February 5, 2004

From Antiquity to Modernity

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Gazing out the fifth floor window at a spectacular, snow-covered view of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake nestled in the valley below, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art never fails to remind me that Ithaca isn’t so bad after all. Sitting in a comfy couch in my favorite spot on the fifth floor, amongst prized artifacts from Asia’s ancient empires, it is easy to see why the Johnson’s famed architect I.M. Pei designed this unique structure the way he did back in 1973 — who could resist this view?

In fact, who could resist any of the Johnson’s most recent collections, either? In addition to the museum’s permanent collection of over 30,000 works of art from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, several new exhibits will be featured throughout the course of the semester, with items ranging from as far back as the 14th century to present day. Having caught a glimpse of these displays, I will offer a taste of two of the four newest exhibits.

Himalayan Painting

Over the years, the Amarillo Museum of Art in Texas has been collecting and circulating a series of tiny Tibetan paintings called tsakli (pronounced sak-lee). This series of thirty tiny paintings, in an exhibition called By the Light of Butterlamps: Himalayan Devotional Painting, are said to have been used in the training of Buddhist monks. Each image depicts a deity or symbol from a Buddhist ritual. Monks in training used sets of these paintings like flashcards to memorize certain traditions. However, unlike any set of elementary math flashcards on the market today, these tiny paintings are incredibly detailed and breathtakingly colorful.

In addition to the tsakli, the exhibit also features a small series of prints showing Buddhist monks conducting various ceremonies. Coupled with the paintings displayed, these images bring a touch of reality and understanding to the abstraction of the religious flashcards they often studied for years at a time. The exhibit will be on display at the Johnson until March 7.

Wandering through the display, you may hear a strange cicada-like hum coming from the adjacent room. Following the sound, you wander into a large room that features a central table, two chairs, and two monks from the Namgyal Monastery of Ithaca. The hum is the result of a project the monks are tirelessly constructing to complete in time for a free ceremony on Saturday February 7 from 1-4 p.m. celebrating the arts of Tibet. They are creating a sand mandala, an intricate circular design made of sand meant to depict the cycle of life and death. According to Johnson Museum Director Frank Robinson, the sand mandala will undergo its dissolution during the February 7 celebration when the sand will be paraded through the Cornell streets and ceremoniously poured into Beebe Lake as a gesture to “calm the demons of the water.” Other activities will include traditional Tibetan folk dancing, art activities, and Tibetan cuisine to sample.

Aernout Mik: Reversal Room

Another one of my favorite aspects of the museum is how quickly you can be catapulted from one time period to another. From 14th-century Tibetan culture, we now jump forward to the year 2001, when Dutch artist Aernout Mik finished his video installation called Reversal Room. Wander through a dark narrow corridor, out of place in the rest of the well-lit museum, and enter into a pentagonal space whose walls feature five rear-projection video images. The video takes place in a restaurant and, later, a kitchen. Each frame is viewed from five different positions, as if you were situated in the middle of the scene. If you spin in place you can see the situation from a series of viewpoints. Combine this setup with the surrounding structure, in which two other dead-end corridors angle off of the main viewing space with little lighting, no sound, and the whole situation becomes surreal. Robinson describes it as “an extraordinary experience — mysterious, disturbing, humorous.”

However, more unsettling than the setting is what is actually happening in the video. Untrained actors are featured in the restaurant and kitchen settings depicting rather odd events. For example, in the restaurant scene, a crazy fight breaks out with people being thrown into tables, and yet the rest of the diners pay no attention. Robinson explains this as a depiction of the randomness of violence.

You focus on the actions of individuals in the scenes, and note that they do not interact with each other, but instead act completely as individuals. This was Mik’s attempt, as he states, to examine “the blown-up sense of individuality in Western cultures.”

The artist will be speaking about his work on Thursday, February 5 at 5:15 p.m. at the Johnson, and the exhibit will be discussed as part of the Art for Lunch series on Thursday February 19 at 12 p.m. Both events are free and open to the public. The exhibit will be on display until March 14th.

Archived article by Laura Borden