackler Museum of sculptures from a group of small 6th-century Chinese cave temples from the mountains of northern China. Organized with the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, the exhibition promised rather extensive contextual material in addition to the important sculptures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and demons that were chopped out of the caves and acquired by museums in the West in the early 20th century. Most intriguing to me was the idea of a virtual reconstruction of one of the caves; I imagined that it would use projections to recreate the feel of being in the cave.

At the entrance to the small exhibition is a video that suggests what a tourist would see approaching the caves from the town. From the nuclear power plant and city streets to the hills and stone steps leading to the caves, the video leads to the entrance, then ends. Below it I discovered a map locating the caves far from China’s largest cities and tourist sites.

The objects are spectacular. In the first room a Buddha is flanked by two Bodhisattvas, with demon figures below, in approximately the placement they would have had in their original cave - which is shown in a small black-and-white photograph by the object label – but without the arches, niches, smaller carvings that surrounded them, and with only traces of their original coloring. In the second room are three huge heads and two huge hands, apparently broken off figures that could not be easily removed from the living rock. The heads are similar in their expressions of meditation and peace, but also subtly different. A third gallery contains full length standing figures that were carved in the round and therefore easier to take from their original caves without damaging them. Labels make it clear that the removal of the figures was not scientific and sometimes resulted in significant damage. The catalogue includes illustrations of the objects advertised in art magazines for sale. When they were sold in the 1920s their provenance was not even identified.

While the digital recreation of one of the caves was a good idea, I didn’t find it as successful in recreating the ‘feel’ of being there as I had hoped. Rather than project still images, the recreation consisted of moving video, and it moved a little too fast for me to really contemplate the site. Also, it included restorations of missing heads that were unfortunately a bright gold color, making them both jarring and fake-looking. The idea is great and this seems a technique with great possibilities to help viewers understand how important context is for a great many works of art. Tom suggested that his lawyer colleagues who reconstruct accident sites might have something to teach the makers of this reconstruction. On the other hand, to imagine a museum can recreate the site of the caves is to believe that Venice, Las Vegas is like Venice, Italy.

The major point of the exhibition for me was how heartbreaking it is for these religious objects with profound meaning to have been torn from their original context and shown in places where they were never intended to be. Watching people casually wander by and glance at these powerful meditative forms was painful, for them, for me, and for world history. I appreciated that the didactic material was very clear that the objects had been chiseled away, heads torn from bodies to be sold on the Western market. At least we weren’t being told that seeing these parts of the whole was enough. The actual destruction was done by people who wanted to profit from the Western interest in these images, and the museums lapped them up.

Next door, in the Freer, are two major reliefs and a demon figure from Xiangtangshan. Ironically, the reliefs are plastered into the wall and couldn’t be moved for this exhibition. Here’s the demon.


And two days later at the Metropolitan Museum I saw more heads from Xiangtangshan, a huge Bodhisattva and a very elegant smaller one, both torn from their bodies and their context. No one seemed to notice them on their way to other galleries.

People walking by the large head between the sign and the mural

John Chamberlain

On my short list of things to see in New York was the John Chamberlain show at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. Tom was up for that, having been very interested in the Wall Street Journal article about contemporary artists who don’t actually make their own work and reading that Chamberlain had left Pace Gallery for Gagosian over this issue. Trained in Renaissance art history, I’m not particularly concerned about artists’ studios executing their designs, especially when the work involves substantial labor. Fabricators have been serving sculptors for decades (see Jeff Koons, Maya Lin, Dale Chihuly, Damian Hirst, Donald Judd, not to mention Michelangelo). The recent trend toward painting assistants seems a bit more problematic, but only if the work asks you to look at it as the expression of an artist’s hand rather than his/her spirit.

What struck me about these new Chamberlains was not their size or complexity, but rather their decorative quality. While his earlier crushed vehicle sculptures always seemed to manifest the force of c rushing and the density of the material, these seemed to be all about the surface. The professor who taught the survey of sixteenth-century sculpture at NYU talked about Mannerist artists’ work as pneumatic and that seems the term to apply to these recent Chamberlains. You don’t look at them and think about how heavy they must be; they look light, sometimes almost inflated.

Gagosian Gallery doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but I know them well because despite their museum-like ambience, they do not seem to have a toilet in the whole place. When I asked for the ground plan so I could identifiy the sculptures by name, the desk attendant surprised me by giving me the entire press packet, which consists of all the reviews of Chamberlain’s work for the past 30 years or so. And she was very kind to give me a gallery layout as well.

