The rubin enlightens
Art off the beaten path
Published: Monday, October 6, 2008
Updated: Sunday, February 15, 2009 01:02
No need to pack your rucksack. Put away that hiking pole. You can discover the artistic wonders of Bhutan, the remote kingdom hidden deep in the Himalayas with just a short trek over to 17th St. Perhaps you've never heard of Bhutan, but you need not fret as the Rubin Museum of Art will provide the visuals. "The Dragon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan," now on view until January 2009, is not only a feast for the eyes but a truly stirring intellectual delight.
"The Dragon's Gift" is not your traditional art exhibition in that the works on display, which span two floors of the former Barney's flagship store, are religious relics to whom no singular artist can be attributed. The exhibition's design and overall purpose is more informative and akin to the Museum of Natural History. However, the aesthetic value of the pieces holds its own ground apart from its historical/religious significance.
Much like its northern neighbor, Tibet, the people of the kingdom of Bhutan devoutly practice Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Tantric Buddhism. The 87 works on display are traditional Buddhist worship pieces dating back as early as the eighth century and are composed mainly of thangkas (religious scrolls) and gilded sculptures of the historical Buddha and other Buddhas. This includes the two most important figures in the Bhutan's history, Padma Sambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century and Shabdrung Ngawand Namgyal, Bhutan's 17th-century unifier.
The thangka is displayed as unfurled, scrolls attached to the museum walls, which are meant to be rolled and transported because the Bhutanese were a nomadic people. Regardless, Bhutan is known for their thangkas and the intricacies of the textile embroidery, appliqué and brocade, which are unparalleled in the Asian sphere. Each is like a visual story, oftentimes documenting the life of the Buddha or other important historical figures. "Jataka tales," for one, is much like a Breugel painting in that it depicts the life of the historical Buddha, serving as instructional tales for the viewer.
The elaborate sculptures are priceless pieces, aside from the valuable brass and jewels. Each is blessed by holy officials, as can be shown by the zungs, or holy scriptures placed in the base of the hollow sculpture. Interestingly enough, the zung can be seen in one of the sculptures of the Buddha, which was damaged in travel (though not when on route to New York, but elsewhere). The detailed repousseé work on the brass is astounding and for many of the smaller pieces completely mind-blowing at the thought of the time the sculptor put into his work. Particularly fascinating is the crenulated lotus base, which accompanies many of the sculptures and adorns the holy figures in the thangka images. This baroque style of lotus base can only be found on Bhutanese artwork.
These works were never meant to be seen by the public; they decorate the barren walls of the country's many monasteries for the purpose of worship. The religious value of these works, which are for the first time being seen in New York are on loan under the condition that Buddhist monks accompany the pieces and perform the required sacred rituals daily. Many a robed monk can be found amid the artwork.
"The Dragon's Gift" is much like a three-dimensional Wikipedia entry. It is didactic, yet accessible, particularly to those who know nothing at all about Bhutan and Buddhism. If you want to break the endless cycle of conventional exhibitions, you might want to head over to the Rubin Museum. Who knows? It may enlighten you.