The Cleveland Museum of Art's 'Tantra' show is an invitation to experience Buddhist visions of enlightenment
Posted September 05, 2013 in Articles
Author: Steven Litt
A small bronze Buddha statue on view in the Focus Gallery at the Cleveland Museum of Art radiates authority, serenity and an elevated state of being that belies the work’s relatively diminutive scale.
Initiates would understand why. On a cushion in front of the Buddha’s crossed legs lies a small object with claw-like appendages at both ends. This enigmatic device represents a double-headed lightning bolt, and it indicates that the statue, made in Northeastern India in the 800s, embodies the secretive practice oftantra.
A rarefied form of Asian worship and contemplation, tantra is the subject of an unusual exhibition at the museum that remains on view through Sunday, Sept. 15.
Filled with small sculptures and ritual objects that are spotlighted against dark gray walls like those of a cave, the show has an air of mystery and revelation. And no wonder: The works on view are packed with complex religious symbolism and were used for contemplation or meditation in cloistered settings by Buddhist masters and carefully chosen acolytes.
Despite the religious complexities involved, a cursory glimpse is enough to reveal that the show places a visitor on the verge of a deep well of Eastern spiritual knowledge. It’s an invitation to dive in.
The exhibition is the debut show of Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the museum’s new curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, who joined the institution last year. Quintanilla, who succeeds the respected former curator Stan Czuma, has been working primarily over the past year on the re-installation of the Asian collection in the museum’s new West Wing, which will open in late December and signal the completion of an eight-year, $350 million expansion and renovation.
During that process, chief curator C. Griffith Mann (who now heads the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) suggested that Quintanilla should come up with an idea for a Focus show.
The Focus Gallery, located between the museum’s North Lobby and its grand central atrium, is intended to highlight powerful, individual works in the museum’s permanent collection.
Quintanilla chose tantra as her subject for several reasons. One is the quality and depth of the museum’s holdings in Buddhist tantric art. Another is that tantric practices involve yoga, which will be the focus of a show she’s organizing for the museum next year.
Lastly, Quintanilla wanted to highlight what she called the most important of a dozen works donated to the museum recently by the late collectors Maxeen and John Flower.