And when you read the titles of the works, it becomes clear that Chamberlain himself had a sense of, even embraced, their decorative qualities and emphasis on surface rather than substance. A big blue form in the second gallery titled Peaudesoimusic just has to be a transvestite sashaying down the runway in a billowing blue kimono. A stack of silver bumpers clustered vertically, Elmzeppelin, is reminiscent of a Chihuly cluster of glass rods. The tallest one, C’estzesty - big sheets of lightly crusthed metal in black, silver, and gunmetal colors - doesn’t suggest automobiles, even though the silver bumpers in it make the connection. There’s a red and whilte one called Euphoriainahat and a blue and black one that looks like it should be a hat called Awesomemeatloaf. Tambourinefrappe is the only one with the colored silver crinkle wrap around the top and down one side, on a flat red column. It’s whimsical like birthday ribbons on a cupcake.

While my favorite is probably Peaudesoimusic, just because it billows out with gay insouciance, I was quite attracted also to Superjuice, to the lovely pastel colors of some of its metal ribbons – pink, blue, yellow, and peach – and the touch of purple on the inside of one of the bottom bumpers. It’s not all just lovely painting, however; the backside of this one is distressed white metal that speaks very much of the scrapyard. Perhaps at a certain age it’s really o.k. to play with the structures you invented as an earnest dedicated youth. On the one hand I was disappointed at their lightness; on the other hand I had fun looking at them.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Sorry I Haven't Posted

When I saw it mentioned in the New Yorker that Cory Arcangel was collecting posts with this title, it seemed a perfect way to come back to blogging after a long unexplained and unexplainable hiatus. And then Sunday I went to the Whitney to see Arcangel’s exhibition. The large dark space with loud music and huge video-game-style images of bowlers throwing gutterballs, the golf installation with a similar end, various types of reproduced drawings or Pantone colors created through painstaking technology…. My notes say “pointless, futile, wasted effort.” Boy, he works hard to produce nothing. I imagine that’s the point; it just didn’t take me very far intellectually or emotionally.

Except that it’s different, and I kind of liked the swaying display shelf sets, I really wondered what the Whitney was thinking. On the other hand, I imagine this is a generational thing and maybe it’s completely powerfully meaningful to some people. I kept staring at the big computer-generated color sheets, trying to connect them with abstract expressionism, as the labels instructed, but it just wasn’t working for me. Despite all the work he puts into it, the work just isn’t visually engaging.

Futility seems to be the contemporary theme for museum shows this month. At MOMA Francis Alÿs presents videos of himself carrying a gun through Mexico City until he was arrested after about 12 minutes, of 500 people shoveling sand to make a slight adjustment in the dune, of himself pushing a block of ice through the city till it melted, of himself with a group of sheep circling a pole, and of his hunt to catch “tornados” (actually dirt devils) in the dry Mexican desert. The sand dune project reminded me of early works by Zhang Huan, raising the height of a mountain and the depth of a lake using his artist friends. The Zhang works seemed relatively effortless, however, and this Peruvian sand dune project is heavily documented, laborious, hot, and suggestive of a planning process more like Christo wrapping the Arkansas River. Tom thinks they're all pretty dumb. Without the patience to see the final result, I assumed the effect on the huge dune was imperceptible.

One would imagine that the third artist installation in a major New York Museum would be equally dispiriting: Hans Peter Feldman’s Hugo Boss Prize exhibition at the Guggenheim. Surprisingly, $100,000 in $1 bills pinned to the walls and columns of a relatively large gallery to make a layered wallpaper is visually quite satisfying. The soft green and grey of the bills, their overlapping that suggests ivy leaves, and the variations caused by changing the orientation of the bills made for a very pleasant visual and spatial experience. For some reason it made strangers pleasantly chatty. We talked about doing it on a smaller scale in a room at home (just $10,000?), whether the insulation of the bills would create good acoustics for a music room, whether someone has the job to straighten the rows each day (a few bills have tilted), who did the actual physical installation (Guggenheim crew), how they measured to be sure the bills would fit (very carefully and with some anxiety). There are lots of images of the installation on the Web, but I don't think they convey the experience of being there. It's always wonderful when the art requires the viewer's actual presence in order to work properly.