In Conversation with Met Curator, Kurt Behrendt

Liz Luna
Mar 19, 2014 4:21PM

Tibet and India: Buddhist Traditions and Transformations,” on view through June 8 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, explores the Tibetan Buddhist tradition from two lenses: how contacts with North India in the 11th and 12th centuries led to a flourishing Buddhist Tradition in Tibet, and how the contemporary work of Tibetan Buddhist artists Gonkar Gyatso and Tenzing Rigdol is having an impact today. I recently toured the galleries with Kurt Behrendt, assistant curator and the show’s organizer, to learn more about the exhibition. 

Liz Luna: Can you start by talking about the premise for the exhibition, and what drew you to this topic?

Kurt Behrendt: The reason I became interested in the topic had to do with Tibet’s imagined history as to how Buddhism came to the country. When you look at the art and the material culture, and then compare them to what we know about North India, there’s a lot that seems unexplained and a lot that hasn’t been addressed. I tried to look at the North Indian monasteries to understand how that artistic tradition relates to Buddhism in the 11th and 12th centuries in Tibet. 

LL: And what did Buddhism look like in the 11th and 12th centuries in Tibet, verses the period just before? 

KB: It’s an interesting moment. Prior to this time period, Buddhism had been part of an elite culture in Tibet. It had come in 300 or 400 years earlier, but there was a persecution of Buddhism in Tibet and it only had become important to small groups. By the time Atisha comes up into Tibet in 1042 AD (he’s a North Indian monk who came out of one of the big monasteries), he comes at the invitation of a Tibetan king. Buddhism is not popular—it’s just this elite, small religion. Then almost immediately, with Atisha and other monks of the period, you see this flood of Buddhist art and at that moment the public becomes Buddhist. It’s a total sea change, and the art was a real vehicle for bringing the religion to the average person; it made religion accessible and popular.

LL: What are some examples of works in the show that reflect changes in Buddhist ideology?

KB: This Tibetan Buddha from the 11th and 12th centuries is an image that shares a lot of connections with North India. This image is really all about a human founder—someone (in this case, Shakyamuni) who reaches enlightenment. He’s touching the earth, reaching that moment of epiphany. But then if you look at the Tibetan conception, he’s very human. He has little, fleshy toes, his hands are articulated. Whereas in India by this time, Buddhism is very much removed from our realm of existence—the Buddha is almost presented like a god. In Tibet, there’s very much this idea that teachers—like the Buddha Shakyamuni, or even a monk like Atisha—have the potential to reach enlightenment and to convey those ideas. In this sense the Tibetan tradition has a very human dimension. And it’s accessible today in much the same way that it would have been 900 years ago.

LL: Speaking of the relationship between past and present, you’ve included work by contemporary Tibetan artists Gonkar Gyatso and Tenzing Rigdol in the exhibition. What drove your decision to include these works? 

KB: The contemporary works, I would argue, display the same kind of dynamic as the pre-modern works. In the last 50 years Buddhism has exploded internationally—especially in America, but in Europe, as well—specifically Tibetan Buddhism. I believe that the expressive power of Tibetan artworks have been important, but also it seems that their complexity is intriguing to people as they hint at elusive Buddhist ideas. The contemporary artworks being made today also dig into these ideas – they are a reaction or response by the Tibetan community, both expatriate and inside Tibet. These artists are working to re-express core ideas—but now for, in a sense, a global audience. Personally I find this dialogue between the contemporary and ancient works very intriguing as both are trying to tease out these same, elusive ideas. 

