What could attract a crowd large enough to fill the spacious lecture hall of Taylor 102? One such event was “Many Faces, Many Names: The Bodhisattva of Compassion,” a special symposium on Buddhist art that took place last Thursday. Moderated by Professor of Art Karen Lucic, the symposium featured three speakers including Professor of Art History at University of Kansas, Sherry Fowler, Associate Professor of Religion, Michael Walsh and Assistant Professor of Art, Karen Hwang-Gold.
The symposium was held as the opening ceremony of the most recent exhibition at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Embodying Compassion in Buddhist Art: Image, Pilgrimage, Practice. Open from April 23 to June 28, the show is the first transcultural exhibition in America solely devoted to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who emerged in India two thousand years ago and subsequently became a venerated deity throughout Asia. The exhibition presents more than 30 examples of Indian, Nepalese, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese art from prominent institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University Art Museum, augmenting objects from the Loeb’s permanent collection and other sources. Demonstrating the diverse artistic depictions of Avalokiteshvara, the show provides a rare opportunity to compare these differences.
Before its opening, Lucic had been working on the exhibition for five years. In 2011, she went on research leave in order to explore the subject more and to prepare for an exhibition at Vassar.
As an art historian and a Buddhist for eight years, Lucic was motivated to dive deeper into the issue of the artistic representation of Avalokiteshvara because of the many scholarly difficulties posed to her by the subject. She said, “[C]hallenges came from the fact that the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon is complex and there are difficulties in distinguishing an Avalokiteshvara from a Buddha…There are other challenges in coming to terms with Avalokiteshvara as well, such as its many names. To pronounce its Indian name is uneasy enough.”
She continued, “I’ve always found Buddhist art fascinating, and I’ve done a fair amount of travel in Asia. The more I learned about the artistic tradition of Asia, the more fascinated I became.”
Besides her personal and academic interest, Lucic also decided to organize an exhibition that focuses on Avalokiteshvara because she saw a necessity to educate western audiences about the particular religious figure.
“I discovered in my initial research that although the scholarship on the bodhisattva’s compassion is vast, there had never been a pan-Asian exhibition featuring Avalokiteshvara in this country. A gap existed and needed to be filled, especially by a project aimed at an audience of non-specialists,” Lucic explained.
She continued, “The Buddha is now almost universally recognized and frequently encountered in the western world, but the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara remains largely undiscovered and unexamined, especially outside of Asia.”
The exhibition also had an educational aspect as Lucic worked to involve students in the process throughout. Four student research assistants worked together with Lucic on her early-stage research. She also had help from a Ford student scholar with obtaining reproductions and rights to reproduce many of the objects and images on display.
Last semester, Lucic offered a seminar in the Art History Department, in which students had the opportunity to work with her on the exhibition and gain first-hand curating experience. One of the students in the class, Mengna Da ’15 talked about her roles and experiences in the seminar. “Each of us was responsible for writing the interpretative texts and audio guides for three exhibited works. We also recorded the audio guides ourselves.”
She continued, “The most challenging bit for me was to transform a large amount of scholarly research into concise words that are accessible to the public. And I realized that there is a much larger amount of research and information behind the contents displayed in an exhibition.”
Her learning experience also went beyond the domain of art and curating. Da said, “I also learned from the experience that nothing can ever be perfect–it is part of the Buddhist philosophy too. Due to the tight schedule, we had to give up some of the features and information.”
For non-expert audiences, Lucic hopes to communicate the universal value expressed and embodied by Avalokiteshvara, the sole figure explored by the exhibition. She said, “I’m very interested in the universal values that are expressed in Avalokiteshvara…One of the things about this exhibit is how specific is to Buddhist culture, but I really think there’s a more general humanist and religious value. I’m hoping that people would go the show and absorb through the arts some sense of how it would be to be calm, serene and loving toward others…to leave the gallery with an understanding of the competency of compassion as a principle and practice.”
Moreover, Lucic points out that Avalokiteshvara as a central figure in Asian culture, should be known about in the U.S. “Since this bodhisattva is so important in Asian Buddhism, I think Americans need to know more about this figure. I think in general Americans need to know more about Asia. We’re not very schooled in Asian history, let alone art. In organizing this pan-Asian show, I’m trying to overcome boundaries that keep us from knowing about other aspects of the world and objects of study.”
As a scholar on Asian religions, Walsh shared his view on art exhibitions that involve religious issues such as this one. He said, “Religious communities are first and foremost, social communities, and as such will always express themselves artistically through images, symbols, rituals, mythological narratives, and so forth. Museum exhibits of, for instance Buddhist statuary, are interesting because they are presenting these objects out of context.”
Walsh continued, “A statue of Guanyin [the Chinese name of Avalokitesvara], for instance, is meant to be engaged and negotiated with, bowed down before, prayed too, worshipped…The viewer is engaging with the statue as a visual phenomenon to be appreciated but not worshipped. The statue has been ‘museumified.’”
Nonetheless, he acknowledged the significance and value of these exhibits, “Still, it is important for people to see them. The non-religious viewer, say a Euro-American unfamiliar with Buddhist practices, is challenged to negotiate with the other and must confront an image or figure that hopefully begins a new dialogue of exchange for them.”
Continuing, he commented, “A Guanyin statue in a museum may not be ‘alive’ in the same way as she would be in a temple, but she can nonetheless still teach the viewer something.”
For Lucic, the experience of exploring Avalokiteshvara and organizing the exhibition was a journey that led her to a deeper understanding of the religious figure. She said at the opening symposium, “My favorite way to think of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is as an agent who activates our own inherent wisdom and compassion…The formal features express an outwardly manifested magnificence based on an inwardly established wisdom. That’s why Avalokiteshvara as a an embodiment of such qualities has served as such a beacon for Mahayana Buddhism over the centuries and into our own time.”
She continued, “Perhaps some of these questions will occur to you as you visit the galleries. No doubt others would arise as well. I suspect that following the path of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is a journey that will never end.”