Friday, November 12, 2010

Triage

While I was in Nepal, the students in my "Religion in Dialogue" class had a Himalayan experience, too. The nearby Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art had just opened an exhibit pairing Russian Orthodox Christian icons with articles from their collection of mostly Tibetan Buddhist materials. They were guided through it by L, a gifted art historian who's teaching a course around iconography for us. L gave the class readings including Diana Eck on darsan, Pavel Florensky on how orthodox icons work, and Janet Gyatso on how tangka work. They loved it (I'm not surprised - my last first year seminar went to the Rubin too, and was wowed). In fact, the students asked if we could go again. I was happy to oblige - we're going again next week! In preparation, I went to see the exhibition today, with ever-generous L showing me around too. It's a beauty, like everything the Rubin does, and thought-provoking, like all their comparative exhibitions. (Remember the one on cosmogony.)

Primed by the readings on icons as windows to transcendence and tangka as devices for visualization, I was ready to be blown away - and was. The details, the colors, the layouts, the symbolism of each piece were fascinating. And the way they were exhibited, fascinating as well... and a bit disconcerting. When you notice a visual echoing of circular forms and feminine powers between a tangka of Tara and an icon of the Theotokos (first picture above), what are you seeing? Is it a superficial resemblance, aesthetic or archetypal, or is it a window onto something deeper? Is this inter-religious dialogue of some profound sort (the pretext for sending my class to see it), or something else? The captions of the exhibition sedulously avoid making strong claims, almost warning viewers not to draw conclusions from the juxtapositions... Do they protest too much, or too little?

(Pictures are taken from the Rubin's flickr page.)

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