Religious images live switched-on, switched-off lives.
I remember walking through the National Museum in Kyoto, Japan, some years back, taking in its rows of Buddhist sculpture, and being stopped by one piece, not because it was especially beautiful – it wasn’t – but because a vase with a single fresh flower had been placed in front of it, like an offering in a temple.
I stayed with the image because someone – a guard? a visitor? – was telling me, in terms I don’t often think of in museums, that it was important, in a personal, spiritual way.
That dynamic is worth keeping in mind at the quietly majestic exhibition “Buddhist Art of Myanmar” at Asia Society. You won’t see offerings of flowers, but hands-on, eyes-on, minds-on devotion is what much of the art is about. Even if your interest is strictly aesthetic or historical, the show is a find, because chances are you won’t have seen much of this kind of art before.
In 1962, Myanmar – which is wedged high up in Southeast Asia between India and China – closed its doors to the world for almost 40 years.
Finally, in the early 2000s, Myanmar re-established cautious international contact and began to advertise, in the interest of tourism, its cultural riches. Loans of art became possible, among the first a big one to the Metropolitan Museum for “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia” last year. Even then, at the last minute, promised pieces were held back, though extraordinary things came through, the largest being a monumental stone stele, carved on both sides with mysterious, apparently non-Buddhist figures and dating from around the fourth century.
The stele, its code still not cracked, is also at Asia Society, though it’s one of only two objects, the other a silver statuette of the Buddha, shared by exhibitions unalike in intention and scope. The Met’s was a horizontal survey of some 160 works from across Southeast Asia dated within a particular time frame. By contrast, Asia Society has assembled fewer than 70 pieces to take a vertical look at one country’s art over a long history.
By the time the stele was carved, Myanmar was dominated by several regional multiethnic groups, of which one called the Pyu produced a large amount of surviving art. Its main religion seems to have been a locally customized form of Buddhism brought from India but originating in Sri Lanka: monastically centered, based on Pali scripture and missing the population of deities that developed in the Himalayas.
The Buddha-as-monk is a recurrent image in the show, which has been organized by Sylvia Fraser-Lu and Donald M. Stadtner, with Adriana Proser. The first things you see in a large second-floor gallery are small metal or stone statues of him blessing, preaching and wrapped in a simple robe. Whether made for rituals, private worship or as pilgrimage souvenirs, each is basically a mobile communication device, a spiritual smartphone kept close for use on the road or at home. The most compact of all of them, a thumb-length Buddha cut from white quartz, has been rubbed almost featureless, as if from constant handling.
As if acknowledging both the complexities of Myanmar cultural history and the yawning gaps in information – on-the-ground research is still stymied by government control – the Asia Society curators have wisely organized their show not by time but by theme, the main one being the practice of devotion.
This gives them freedom to mix together all sizes, uses and periods, and they really go for it. Right around the corner from the pint-size Pyu figures, they’ve installed a towering piece of religious theater: a lacquered wood shrine, glinting with gilt and cut glass and rising, tier upon tier, to the ceiling, with a bejeweled Buddha sitting up top. Worlds have changed, but the Buddha’s still there, looking more master-of-the-universe than monk – Buddhism has always had an empire-friendly martial side – but as smilingly unflappable as ever.
Belief supplies color, texture, life. In the museum, pilgrims bow and pray. Religious art, no matter where you find it in a lot of the world, works that way.
“Buddhist Art of Myanmar,” through May 10, Asia Society, New York City; 212-288-6400, asiasociety.org.