I had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see this exhibit for many months. I don’t remember when or where I first heard about it, but after seeing the Bhutan displays at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer, I was really psyched to learn more about this tiny, obscure Himalayan kingdom, with its beautiful traditions and colorful arts. I was entranced by the prayer flags whipping about in the wind, the architectural and artistic beauty and intricacies of a Buddhist temple building, and by the cham dancers with animal masks and kerchiefs fluttering as they whirled around and around.
But the exhibit at the Rubin, I am sorry to say, had none of that energy, and was little different from any other (Tibetan/Himalayan) Buddhist art exhibit I have seen before. I understand the difficulties in building an entire temple building inside the museum; they did have one shrine room, complete with praying monks, but it was impossible to see in, and rather than sitting in the back as one might do in a real Buddhist temple, feeling a part of it, and yet not an interference, the way this room was organized, the crowd of museum visitors was forced to jostle for position to peek in through the one doorway – voyeurs, not participants; invaders, not guests.
Given the monks in residence, the shrine room, the weaver in residence, the Cham dances which were conducted across the city for a week or so last month (I sorely regret missing that), The Dragon’s Gift was supposed to be a major major event. This is the most major exhibit of Bhutanese art ever outside Bhutan, and most of the objects displayed are on loan from temples where they remain active objects of worship. … But for me, for the average visitor coming in on an average day during the span of the exhibit, that energy, that sense of experiencing a truly rare opportunity, was not there.
The Museum itself is gorgeous, far nicer than I might have imagined, evoking the same aesthetic of other 21st century museums I have been to. A spiral staircase in the center links all the floors, and there is a very nice café as well… though on the surveys we were asked to fill out upon entering, we were asked “to what extent did you visit in order to experience a calm, meditative Buddhist environment?”, or something to that effect. And while the museum certainly is as quiet and calm and conducive to meditation as any other museum, if they really wanted to create a unique, special, and distinctive environment, perfectly suited for viewing these works as they should be seen, they should have designed the entire interior of the building (or at least one floor) to emulate that of a Tibetan monastery. As the majority of “Himalayan art” is religious art, it should be viewed in the proper context – that of a Buddhist temple/monastery setting.
That said, the Museum is beautifully designed and organized, and does a fine job of introducing the visitor to Himalayan art, to the aesthetics, iconography, and meanings. A permanent exhibit called What Is It? uses rotating art objects and excellent gallery labels to introduce the newcomer to the subject.
I was particularly taken, however, by an exhibit of black-and-white photos of Nepal, displayed on the lower level. Here was a view of the realities of 1970s-80s Kathmandu, a glimpse at all of the things about life in Nepal that Buddhist sculpture and mandala paintings would never reveal. The mix of modern/Western and traditional architecture, the state of repair of the buildings, the dustiness of the streets… the smiles of the children, their Michael Jackson T-shirts and framed photographs of the Dalai Lama.
My first visit to the Rubin may have been a disappointment in some respects, but I feel confident that at the appropriate time they will have an exhibition of photos of Bhutan, of the country’s architecture, music, dance, and other arts. And that while the exhibition itself may have been a disappointment today, the building overall has an energy, a spirit, that is very warm, beautiful, and welcoming. I think it a wonderful thing that we have such a museum of Himalayan art in the City, and I think they have done nothing wrong; they will continue to do great work, and I look forward to visiting again.