For instance, if you take Gonkar Gyatso’s image, it reads very much like an enlightened Buddha, in a way that is similar to the one from the 12th century. It’s very direct: he’s touching the earth, he’s reaching enlightenment. He did this work while he briefly lived in New York in 2011—he was here for about three or four years. If you look at the surrounding imagery, it’s all very much referencing New York as a space filed with interlocking streets and the girders of sky scrapers on which workers sit. At the same time the imagery and captions set within this framework are cynical and politically charged. One could say it’s the attack of Mara. When the Buddha is about to reach enlightenment, he’s of course going to realize how to break free from the cycle of rebirth. And Mara, whose realm is the earth and this captured cycle of samsara, tries to tempt him with his daughters and to attack him with his army. But the Buddha touches the earth and realizes enlightenment in spite of all of that. And so when you really look Gonkar’s collage it is the violence, greed, and the corruption of modern society that surrounds the Buddha. 

LL: Interestingly these two works exhibit an underlying grid structure and also evoke a certain feeling of fragmentation, chaos, distraction. Can you speak to these formal aspects?

KB: Well, the grid is much more apparent in Tenzing Rigdol’s work. Rigdol is an artist whose parents fled Tibet, and he grew up in Kathmandu, did his education in India and now lives in Brooklyn, so he’s part of the expatriate Tibetan community. But when he was young, he began his earliest artworks involved designing carpets that his family made. This whole grid, and the idea of fitting things into this intricate tapestry links back to that history. In fact, this is just one of several references to his family: his father made inks for printing texts, so there’s also this idea of his family and his personal history acting as a backdrop for this Bodhisattva. 

One of the big issues in all Buddhist art is this idea of “underdrawing”: a correct thangka should be proportionally correct. If you go back 1,000 years, the same issues underlie all of these other works that are on view: it gets to the idea of how does one make an image powerful? Rigdol is adhering to this sort of structured doctrine, and so the grid and ordered formality, is linked to that. Yet at the same time, he tries to make the image very precious as a way of expressing enlightenment: the Buddha was, of course, beautiful and so a beautifully executed and carefully done work is an expression of enlightenment. He’s playing with these ideas, and at the same moment, as you pointed out, he’s fractured the entire space. Because the image doesn’t have eyes, the viewer can’t venerate this deity. Instead it becomes Tenzing Rigdol’s own personal expression, which is really quite a modern concept. The whole idea that an individual could, in a sense, be so bold as to have a personal interpretation of a Bodhisattva, or Avalokiteshvara—or to deny the divine presence is a very radical indeed. With Rigdol, he’s very much problematizing the whole idea of how one understands an image today. 

LL: The juxtaposition of contemporary and pre-modern work seems to be a growing theme, at least in the Asian Art Department. Is there something about Buddhist art that makes this juxtaposition particularly effective? 

KB: Certainly the juxtaposition of modern and ancient is a tricky and elusive, but here I think it is interesting because the artists are playing with ideas that are fundamentally ancient, and yet at the same time have meaning for a current audience. From a Tibetan Buddhist view, there is an idea that the past and future are constructs: the past is about clinging to your ego, the future is your own illusory projection. And therefore, even if you look at something that’s 1,000 years old, you’re really only seeing it now, at this moment, and so it is contemporary. Especially if you think about the core religious goals of Buddhism, time exists only in the present and objects are only relevant, as they are understood at this moment. And so all the works on view here are in this sense contemporary. 

That said, I don’t think you can just juxtapose modern and contemporary willy-nilly. There’s a danger, a tension, between the artist’s intention and how the audience views the work. For Gonkar, he takes an image and he says, “Well, when is the Buddha not the Buddha, and shouldn’t I be able to use the form of the Buddha as a canvas to express anything I want to express?”—a perfectly valid perspective. Still as a scholar of Buddhist art (and as a 20th-century person), of course, I read it as a Buddha. I bring all that baggage, whether it’s Gonkar’s intention or not. This leads to an interesting tug-of-war between what the artist might want to express and how we're set to read it. I think the Buddha image is especially evocative in that way.

Interview conducted on February 27, 2014. Portrait courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Explore on Artsy: “Tibet and India: Buddhist Traditions and Transformations,”now on view through June 8, 2014 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Liz Luna