Five Questions For: Rubin Museum Senior Curator Christian Luczanits
The Rubin Museum of Art is the premier source of Himalayan art in the West. The museum is dedicated to the preservation and display of art from the Himalayas and surrounding regions, which is examined through both a historic and a contemporary lens. I had a chance to speak with Senior Curator Christian Luczanits about the museum’s current exhibition of historic Tibetan art, as well as the place for such works in our contemporary world.
Christine Kuan: What is the focus of your research at the Rubin?
Christian Luczanits: I am responsible for the collection and each curator is also responsible for his/her own exhibition projects. In terms of research, we focus on placing objects in their historic context, exhibiting masterworks, and researching new information on religious context and gaining a better understanding of each object. Tibetan objects are very complex. Even if you identify the main figures in a painting, for example, there is still a lot of additional information one can gain from it.
CK: What's exciting about the current exhibition Flip Side: The Unseen in Tibetan Art (on view till August 12th)?
CL: Most exciting is to see something commonly not accessible, and to understand how this relates to religious thinking and practice. There is significant information on the backs of these objects and this exhibition examines the relationship of what is written and drawn on the backs of these objects to what is depicted on the fronts. The works on display are drawn almost exclusively from the Rubin Museum's collections and their backs are at times surprising.
CK: How would you define the place of Himalayan art in the contemporary context?
CL: There is a big difference in the way this art is seen in the West and how it is seen onsite. Onsite this art is an expression of practicing the religion. In its religious context in Tibet, Nepal, India, the art is familiar through traditional access to art onsite. In the West, due to open access to this information, it is mainly general interest and Himalayan art is rather a curiosity. Historically speaking, there has been great interest in Tibet since the 1920s and 1930s, but of course the media was not as intense as it is at present. There has always been a great fascination with Tibet as a subject.
CK: You recently stated your objection to some conservation projects taking place in the Himalayas. What are the challenges of conserving and preserving Himalayan art?
CL: That statement was made in reference to a specific project, but there are many conservation projects that face the same problems. Recently, at a Courtauld Institute symposium, I talked about the disconnect between Western concepts and local concepts of restoration. Even if there is a certain understanding of the importance of this heritage, locals also expect works to be reproduced, art to be completely restored, including in-painted, even if the restorers are not painters or artists. In addition, the older the monument is, the less we know about what has been there, and when we restore or repaint we may be adding new interpretations to 11th, 12th, or 15th century iconography. Consolidation of the paint layers cause the losses to become more apparent, more so than when there were holes there. But there is a communication-expectation gap that a temple cannot be used anymore because the work is incomplete. The reliquary must be valid, the main sculpture must be valid, this becomes unacceptable locally. In addition to better communication on the work being done and why, I have recommended that a new temple be built for religious practice and that the old temple be preserved as-is to be used as a tourist attraction to raise funds for the new temple. This has been a successful solution in some cases.
CK: How can the Internet broaden the reach of Himalayan art?
CL: There are a few quite successful digital projects, including Himalayanart.org which was created by the Rubin Foundation. There are other sites that are accessible in English, Chinese, and Tibetan. But what could be improved is the connections between works that could draw upon the breadth of what has already been digitized. The challenge is always how to convey the original context, the onsite experience. That is still a challenge for technology.
All images courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art. From top to bottom (recto and verso): 1) White Tara with Long Life Deities, Eastern Tibet; 19th century, Pigments on cloth; 2) Jatson Nyingpo, Eastern Tibet (Nyingma School); 19th century, Pigments on cloth; 3) Phagmodrupa with His Previous Incarnations and Episodes from His Life, Central Tibet (Taklung Kagyu School); ca. 1270, Pigments on cloth; 4) Adibuddha Vajrasattva, Tibet; 14th century, Gilt copper alloy.