Bronze statue of Shiva dancing, the source of all movement

Shiva Nataraja – Chola period (900-13th Century). Bronze; 111.5 x 101.65 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1930.331 @Clevelend Museum of Art.

Some 20 years ago when we visited a temple in South India, a brahmin led us into a small side shrine with a large statue of Shiva as Nataraja.  The only light was the oil lamp he carried with a single flame.  Anyone familiar with ‘aarthi’ will know what I mean.  Basically, the priest draws circles in the air before the statue with the lamp.  In a dark space, this means that that the light picks out a raised leg, then an arm, the head, flames on the aura,…  As parts of the statue take turns emerging from the darkness and sinking back into it,  Shiva’s cosmic dance comes alive.

At night, in the glassed-in gallery of the Cleveland Museum of Art, my mind returned to that visit to the temple and now, months after I reviewed the museum’s new Asian galleries, the memory returns.  Behind the Nataraja, dissipating into the Cleveland night, were the ghostly reflections of other statues in the gallery, all gods.




Peering inside Myanmar’s earliest stupas

Khin Ba Relic Chamber Cover lent to the Met for "Lost Kingdoms" by Thiri Khittaya (Śrī Ksetra) Archaeological Museum, Hmawza, Myanmar (Photo: Thierry Ollivier)

Khin Ba Relic Chamber Cover lent to the Met for “Lost Kingdoms” by Thiri Khittaya (Śrī Ksetra) Archaeological Museum, Hmawza, Myanmar (Photo: Thierry Ollivier)

This time-worn cover of a relic chamber is another mesmerizing work on display At the Met in “Lost Kingdoms.”   It was found inside a stupa at Sri Ksetra, a 1,500-year old site we visited in 2012.  It is in ruinous state, so much so the World Monuments Fund added it to its endangered list.  But it has lost none of its appeal for monks who come to pray in small shrines and circumambulate the towering stupas.© Lee Lawrence 2012

Sri Ksetra  when we visited in 2012 on a gray day during monsoon season

One of the surviving stupas in Sri Ksetra when we visited in 2012 on a gray day during monsoon season

And if you’re wondering how anyone ever recovered the cover to the relic chamber deep inside a brick structure like this one…



Take a beauty break

Cat 118_Head of Meditating Buddha_View 1

from central Thailand, 9th century. Lent to the Met for “Lost Kingdoms” by the National Museum, Bangkok (361/2511) Photo: Thierry Ollivier

Fascinating what if’s…

All through the show of Abelardo Morell’s photographs at the High Museum in Atlanta, I kept thinking I could hear the artist mumbling, whispering…  “I know how the camera obscura works, well, what if…

“…I used a room instead of a box…

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 2.39.38 PM

“And you know how books conjure images?  What if…

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 2.45.57 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 2.46.18 PM“Now, what if I just place objects on photo-sensitive paper — no camera, no lens, just light… “Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 2.46.42 PM

Amazing how the most concrete form of all gives rise to some of his most surrealist imagery.  For more of such “what if’s,” check out Mr. Morell’s website.

Of petition, prayer and poetry

A while back, my brother-in-law saw a photograph I had taken in China and asked to see more.  Now what you need to know about Robert Lawrence, aka Bob, is that he writes poetry and plays, translates ancient Greek and delves into theology–on his own, art for art’s sake.  When he mentioned that some of the images had inspired some verses, I asked to get a copy.  It is  my turn now to be inspired.   Here are two of his poems.  

rock-carved temples in Bingling Si along the Yellow River (©Lee Lawrence 2005)

rock-carved temples in Bingling Si along the Yellow River

The Worn Deities’ Prayer   by Robert Lawrence

Do you see what you have done?

Centuries of endless pleadings

Have worn us down to our core.

So many times have we embraced you

In your endless misery

That many of our limbs are but stubs,

Reduced to crumbs

In our countless attempts to comfort you.

So many tears have you shed

At our fading altar

That you have washed the gay colors

From our holy robes,

Scouring our names from the wall

Until they are but a white river

Dribbling from the stone.

You have hurled your passionate petitions

Against our faces for so long

That now many have just crumbled

To dust for your feet to tramp upon.

Enough!  Gaze if you must

Then leave us to mend in peace.

Some poems cling to the image more literally than others —  in the one posted below, for example, Bob turned the image on its side, giving prayer wheels an unexpected appearance.

prayer wheels in Langmusi, Gansu Province, China

Prayer wheels in Langmusi, Gansu Province, China

                    Prayer Wheels   by Robert Lawrence

Why do you rest there

Sparkling and still,

Lined up like so many

Golden mummies

In your dark sarcophagus?

Do you believe your gleaming

Gilded flanks will appease

The forces lining up against us?

You are not furniture carved

To collect a museum’s dust!




Fast and furious until

Your many melts into one.

 Let the wind from your wheeling

Tear down the temple doors,

Punch a hole into heaven,

Until destiny itself bows

 In homage to the thunder

Of your prayers.

More to come in future posts….

Discoveries at the British Library

The British Library sounds like a great place to work — or, at least, to go exploring.  “By chance I noticed this entirely unknown illustrated copy of Firdawsi’s Shahnamah a few weeks ago,” writes Ursula Sims-Williams in the library’s Asian and African studies blog.  The manuscript has 48 paintings signed by the 17th-century Persian artist Muhammad Yusuf —  in the one below (long story made very short) the magical Simurgh bird returns Zal, the albino son of Sam, to his father.

Screen Shot 2013-12-31 at 11.25.33 AM                                               (see  the blog for more images)  

How did Ms. Sims-Williams discover the manuscript?  She was going through  drafts compiled back in the 1930s as part of an effort to catalog manuscripts in the India Office Library.   But, she writes, “with the intervention of the 2nd World War, the project was never completed.”  That would be around the time that the British Ministry of Information commissioned Shahnameh-inspired  images as part of a propaganda operationsomething that social science curator at the British Library Ian Cooke stumbled on while rooting in the library’s archives… and one of  many delightful facts I, too, stumbled on while writing a piece for the WSJ  about the varied political uses of illustrated Shahnamehs. 

One very good answer to a difficult question

Curators of non-Western art struggle over whether to exhibit contemporary art in so-called regional galleries —  Chinese, South Asian, African — or to showcase them in galleries devoted to Contemporary art.   After all, today’s art scene is global and, indeed, has been for a long time, ever since imperial powers taught European art history and techniques  throughout their colonies.  

It boils down to this:  if you place works in a regional gallery  you run the risk of ghettoizing it.  If, instead, you place all recent works in a Contemporary gallery, you run the risk of implying all sorts of untruth — that artists in, say, China have uniformly severed all connection with their past or that the art made in India worth exhibiting belongs to a distant past.  Both are  patently untrue — but how does a museum work within its existing structures to do justice to modern and contemporary work?  

Yang Jiechang's 2002 "Crying Landscape" (©Lee Lawrence)

Many museums have started to include a few modern and contemporary pieces in their ‘regional’ galleries as a way of signaling that not all the art resides in the past.  But the Met has now taken this a step further  with Ink Art.  In hosting this contemporary art show in its Chinese galleries, it makes very clear that the choice of venue denotes  a choice of perspective.  Hang a painting in the ‘Contemporary gallery,’ and you are inviting visitors to see it in relation to the global art scene.  Hang that same piece in a ‘regional gallery’, and you are drawing attention to the work’s relationship with a particular country’s art history.  As many a show has at the Met and elsewhere has already proven, there is  much  to be gained from the former — and, as I hope I show in my WSJ review , there is just as much to be gained from the latter.

The question now is: should museums apply the same approach to their American and European galleries?