Saturday, March 24, 2007

Come for the Dalai Lama, Stay for Genghis Khan

The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama recently opened at The Rubin Museum of Art in Clesea. Unfortunately, the Chinese will not be able to read a review of the exhibition here, because this site is now being blocked. (That was fast.) What you will see if you go to the Rubin is an uneven exhibit that takes far too much thematic latitude.

If you are expected a great deal of Dalai Lama portraiture, you might be disappointed. There is certainly some, and frankly it represents the best of the show. Chase Bailey’s “Evolution into a Manifestation” uses bold colors in its modernistic depiction. Some “portraits” were more cerebral, like Ken Aptekar’s “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold,” a cool “reincarnation” of Charles Demuth famous numeral painting of William Carlos Williams. There were some representations that were just weird like Sylvie Fleury’s “Kirlian” aura photography, produced from an old pair of his Holiness’ shoes. Even the Dalai Lama himself may have found that a little out there, as the exhibit card notes, when informed of the work: “he chuckled and noted that the shoes had been resoled several times and that the resulting aura might well be that of his cobbler.”

The work included for addressing themes related to the Dalai Lama, filed under headings like Tibet, Belief Systems, Humanity in Transition, and Empathy & Compassion, tended to be a mixed bag. Of course there is a predictably clich├ęd anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War piece from Tom Nakashima. There is a powerful take on Mao’s barbarism from Tenzing Rigdol titled “Brief History of Tibet,” which depicts the Chairman’s two-faced nature: the placid public mask and “the artist’s perception of Mao’s actual face, wrathful and demonic.” Of course the piece is labeled anti-war, rather than anti-Communist.

There is a virtual tour available, corresponding to the California leg of the traveling exhibit. It does not match the Rubin’s lay out, on the fourth, fifth, and basement levels of the museum. If you do go (free admission after 7:00 Fri.) definitely check out Mongolia: Beyond Chinggis Khan, which offers a somewhat revisionist look at the Mongol leader better known as Genghis.

The exhibit signage makes a compelling case for Khan, as someone who abolished torture, established religious freedom, and repealed taxes for doctors, clergy, and teachers. Whenever he expanded his rule to new lands it seemed a cultural renaissance followed shortly thereafter. Of course during Soviet control of Mongolia, the Communists launched a propaganda campaign against Khan, a Mongol national hero who represented a symbolic threat to their misrule. In 1962 they flip-flopped on their anti-Khan campaign, presumably trying to co-opt his national prestige. The exhibit includes relatively recent photos of Mongolia, including one of a 1962 monument to Khan the Communists built to mark the presumed 800th anniversary of his birth. Now the Communists are gone and the Mongolians openly celebrate Khan.

It seems perverse that in the west, we have largely accepted the attacks against Khan by the Communists and Middle Eastern states that have held a historical grudge against him. He was even portrayed by John Wayne in The Conqueror (1956), which should be enough street cred for any great historical figure.